Continuing to Edit

Editing is the most important element of writing that authors neglect. As I’ve said before, they’re many reasons for this, but none of those reasons ultimately matter if you want to consistently produce high-quality, publishable content.

P5 (Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance)

I know this first point will fall on deaf ears for a lot of you, but it takes place as you’re writing: you have to take notes as you write. Not me, you say, when I’m in the throes of the passion that is my muse, I wouldn’t stop for a biblical deluge. But here’s the thing: if you’re like me you’ll be writing along and one of your characters does something that is at odds with something you had them do in an earlier scene. Or you’ll simply realize that you didn’t “hit” something the right way previously. Here’s an example.

I was writing a story in which a woman meets someone who is wearing a disguise. When she first meets him, she notices his suit but little else. Later, when she realizes that the man is related to a friend of hers, she sees that they have the same eyes. I realized that in their first meeting I needed to have her recognize something in his eyes without being able to put her finger on it. That way, when I went back to it at the end, it would ring true. But I didn’t go back and find that scene and immediately change that scene. I pulled out my notebook and made a note of it. Then, when I had time, I searched the scene out and made the change. And don’t think that you’ll remember that change—you won’t. Write it down.

The second thing you have to do is to let the piece sit. If you’re feeling up to it, move on to another piece, or start the planning process on something, or just take a break. But let it sit for at least a month. I’ve always found that when I come back to it, I always find at least one piece of writing that really surprises me with how good it is. And I also am finding things I don’t recognize writing at all. But mostly I find a lot of really bad prose that needs changing.

And that’s okay.

Everyone from Stephen King to Ernest Hemingway says that first drafts are always awful. Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist said that she wrote one chapter of her novel Tales From the Goon Squad over forty times before she got it right.

Different Editing Methods

  1. The complete rewrite. It may sound crazy but there are authors out there who completely rewrite every story they work on. It’s not the worst idea—though admittedly not for everyone—to take a scene or a chapter that isn’t working and completely rewrite the entire thing once you’ve seen just how bad it is.
  2. The four draft method. Write and revise every day for your “close-in” writing. Then, when complete, edit it on your computer for the “close-in” edit. Third, print a hard copy and make notes for a “distance” edit. And last, print it again and read it aloud for an “oral” edit. Not my favorite method but there are some things in it I use.
  3. The Strunk & White method. This method gets its name from the ubiquitous The Elements of Style writing manual that you should have nearby whenever editing. Follow the rules to omit needless words, eliminate adverbs, and use the active voice.

Which one is best?

As you may have guessed I use parts of all these methods. I’m a big fan of The Elements of Style, but I also recognize that it’s a 60-year-old style manual that has not been revised in almost twenty years. It’s still awesome, but it’s not a panacea. Above all take this from Strunk & White: “Vigorous writing is concise.”

The Elements of Style was revised by E.B. White who was most famous as a children’s book author

I’m also a big fan of reading aloud. You really get a sense of what works and what doesn’t when you read something allowed. If you’re reading it aloud and find yourself stopping and going back, this is something that needs to be fixed. This is where you’ll almost always find dialogue tags that get mixed up. It happens all the time so don’t freak out. Just note it down and fix it.

Then there’s the complete rewrite. Unfortunately, there will be times when you’re reading something that is a complete mess. I’ve found this is most true when you introduce a new character who later in the story is much different. To do this rewrite you need to get in the head of that character so take a moment before you tackle the rewrite. Read a later scene with that character that works and really find out who they are. Then start from the beginning and write the scene fresh. It may seem like a lot of work, and it is, but it’s also necessary.

Opening scenes and closing scenes are also ripe for full rewrites. Hemingway has stated that he wrote the opening of A Farewell to Arms fifty times and did the same with the ending. It’s not the worst idea to write your open scene several times, trying to find a different way “in” to the story. Even if you’ve done a thorough job of planning, that opening scene may not work the way you imagined. Don’t fight it. As the Yiddish proverb says: “Man plans and God laughs.”

So which one works best for you? Do some methods work better for specific problems while some others? I think so.

I try to give the Strunk & White treatment to everything I write, even blogs. Hell, I might start taking it to my daily writing as well. But there are times when even the most steadfast rules must be bent, broken, or just ignored.

This is someone breaking the rules, in case the reference was too obtuse

But the one rule that must be followed is that no rough draft is going to be good enough as is. The greatness in writing is done in the rewrite. It’s where you open the door to your writing room and let others in. Here is where you must be your most brutal to your own creation. And when you succeed, the final product will be all the better for it.


