#WriteTip: Sam’s Writing Process Part 4: Editing
Posted by oneofthedragons
This is now part five of a series about how I write stories (it’s labeled part 4 because the first one is more of a primer). You can find previous posts here:
This is it…the moment we’ve been waiting for. Time to talk about editing.
Editing is a funny thing because most people seem to think that writing is where all of the effort happens. It isn’t. I mean…it really isn’t. I might spend about 15% of all of the time that goes into one of my novels actually writing it. The rest is mostly tied up in the editing process.
NaNoWriMo’s “Fix it in December”
When you start gearing up for NaNoWriMo, one of the core values of the exercise is that we do not edit our shoddy, craptastic novels until December rolls around. The idea is that we should focus all of our efforts solely on spraying our ideas out on paper to sort through later.
I don’t believe in this notion.
I tried it my first year, but what ended up happening was that I wrote several plot points that I wasn’t completely on board with, which caused rippling effects all throughout the rest of the novel. When I went back to edit, it was a process more arduous than it needed to be. I basically had to unravel the plot all the way back to the weak points and then re-weave them later around stronger plot. It took far too much time.
Now, that’s not to say that “Fix it in December” doesn’t work for you. Maybe that’s what you need. Sometimes the Inner Editor can be a total bitch, and instead of trudging forward during the month of November, you end up mired in The Perfect Word Choice for a week at a time.
That’s not what happens to me. I self-edit, and I do so often. When I even kind of hit a wall and get stuck, I go back to the very beginning and just start reading my story over again. The more I do this, the more I breathe it in and taste it. By the time I hit where I’m stuck again, I usually have a better idea of where the story needs to go based on all of the ideas that led me to that wall.
There is no wrong way to do this, though. Patrick Rothfuss, who I mention often, likes to point out that Brandon Sanderson hardly edits at all, while Pat himself will edit the same draft at least 200 times. One author is obsessive about perfecting his own drafts, while the other excels at finishing the draft and writing another, leaving the editing to his team. You don’t have to be good at editing or even grammar to be a good writer. You only need to be a master of storytelling.
After all…once upon a time stories were told in the oral tradition, spoken from one generation to another. There wasn’t any such thing as a typo.
The very first thing I do when I finish my draft is read it. I can’t help it. Since it’s finished, I want to read it from cover to cover and bask in my accomplishment.
However, the very next thing I do is put it the fuck down. Yep. I walk away from it. For a long time. Sometimes months. I put it away for long enough to basically forget every word I have written, so that all that remains in my mind is a generalized description of what happened. I want to be able to see my words as if I am seeing them for the first time. A set of fresh eyes will show you things you didn’t see before.
Try reading some of your old work sometime. It’s enlightening!
Looking at it after a long time makes this process a lot easier. I read the book slowly. There’s no need for me to breeze through the story anymore…I have a pretty good idea what it’s about. Now I’m looking for things that would bother me as a reader. If you have a hard time following all of these components at the same time, you could consider reading through it several times with a different set of criteria each time. I read each of my drafts at least 15 times before I am done. Or, you could simply write down a list of what you are looking for before you begin and keep it close.
I look for these things:
- Rhythm and pace – as I said, stories were meant to be spoken aloud. Someone somewhere may read sections of your book out loud. You want that task to be easy, and you want the words to sound awesome leaving someone’s lips. Words all have a different ‘mouth feel’ (this is a beer term, haha).
- The very best way to test for this is to actually read it out loud. Which is incredibly tedious. And also, embarrassing. I read my book to my dogs. I’m serious. See?
- Typos & Grammar – Obviously. Most people aren’t good enough with this to be able to edit themselves. Many of us are at least passable. Most readers are willing to forgive a few mistakes, but too many errors can get distracting. I self-edit all of my own novels, but I have writing-savvy friends look over them, too, before I publish. I’m not willing to pay for editing services. I believe I am worth at least 85% of a great editor. I’m willing to take the hit on a few small mistakes to avoid shelling out the cost. I’m not going to be a bestseller, probably, so if I don’t cut costs where I can, this becomes more of a ‘hobby of privilege’ than it does a career, yeah? If you need one, hire an editor. If you NEED one and can’t afford it, try to get a friend to help out. If possible, maybe trade favors. People like me don’t really mind editing. It’s not terribly difficult and lets us read a new story. I wouldn’t do it for completely free, but I don’t feel like I’m worth $800 or anything.
