The Well, Writing

Six Tips for Better Editing

What’s your process for editing a story after you’ve written and keeping interested in said story enough to edit it?


First, thanks a billion for your question, Jaime. Seriously. A billion.

I’m honestly still working on the process, unless you’re asking about physically how I do it, in which case I have the original draft up on one screen, the draft I’m working on up on another, and a bunch of notes scattered in front of me. As for the actual writing process, I only have one full-length novel draft so far, and I haven’t yet found the willpower to edit it again, though I have a lot of ideas for it. Even my poems are turning out harder than I thought to edit. I just can’t look at my own work objectively enough to know if the changes I’m making are better or worse. But I’ve found a few tricks that have worked for me on shorter stories, so I’ll list those out.

Read it from a different perspective.

Who are you writing this book for? Who’s your target audience? Is it a sixteen-year-old girl? A woodworking fanatic? A kindergarten class? A lonely housewife? Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and look for things that s/he would look for. What would your reader care about? Not care about?

Similarly, and this might be easier, put yourself in your best friend’s shoes and read it how s/he would read it. Where are the inconsistencies? The holes? The less-than-stellar character development? What would s/he tell you about it?

Reverse outline.

Take your story and boil it down to its most basic plot points and ideas. Write an outline going no more than three layers deep (A, 1, a is usually my method). How does it look? Is every piece of the outline necessary? Which part doesn’t fit? Can you cut it? Which part makes a huge jump? Should you add more between those points? Does anything seem out of order?

Change the font.

Seriously. Even something this small will help you see it in a different light and read the words as if they’re new. When your brain gets used to seeing the same things in the same way, it’s easy to gloss over problems because they’ve just always been there. This is particularly helpful in looking for grammar or syntax mistakes, but it works for some detail editing as well. Similarly, you could print it, or change the color, or really anything that shakes you out of your routine.

Read it aloud.

This also is good for grammar and syntax and flow, but I’ve found myself noticing glaring plot holes when I do this as well, because I’m listening to the story as well as reading it. Again, this shakes you out of your routine more than anything, which is why it’s helpful.

Get feedback.

People are going to be your greatest asset here. No matter how much you try, you’ll never be objective enough about your own work. You’ll always know what you meant to say. So send it off. It’s hard, I know. Tell people to be brutal, to comment every thought and feeling they have. You can learn as much (if not more) from how they react (or don’t) to certain scenes as you can from their comments and suggestions.

You don’t have to send the whole thing, though you definitely should to some people at some point. You can just send scenes or snippets, you can cobble together one character arc and ask for thoughts. Make sure at least one draft goes to someone in your target audience. You can also ask specific people different questions. For example, I have one friend I would ask for grammar edits and one I would ask for romantic relationship feedback and one I would ask for comments on sibling relationships. Use your assets how they would be most helpful to you. (And it’s always a good idea to offer them something in return, even if it’s just a “hey, let me buy you coffee.”) And keep all of their marked up drafts until your novel is published. You never know when they’ll come in handy.

And don’t just send it to your friends and family, unless you trust them to be honest. This is crucial. I see so many new writers fail because their friends and family just told them how brilliant they were and what a good job they did for writing a whole novel. That’s not going to help you. Join a writers group, take a writing class, find other, better writers online and make friends. Iron sharpens iron, and all that. If it doesn’t hurt at least a little, it’s not making you better.

As for staying interested long enough to edit: Don’t.

I tried editing a novel draft directly after writing it, and while it got a little better, I wasn’t able to see the big picture clearly enough to actually make it better. So step back after you finish a draft and wait a while before editing. Let it simmer in the back of your head and idly wonder about how to fix the plot holes while you’re daydreaming. As you meet people that are similar to your characters, figure out how to make them better. Then edit.

And if you never get interested in it again, chances are your reader won’t be interested in it either. So if that happens, and you still want to keep at it, figure out how to make it more interesting. (That’s generally where feedback comes in really handy.)

Thanks again for your question, and I hope this was helpful!


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