The necessary evil that is editing 

It is incredibly difficult to write an entire novel. You spend six months or more creating characters, thinking of scenarios, and then writing everything down. You’ve followed the admonish to not go back and edit yourself as your writing, you just get it all on the page and actually write to the end of the story. It’s an incredible accomplishment, right? And you just want to send the manuscript to an agent or a publisher or even self-publish so that you can see that title and your name on the cover of a book. You never imagined you’d actually succeed at this crazy adventure so you’re not concerned with being the next John Grisham, you just want to say “I’m a writer” and when people ask you what you’ve written you can show them this book that is in your hands. It’s a truly beautiful thing. You need to fight this urge with all your power.

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Christopher Paolini was 15 when he published his first novel. What are you waiting for?
I speak from experience when I tell you right now with all candor: “You cannot over edit.” You can edit badly, but not too much. You can always find little tweaks to make it better, more coherent, and with fewer typos. And trust me I speak from experience. Allow me to take you down the trail of the one novel I’ve actually finished and (self)published.

The Spark

The idea for my one story began from Script Frenzy, which was an offshoot of NaNoWriMo, which I’d first heard about in 2008. I tried my first NaNoWriMo in November of 2009 and then decided to try Script Frenzy in April of 2010. Script Frenzy was a contest where you were to write a 100-page script in one month, similar to NaNoWriMo’s 50,000-word goal. I had an idea to write a pilot episode of a TV show and the second episode for a total of 100 pages.

That’s where the character of Davison Parris came from. I really saw this smart-alecky high school science teacher who enjoyed his job but could be a bit of a malcontent as well. One of the rules of Script Frenzy was that one could adapt a previously written novel into a screenplay and for NaNoWriMo, vice versa. So I took these characters and tried to create a deep enough plot to carry a full-length novel, which would be by NaNoWriMo project that November. My dad was having some health issues at the time, so I decided to have the MC deal with the death of his father, which spurred him to chase the dreams of his youth: playing professional baseball.

Creating the Outline

After NaNoWriMo the previous year, I was tipped off to a novel-writing program called yWriter, created by programmer and sci-fi author Simon Haynes. I used the program to take this script I had and organized it into a novel. To be honest, I honestly didn’t have the ending completely in mind, I just knew that I wanted Davison not to succeed in his dreams of playing pro ball.

Now, NaNoWriMo is not about finishing a complete novel, it’s about writing every day and pushing through without looking back. I love NaNoWriMo, but, like all my other writing ideas, I use what works for me and ignore what doesn’t. I don’t go to write-ins and I’m not too heavy on the forums. I use it for one thing: a deadline. Is it a completely arbitrary deadline with no real consequences? Of course, but it works for me and so I use it.

Writing Every Day

When I started writing on November 1st, I had no idea where I was going. But I knew I had more than enough of my outline to write every day for a month so I just started writing. When I hit the scene where Davison’s father dies, I just skipped it. I knew I wasn’t emotionally prepared for that scene, but I didn’t need it continue the story. It was actually the last scene I wrote after everything else was done. As I was writing, I knew Davison was going to get hurt and go back to being a teacher, but I didn’t have the real ending.

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One day, when I was driving home from work, I had the Eureka! moment where it all made sense to me. I knew exactly how to wrap it up. I was a few minutes from home and I had a mini panic attack. I wasn’t sure if I should stop and write down the idea, or just get home as fast as possible. I was in a residential area so I couldn’t pull off anywhere, so I just “rolled” through a few stop signs and when I got home, I wrote the whole scene which is almost completely unchanged in the final draft. At this point I knew the characters so well, that I wasn’t telling them what to say, I was just listening as they were talking.

The Brutality of Editing

NaNoWriMo ended on November 30, 2010, but Grasping for Dreams wasn’t finished until April of 2011. That’s when I wrote the scene between Davison and Coach Sabo and knew it was done. Here, I broke a cardinal rule of editing: let the piece sit. I immediately started editing it. I ran it through an editing website called EditMinon which I’d learned about from Write or Die (Write or Die is the true hero of this novel, I never would’ve gotten to 50,00 words without Dr. Wicked’s help). Then I printed the whole thing out and gave it to my wife to read.

My wife reads all the time, but this wasn’t exactly her style, so I knew I was asking a lot, but she did a yeoman’s job marking up the rough draft. She copy-edited and content-edited it for me at the same time. I then had a few more people read it before I formatted the manuscript and sent it to CreateSpace for my free proof as a result of “winning” NaNoWriMo. I then read the proof, found multiple mistakes and fixed them. I changed the cover and made a few changes and sent it off again. I even had a Kindle version.

Months later, while sitting in a doctor’s office I pulled out my phone and started reading it. I found error after error and plenty of bad writing. I read the whole book and marked fifty to a hundred changes.

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Trust me when I say, there’s no such thing as too much editing. But there’s plenty of bad editing.

