The Next Step: Editing

Well, my friends, it’s been quite a while since I posted here. Life seems to have conspired against me this month (what with NaNoWriMo, ear infections, homework, and a very full Thanksgiving, I was swamped), but I’m here now to ramble on. For those of you who participated in NaNoWriMo this month, there is undoubtedly a file on your computer (or a pile of papers on your desk) filled with crap. Deny it as much as you like; what you wrote this month is bound to be preliminary crap, barely worthy of being called a story. (You think I’m being facetious; I’m not.) And for those of you who forgo this month from hell, you undoubtedly have a few pieces of crap you like to call stories as well. No, I’m not joking.

You see, as a very great man once said, “the first draft of anything is shit.” In fact, it is my belief that the first few drafts of anything are shit. That doesn’t mean that, with a little or a lot of effort, they can’t be great.

Those stories you have squirreled away on your flashdrives are probably, for the most part, unedited or edited only in part. They’re not really finished stories. They need a lot of work. I know this because I have them too; we all do. We have to pick and choose which pieces of crap we’re going to polish and shine until they’re as sparkling and shiny as they can get.

Now, if you haven’t guessed by now, the topic of this post is the second step of writing a story (be it short story or novel): Editing. This step is repeated many times, so you should try to make the most of it.

The first thing you need to do after writing your story and before editing is simple: leave it alone. Put it away for a week or a month or half a year. Get it out of your system. During and immediately after writing, you are so immersed in your story that you’re practically blinded by it. So, you need to detox. Don’t think about it. Work on something else. Then, when a suitable period of time has passed, pull it out again.

Second, you take out a pen or pencil and give it a few good read-throughs. Each time, focus on a different aspect. These are just a few things you’ll want to look for:

  • Spelling and grammar
  • Continuity
  • Plot stability and plot holes
  • Characterization
  • Story flow (flowing from scene to scene, dialogue flow, etc.)

You can check for these in whatever order you feel most comfortable. You might combine some or break one in smaller bits. As you read through, do not read for pleasure. Read it critically. Look for the flaws and mistakes. Ferret them out so that later, when other people are reading it (perhaps even professional editors and publishers), they don’t find those mistakes. You want to make this as perfect as possible. And when you find those mistakes, mark them. Right on the page. Or, if you prefer, with sticky notes. Whatever it is, don’t just take a “mental” note (those never last), and make sure you’re as clear as possible (that way you don’t misunderstand yourself later).

Next? I’m torn between saying “leave it alone for a few days” and “go in to fix the things you’ve made notes of.” I can see the advantages of both. By leaving it alone again, you’re going through another detox period so you’re not still so immersed in the writing you’re blind to some other mistakes. By going in to fix the problems you noted, you have the advantage of having the story already in your mind as a whole, so you can connect things easier. I say, it’s up to you. What works for someone else might not work for you. Whether you choose to let it set for a few days or not, though, you’ll still be fixing those mistakes.

Now you have a somewhat-partially-edited story. It’s probably still very rough, and I doubt you’ll be overly impressed with it. This is the perfect time to have a few friends you trust take your story, read it, and comment on it. What they like, what they don’t like. Especially what they don’t like. What does and doesn’t work. Comments in general. Make sure these friends aren’t the kind of people who will simply read through, say “I liked it,” and hand it back. You want concrete feedback. Then you can evaluate their comments for merit and adjust your story according to them as you see fit.

Wash, rinse, repeat. This process can go on for as long as you feel necessary. Once is a definite must, and I recommend two or three times. Keep in mind, though, that you can over-edit a piece. At some point, you have to say “It’s done enough” and send it off for possible publication (or, if that’s not your cup of tea, then just do whatever you would do with it otherwise; like, give it as a gift or post it on a blog…that sort of thing).

Anyway. Remember that writing a story is the first step. Editing a story is the second, third, and fourth steps. Editing is not optional, but the process is different for everyone. Take the time to find out what process works for you, then go for it. Editing is a scary prospect (you’re tearing apart your “baby”), but it is the best thing you can do for your writing. Think of it as tearing open a cocoon to let out the beautiful butterfly inside before it dies.

Good luck, fellow writers. Happy editing.

(Ironically, I’m not editing this post. 😛 I’m too lazy and tired. Meh. #hypocrisyisrampant)

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