Editing Swamp

This is a short blog and a kind of bad tempered one. Novel editing: AAAAAAARGH!

Yes, editing your work – going back over it once the first draft is done – and re-writing, clarifying, adding, subtracting, is essential.

I honestly spend almost 50% of my writing time editing. Sometimes it’s wonderful. Finding a fresh way to do the scene I made a ham-fisted attempt of the first time. Deleting what now looks like a cliché and finding a brand new and even better phrase the next time. These are all good.

But hauling myself over chapter after chapter for the fourth, fifth or sixth time…? AAAAAAARGH!

Suddenly, I hate everything. I hate the plot, I hate the characters, I wonder what on earth I’ve been wasting my time doing… it’s a negativity spiral. Or as I’ve started to think of it – the editing swamp.

Novel editing

So, next time… sigh… I’m going to take a much more methodical approach to this whole editing bit.

If you’ve been involved in corporate world, you’ll know about the whole Agile method (this is the book about it). It’s all about breaking a project down. Sticking to an action plan, with a checklist. And working in sprints.

This is going to be my new writing and editing approach.

Action plan, checklist of tasks, highly productive sprints.

Editing approach

No more EDITING swamp. Slough of editing despair.

  1. Having a robust, fully tested, plan for writing your novel in the first place is a great place to start. No TV writer would write even a half an hour episode without a skeleton plot and a story board. Authors, pay attention, try to do the same.
  2. Plot out all the story points and the characters. Plot some more. Chapter synopsis. If it works in the skeleton phase, it should have a much better chance of working in the flesh, so to speak. Robert McKee’s book Story, has great advice on this. Stephen King’s On Writing, also a favourite.
  3. Write first draft. I like to push on through to the end of a first draft without looking back. But other writers recommend beginning your writing session by re-reading and editing the work you did in the last session. And that sounds manageable and kind of helpful.

I know some writers say stop at the interesting bit, so you can pick up from there. But tbh it should all be interesting to you. If you’re writing a bit that’s boring your pants off, please delete it, because it’s going to do the same for your reader.

Novel editing step by step

  1. Have your two most trusted readers go through your (edited) first draft.
  2. Based on their feedback, compile the action plan and checklist.
  3. Do edit number one. This should be the big one. Plot rearranging, character deletions, additions.
  4. Back to those two trusted readers, add a third if you like. Important not to have too much feedback. It just gets so confusing. Edit number two.
  5. Final edit by author.
  6. Proofread by someone to iron out all those grammar errors.

I try to limit the number of drafts to just three biggies. Ideally, each edit should be done over a week, a four-or five day session. In project management terms: a SPRINT. When it’s all in your head, like a huge tapestry or piece of knitting. Don’t’ drop any stitches.

Editing a novel here there, over and over again. Changing the heroine, re-writing the plot all just leads to a big, confusing horrible editing soup.

Soon, you don’t know what you like any more. Don’t know what you wanted.

You’ll learn to know when you are done

I have a painter friend. I remember her standing in front of a big painting adding a touch here and there and then just suddenly going ‘aaargh that was too much. I’ve ruined it. I’ve got to take that away.’

I didn’t get it then. The concept of ‘over painting’. But I do now. You can over edit. You can lose the fresh energy of what you were doing. It becomes all a bit lame and leaden.

At that point, step well back. Step away. Give yourself a proper break and come back when you’re enthused and ready to put it right again.

Sometimes you’re just DONE with a piece of work. And it’s time to let it go — good, bad, imperfect, not quite 100% sorted — and move on.

You know what they say:

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

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