Where to Begin

Always do content editing before you do anything else. There’s no point in checking for spelling errors if you’re going to had to do a lot (or really, any) rewrites. Because these rewrites will need to be copy edited as well. Fight the urge to correct all those misspelled words and focus on the story. And for the love of all that you believe in, have someone else read the manuscript. Ideally, this should be a person that knows very little about the story, so if you’ve been talking about this in your writer’s group or with your friends and family, they’re probably not the best person to read this over.

Believe me when I say that this will be the hardest part. Finding someone willing to read a WIP and give honest criticisms is extremely valuable. There is no silver bullet here (unless you’re willing to pay for a copy editor), but if you offer to read someone’s work in exchange, you may be able to cultivate a relationship here. The only advice I would give would be to give more than you receive. Be willing to read a lot and don’t complain if it takes someone a while to get back. You’re building a long-term relationship here so be willing to do more of the heavy lifting if you can.

Another option is to join an online writing group like Scribophile. Like most of these types of sites, there is a premium and a free level. On the free level, you get points for reading and critiquing posts. Accumulate points to post your own writing which stays up until you’ve received a certain number of responses. The premium service allows you to post more items and accumulate points more quickly. While I cannot say the premium site is worth the cost I can say that the site itself is valuable. I posted the first chapter of my novel and everyone said the first scene had to go. This was a chapter several different people had read and no one told me this. I don’t know if it was because these people were more quick to be brutal or if they were looking at it from a more seasoned point of view but as soon as I read that I knew they were right.

How is it possible that through all the beta readers and multiple revisions do no one noticed what was obvious to all the readers on Scribophile? Because it’s what they do. They’re not emotionally invested in the writer or the work and they’re able to be objective. Plus, they’re on the site because that’s what they want to do. They choose to edit and critique others work. My wife and other beta readers certainly didn’t want to hurt my feelings plus they were doing me a favor.

What’s Next…

The truth of the matter is that no website can replace what real human beings can do. I’ve used many different grammar checkers (my current favorite is Grammarly and I also like Hemingway) but it simply can’t compare to have a real professional copy editor go over your work. It’s what they’re paid to do and they’re very good at their jobs. If you really want to give your manuscript the professional polish it needs before sending it to an agent, it’s the direction you have to go. And as I’ve said before, even the greatest document in the history of the English language needed a little revision.

How to keep writing (or not) when nothing is working

I have three kids. I have a full-time job running a 24-hour restaurant. I own a home that requires constant upkeep. I have a wife who’s guaranteed to leave me a “Honey-do” list every week on my day(s) off. And yet, these are the least of the problems that keep me from writing.

The thing that keeps me from writing most is when I hit the wall with a story. So many times we’re told that you must write 1,000 words every day and we mustn’t abandon a project until it’s completed. I think this is usually pretty good advice. But not always.

What’s wrong with taking a day off to really think about a scene? What’s wrong with jumping between projects? There are many successful writers who work this way and it may work for you.

The Gold Standard

Stephen King’s On Writing is the gold standard of writing manuals. Everybody loves it and many authors swear by his methods. I enjoy the book, but many of his ideas do not work for me.

For one, I don’t believe that stories are fossils that live inside of me that I must painstakingly uncover. I believe that I am creating something that doesn’t exist anywhere at all.

Two, I’m a planner. It works for me. I know this because I tried to be a pantser for a long time and was never able to finish anything. I don’t believe in writing “organically.” I believe what artists do is necessarily “inorganic.” For me, the spontaneity of writing is in the outlining, and I allow for the story to change when my characters surprise me. An outline isn’t written in stone.

Finding what works

He’s also a big believer in finishing one project before moving on to another. I remember reading about a professional writer (whose name eludes me) that kept five typewriters in his office. Each one had a separate project and when he ran out of steam, he moved to the next typewriter and continued writing.

And then, of course, there’s the famous Anthony Trollope, whose method of writing 3 hours every morning before work allowed him to write almost fifty novels in his life. And he was panned not for the quality of his works but because of this fact. How, the believers of organic writing would say, did Trollope arrange this daily meeting with the Muse? That’s not possible, they say, and as evidence I’ll point to how much I always struggle.

My point is that writers should be willing to acknowledge that there’s not one method. And that discovery should lead us to two facts. First, just because someone works in a way that doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean that they’re not good or “real” writers. Second, try every method out there and find out what works for you.

JK Rowling’s outline for the Harry Potter series

I live by the outline, but I write freely as well. Most of my stories come from one image in my mind. I write out that scene and then create the characters and outline from it. My outlines are usually pretty detailed. Each scene has a starting and ending point. But, how I get there is for me, and the characters, to find out as we go.

A lot of this is necessarily dependent on you having writers in your social circle. Talk about processes that work for you and listen to the processes that work for them. Try them out. If they work, incorporate their techniques into your own and find something that consistently works for you. And this goes for the actual tools you use as well.