- Word replacement – Strengthen your vocabulary; replace weak words with stronger ones.
- Deletions of crap – Remove extraneous words. You can almost always delete the word ‘that.’ Also look out for: really, very, just, actually, extra dialogue tags, simply, etc. Many adverbs (but not all, no matter what anyone says) can be replaced by choosing better verbs (said quietly can be whispered, for example). There are lists of words to look for all over the internet.
“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.”
― N.H. Kleinbaum,
- Characterization – Make sure your characters stay true to themselves. If a character is going to act aside from their nature, there has to be a reason for it that’s well-understood. Also make sure your characters are believable.
- Dialogue – Conversation should be natural. The way that people talk does not always follow grammar rules. People interrupt each other. They get distracted mid-sentence. Some characters have inside jokes, or don’t even need to talk to understand each other. Conversation uses a lot of contractions. People tend to want to use the fewest syllables possible to get their point across. Most people won’t speak in large vocabulary words. People talk with different accents or inflections that may add depth to your characters. For example, meeting someone with a thick accent might be difficult or shocking to sheltered characters. Sometimes, characters get impatient or annoyed with whomever they are talking to. Keep all of this in mind.
- Chapter structure – Chapters should not be too long or too short. I aim for between 2000-5000 words, typically, but it depends on what you want. Also, each chapter should have its own mini-plot arc with a beginning and end and a climax. They should each feel like a small complete story. I almost always leave these on cliffhangers.
- Timeline, setting, distance, continuity – the temporal space of my world is often something I have the most trouble with. Does the weather make sense? Do the seasons change at the right time? Does one section move too fast while the other moves too slow? Is it clear how much time is passing, or am I going to confuse a reader? This is one of my biggest weaknesses right now. I have no concept of the passage of time or how long it takes to travel somewhere. Fortunately, I don’t think most people would notice, but I’m still actively working on it.
- Unnecessary sandbags – Every word in the story should be required to move the story forward or enrich the plot. If the scene is unnecessary to your goals, it needs to go.
- Scene order – Some scenes need to be moved up or down to make the story flow better. Keep an eye out for these.
- Repetitions – Don’t restate ANYTHING. If you described what a person looks like early on, don’t ever do it again. Don’t rehash what happened in a previous scene or book, don’t have characters explain things to a person more than once. This bores you reader, and that’s a cardinal sin. More subtly, don’t rephrase a sentence just to say it again. That’s basically word masturbation and isn’t doing anyone any favors except yourself. Delete the extra sentences.
- Sentence order – Much like with scene order, sometimes all you have to do to fix a section is to change the order of the sentences. In my opinion, this is one of the more advanced techniques. It takes time and experience to develop an eye for this.
- First and last lines – Do this last-ish. It doesn’t take a lot of work…just a lot of thinking. You need good first and last lines for hooks and cliffs. Storytelling is all about creating an experience for the reader.
- “Info Dump” – Look out for excessive backstory and loading readers with too much to wrap their heads around all at once. Try to feed them information slowly. The easiest way is through conversation with other characters. Dialogue is important for educating a reader. If this were a movie, info dumps would never be learned anyway because how would you even add that to a screenplay? Voiceover?
- Eye Rollers – Cliches, tropes, overdone themes? Don’t overuse any of these things. If you irritate your reader enough, they will throw your book and leave it there on the floor.
Okay. That’s a lot. And to be honest, I’m sure I’m missing something. Take your time in editing. You only get one shot at this book. Once it’s published, it’s that way forever unless you release new editions, and that’s tedious and mostly unnecessary. However, at some point, you do need to let it go. This is sometimes the hardest part. Make your story as good as you possibly can, but don’t try to stretch beyond your current skill level. You can’t write the next book if you spend your life on this one, after all.
And if you’re certain it won’t ever be ready, then simply set it aside again and move on. After you have acquired more skill and experience through practice, you can revisit your novel and make it even better!
Next time I’ll talk about Beta Readers…the last step before you can actually attempt to publish this thing.
I hope this has been helpful. Thanks for reading!
Check out the #WriteTip category for more writing advice and tools from Frankie and Sam!