Indelicate Editor – Failure to Edit

by Gayle Towell

all fixedOne of the biggest mistakes you can make when editing is failing to actually do a meaningful edit. This is related, but a fundamentally different issue from what I discussed in my previous post a few weeks ago, wherein I detail how ego or inexperience can get in the way of accepting that revisions are even necessary in the first place. This week I’m discussing what happens when you actually do know that you need to revise, and you prepare to do so, armed with feedback from your peers, but ultimately do nothing more than change a word here, delete a sentence there, and then agonize over a comma. The end result is a story that looks pretty much the same as it did prior to editing.

Why does this happen, you ask?

Reasons are likely one of the following:

1. Fear of breaking it and making it worse. I mean, what if it’s already fucked up and you only make it more fucked up? How would you ever redeem yourself or recover? How can you go on living with this level of shame hanging over your head?

2. Fear of the amount of effort required to do what really needs to be done. You’ve already devoted significant effort to generating the draft you presently have. Messing with it in a substantial way will involve undoing that work, possibly disregarding large chunks of stuff that you devoted hours to. Who wants wasted effort?

3. Inability to zoom out and get a fresh perspective on your story so you can see what needs to be done. This is the whole “forest for the trees” issue. You’ve lost sight of the big picture and hence can’t do more than muddle around in the woods at night with a dim flashlight.

As to the first reason, if you’re afraid of breaking your story and making it worse, the solution is simple: Save a new version of the file and keep the old. This way your previous version, with whatever snippets of brilliance were embedded in it, is still there and whole and available for you to go back to. (Odds are, you won’t ever go back to it. But, you know, just in case.) This frees you up to dig in and get your hands dirty. It’s okay if you break it because you’ve got a backup version you can always revert to. It’s like infinite respawn without losing all of your items.

As to the second reason, fear of the amount of effort it will take to properly edit is understandable. But you need to understand that this nitty gritty editing business is where the real writing takes place. The first draft is really just a mock up so you can figure out what you’re doing. Revising involves actually turning it into a readable story. Imagine you are trying to make a sculpture of your pet fish out of clay and after your first attempt comes out looking like a misshapen blob with a pokey thing that’s supposed to be a fin. You aren’t going to fix it by just scraping a few bits off here and there. To make it good you actually need to go back and completely reshape it, get rid of the old fin and fashion a new one, and so on. That’s right, your first draft is a poor replica of a fish made out of a misshapen blob of clay. Something like this:


When what you’re going for is this:


It is between the first attempt and the final draft where your story, or your fish takes shape. Accept this, and editing won’t seem so daunting.

As to the third reason, sometimes the real problem is not knowing where to start. When we write something, it’s easy to get it stuck in our heads exactly the way it first came out. Recognizing when you’ve lost perspective is a skill in and of itself. The familiarity of what you wrote can lull you into a false sense of comfort. You need to take a step back and really ask yourself what each scene is doing and whether it is furthering the story as it should, or whether it is superfluous, misleading, or irrelevant. One way to overcome staring at the trees to the point of losing the forest is to generate an outline of what you’ve written. This allows you to see the larger picture in a more coherent and organized way. (It’s like drawing a map of your forest.) You can then ask yourself about the progression of the scenes and the escalation of tension and really get a handle on where you might have detoured. It’s then much easier to see which scenes must go and which new ones need to be added in.

While it would be great if we could all crap out brilliance in our first drafts, odds are you’ll never achieve that level of ability. Editing almost certainly involves getting your hands dirty and really digging into the clay of your work. You can’t just pick at the blobs that are there after the first attempt. You have to add and remove whole pieces, and reshape and remold everything else. And then do it again. And then again. And then and only then can you become concerned by comma placement and whether to use “amber” or “champagne” when describing the moon on page 14, because maybe you shouldn’t be giving a shit about the moon in the first place.


Here is a moon not giving a shit.

Carry on.


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