Writing instruments

  • Do you write only on a manual typewriter to feel like Hemingway? Try writing on your phone, see what happens.
  • Only write using an iPad? Try writing everything freehand just to get a feel of it.
  • Only write using blue ink on yellow legal pads? You may like a word processor, give it a try. 

Don’t pigeonhole yourself into a technique even if it works for you. Always be willing to try something different.

    And just about every one of us feels beholden to a specific genre. Either one that we enjoy or that we’re good at. We see Stephen King, the master of the horror genre and forget that he wrote “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Or what about Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series who also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Take a chance.

    Switching it up

    • Always write high fantasy fiction? Write a mystery story and see what happens.
    • Only write erotic fiction? Try sci-fi and see if you don’t surprise yourself.
    • Love to write thrillers? Try a straight mainstream love story.

    Cross into different forms of literature as well.

    Expand your literary oeuvre

    • Write a poem from the point-of-view of one of your characters.
    • Write one scene purely in the form of a play.
    • Write a nonfiction essay about what inspired you to write the story. 

    Fragmentation is all the rage these days.

    Which brings us back to On Writing. Just as writers should feel free to pick and choose what makes their story, only use what works from different advice and not necessarily the whole process. I’ve got so many different writing books I can hardly keep up with them all. But it would be impossible to use everything from all of them all of the time. John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells a Truth was a book I was given in my Advanced Creative Writing class last October. I really enjoyed this book. The practical advice is amazing and I recommend it with almost no reservations. Almost.

    The one issue I have is his belief that a writer should set a timer for a random number of minutes each day and just write. This is very similar to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way who recommends three longhand pages of “morning writing” at the beginning of every day. There’s nothing wrong with this and it is outstanding advice. But I think Dufresne takes it too far. He says that you should do this every single day and if you don’t you’re not a writer and you should just break your pen in two.

    I disagree. I don’t think anyone can tell you that you are not a writer or you are. James Baldwin said that we don’t become writers, we discover that we are writers. Once you find this is true, you’re always a writer. You may not write today or tomorrow. You may take a week or a month off. As long as you come back, you’re a writer.

    The most important thing is to not place limits on your writing. You really should dabble in everything. In the end, we’re creating whole worlds out of nothing. Why would you want to limit that at all?

    (I really do recommend The Lie That Tells a Truth, it is great. As is his TED Talk.)

    Why writers should read bad books

    So today I’m going to talk about the importance of reading bad writing. Now I know what you’re thinking: I have a limited number of hours each day, why would I want to read a piece of shit? I want to read the stuff I like, stuff that I’ll enjoy. Well of course you do. But remember that the read a lot, write a lot mantra that we’ve all been bludgeoned with is about more than pleasure reading. It’s also about the work. Reading a lot means reading stuff that you hope you’ll enjoy and then finding out you hate it. Then you need to analyze why you hate it. If it’s a gut feeling then you need to dig a little deeper. That gut feeling is your subconscious telling you that something is wrong and you need to discover what it is. When you’ve reached the point that you can read something you don’t like and instantly identify why you don’t like it, you’re moving in the right direction.

    You’ll also read stories that you do like but there’s something about them you don’t like. Most fiction for me needs two of three things: plot, characters, and writing style. If it has two of these things, I’m going to enjoy it. If it has one or none, I’m not. Most mainstream fiction have a great plot and a character I either enjoy reading about or root for. Most notably, this is the province of the thriller. The Jack Reacher series by Lee Childs or the Jack Ryan series by Tom Clancy immediately come to mind, but a good romance or mystery usually fit this bill as well. Truthfully, this is where I would put the Harry Potter series. I love the characters and Rowling does a great job of pacing the stories, but her style can be atrocious. She’s particularly found if adverbial dialogue attribution. Dammit Rowling, just say said. 

    Most literary fiction is another type: good characters, great style, the plot is almost an afterthought. Books like these can be enjoyable, but difficult to read. I would say push your way through because you’ll learn a lot. I’m currently reading Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and while I’m not sure if I like it, there have been moments where I read a passage and just stop. Shriver has an amazing ability to say so much with subtext. This one is worse than most though because I’m sure Shriver thinks the plot is good: there’s an early reveal that is supposed to hide a later reveal but doesn’t very well. That said, reading about Kevin and Eva is fascinating, if emotionally draining.

    A third example that I can tolerate is where there’s good writing and a strong plot, but the characters are either flat or not enjoyable. This is most bad fantasy fiction where writers call into cliche after cliche when writing characters because they read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and buy into his theory on archetypes. Archetypes are great, but they’re a starting point, not a final destination. 

    What about that rare category that has all three? I’ll let you know when I find it. Or when I write it.

    (To be cont.)