Saturday, June 16, 2012

6 Tips for Editing

The importance of editing is a common topic for discussion. I have never once entered a creative writing class, or any sort of writing class, in which the teacher did not stress how we always need more than one draft.

What I’ve found though is that the process on how to edit is glossed over. The criticism is given, but the professor doesn’t look at how the author used it. We have peer edits, but no one has feedback on their feedback. Though teachers had always said to me that I should never turn in a first draft, I have seldom been pressed for the second. It usually takes the course of them reading it once, giving their suggestions, and that’s the end of it. And, for the most part, they push peer edits over personal edits, and though outside feedback is helpful, when working independently, peer edits are hard to get.

Editing can be overwhelming. It can be depressing, heartbreaking, headache-making, and overall pain inducing. One of the main reasons for the emphasis on editing is that experts assume that authors aren’t going to do it. And there’s a reason for that. It’s hard.

Though sometimes I find revising far more relaxing than the writing process, it takes a lot more willpower. We can ignore, for the most part, when writing something distasteful, but it’s much harder to read it.

Here are few suggestions to make the editing process easier and more beneficial.

1. Understand the mental obstacles and defend against them.

Many potential authors habitually write the first 10-30 pages and then stop. Or worse, they delete everything they’ve made. This is extremely common and explains the usual suggestion to not read what you’ve made, an idea I take exception to. It is not a strategy good for everyone.

Writing advice is often autobiographical. An adviser assumes that his readers are like him. This is not a bad assumption, necessarily, however it is important for the author to keep it in mind because she very well may not be. When seeing suggestions for editing, it is important to consider who the speaker thinks you are and who you actually are.

There are a lot of blocks that prevent people from editing or finishing, and they are tailored to that person. Understand what the block is (you are a perfectionist and you keep deleting everything you write) and then take precautions to stop that from happening. (“I am not allowed to read it until I’m done.”)

Ask what is stopping you from editing (“I’m afraid that it will be bad” or “I’m lazy.”) Once you are aware of what the obstacle is, it is easier to mentally overcome it.

2. Understand goals.

Indecision is the number one cause of stress during editing. Having a clear goal in mind can solve a lot of uncertainty. Do I cut this scene or keep it? Is this funny or stupid? Should I change the ending?

Everyone wants their book to be “good,” but that is pretty vague. Quality is unpredictable and subjective, defined by “I’ll know it when I see it.

To define how good a book is by how much the audience cares, however, is specific enough to work with. It is easier to ask yourself, “Do I care about this character?” rather than, “Is this a good character?”There is far more gray area in quality then in loyalty.

Secondly decisions like, “Do I want this to be a commercial success or a critical?” “How do I want people to feel when they are reading this? Excited? Scared Thoughtful?” “Do I want to them to laugh at this part, cry?” “Be happy when this character dies or sad?” can direct what should happen during the scene.

These all seem fairly obvious, but when we’re in the thick of writing, we often don’t care how the reader feels as long as she feels something.

One of the biggest issues is when an author doesn’t like something he wrote, but he can’t decide if another reader may be okay with this. This mentality, extremely common, can stop a writer from making any changes at all.

It is okay to adjust goals or attempt for more than one thing. When a story wants to come out funny instead of serious, trying to force it can cause problems. The rule of thumb is, however, prioritize, don’t compromise. Decide what is more important. If you want a critical success and a commercial success, understand which is more important and make decisions accordingly. Splitting the difference makes no one happy.

3. Remember the original concept.

Your story came from one moment of inspiration. It may have been just an image or a line of dialogue, but that one piece proves the most important part of the puzzle. It tells a writer exactly the tone and point he was going for.

We often forget it because usually it’s a little detail. There are so many different places inspiration comes from that it’s hard to say how we thought of it.

However there was one moment in which the author went, “I am going to sit down and write that story.” Remembering it can remind the author what he is going for, and, when he is getting discouraged, how it is not turning out like he wanted. When he realizes he doesn’t like what he’s writing, he can return to the inspiring concept. Often times he’s gotten away from what he originally wanted and that is why he doesn’t like it.

4. The “drawer” technique and its opposite.

Stephan King suggests using the drawer technique for all your books. It means to finish the novel, put it in a drawer, and don’t look at it for a month.

There are many benefits to this, the most prominent one allowing the author fresh eyes. A writer forgets what he meant to say, meaning that he will realize what doesn’t make sense. He won’t be so attached to the words because he didn’t just write them, and he’ll be able to step back and look at the forest instead of just the trees.

The problem with the drawer technique, however, is that a writer forgets what he meant to say, meaning that he will not know how to make it make sense. Not remembering what happens in the story makes harder to change. The author doesn’t know how many drastic alterations he will eventually end up with, so spending three hours on one sentence that may very well be cut seems pointless. A person will hesitate to commit to editing, which, in turn, will make him feel like he’s wasting his time.

My suggestion is to make all large changes on the moment you’ve decided they need to be made, including during the writing process. Make the second draft right after finishing in order to have the story fresh before put the manuscript away for a while.

5. Cringe Test and Circle Edits.

The cringe test is a very simple technique in which the editor works by the gut. It is exactly what it sounds like: read through it and wait until the physical cringing hits. That is the best way to know what to change. Then, instead of fixing it immediately, circle it and keep going. The more specific the author is about what he doesn’t like, a sentence or even a word, the more useful this technique is.

This helps to get through a first draft without becoming frustrated and quitting. The reading also flows rather than be interrupted by constant starts and stops.

The problem, however, is that though he’s read through the book, he hasn’t made any real changes, and he’s left the hard part for later, meaning that he’ll have a marked up first draft and nothing to show for it. It is usually not a good idea to procrastinate when the only deadline you have is your own arbitrary one, especially with things that are harder than average. I would suggest that while utilizing circle editing, you may consider going back and fixing the circled lines at the end of each chapter instead of the end of the book.

However, if he has forgotten the story and needs a refresher, this is the best technique because it helps him commit to the draft and remind himself of the story before he actually has worked on changing.

6. The Ideas, the Events, the Text.

There are three elements that require attention in editing that when the author is looking to fix them, they should be done in a specific order.

The ideas of a story are basic concepts. They are the point of the manuscript and are tonal, not secluded to one portion of the text. It could be the premise (Harry Potter is a student at a wizarding school), the conflict, (the evil wizard who killed his parents is now after him), the setting (a magical version of England), or the theme (bravery will get you further than intelligence or lineage). (That's how I saw it, anyway.) The ideas are the hardest to change in that they affect everything, and the author has to reread the entire story in order to find each moment.

Therefore, it is a good idea to focus on idea changes first. Identifying the problems with continuity, rules of the universe, character likability, and tension is the first step, so it can often be a good idea to ignore the events and text until after the basic story is set up how the author wants it.

The events are actions that take place. Though each event only happens for a limited time, it has the possibility of affecting the rest of the story. The characters may talk about a death long after you’ve cut it. They only went to Mars because of the scene you blew up the moon, and now that you’ve allowed it to live, it doesn’t make any sense to go the extra distance.

These are, of course, extremes, but the general idea is that changing what happens in a story will often alter far more than just that scene. After getting the major concepts of the novel how you want them, it is then important to focus on the events before the text.

The word choice, the syntax, the grammar, and basic sentence changes should be the last concern because an author can find himself spending a lot of time fixing a description of an object that the characters may never come across. It is often best, however, to fix typos and basic errors whenever we come across them because it’s easy, and there is a good chance that you will miss them if you choose to wait.