Editing: The Risk of Overdoing It

EE is for Editing

When I started to write my first novel, I let my sister read the first chapter. Surprisingly, she loved it. She encouraged me to write more. I didn’t let her read it again until it was complete. By that time, I’d read dozens of books on writing and thought I knew what to do. Yeah, I’m shaking my head too. I wanted it to be as close to perfect as possible before giving it to her to read again. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Then I gave it back to her.

She didn’t make it through the first chapter. This was her response after starting to read it:

Sis: “What did you do?”

Me: “What?”

Sis: “It was so good the first time I read it! It almost made me cry, but this—I can’t read this!”

She said it like it was a reeking piece of you-know-what. Well, Hemingway said, “the first draft of anything is shit.” Unfortunately, it was not my first draft.

You’ve probably heard the advice: friends and family members do not make good critics. They will praise everything you do. That may be true, unless you have a sister like mine. While she has the best of intentions, bless her heart (yes, I’m a southern girl), she’s never been reluctant to express her opinion. I’m reminded of many instances from my childhood when she critiqued my appearance.

“Oh my God! Look how hairy your legs are. You need to shave.”

I was ten, but I took her advice and grabbed the nearest razor intent on achieving smooth skin. It didn’t work out so well, though. I overdid it. {sigh} Over thirty years later, I still have the scar from the sliver of skin I sliced from my shin.

“Your eyebrows are so bushy. You need to pluck them.”

After hearing that, I feared that I’d resemble a creature from the caveman era if I didn’t do something quick. I tried to emulate the high-arched brows common in fashion magazines. Big mistake. Huge. Unfortunately, there is evidence of my over-plucking in my high school yearbooks. I overdid it. {sigh} I should have risked the potential for caveman eyebrows.

There are many more instances such as these. It’s a miracle I have any self-esteem left at all, but I’ll stop there to save myself further embarrassment. When it came to criticism, however, my sister was usually right, and as it related to my novel, she was right again. In my pursuit for perfection…I overdid it. {sigh} I might as well have been writing the directions for the back of a shampoo bottle. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. That’s how dull the writing was. In fact, I repeated the process so many times that my book was rendered as lifeless as hair weighed down by too much conditioner. I edited my voice right out of the story.

dull hair 2

My sister back pedaled later saying she couldn’t read the book on her laptop. It hurt her eyes, but I knew she was just trying to soften the blow. We all know this is true. If a book is too good to put down we will risk going blind to read it.

So what’s the lesson here? When it comes to editing your novel, don’t overdo it. If you cut and slash like a lunatic you’ll leave the heart of your story in a heap on the floor. What’s left of it will make you want to cry or hide in shame like you did with that bad haircut…in high school…on picture day.

haircut badYep. That bad. {sigh}

Here are some tips I’ve learned to avoid over-editing your novel:

1. Shut the world out. Don’t invite others to critique your story until you’ve finished it. In his book On Writing, Stephen King says that a writing space “really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”

2. Stay in your right brain. Okay, so you’ve shut the rest of the world out, but you still have that pesky little inner editor known as logical left brain. I’ve talked about this before in the post Are You in Your Right Brain? Left Brain wants to point out every misspelled word, misplaced modifier, run-on sentence, and on and on. Don’t let her! Avoid the temptation to edit as you write. Focus on getting the story down. Creativity occurs in the right side of the brain. Stay there until your story is complete. Logical left brain will try to crash the party. Kick her to the curb! Better yet, send her on an extended vacation. Make it someplace nice that serves frozen drinks adorned with little umbrellas so she’ll leave you the hell alone. Or get drunk and pass out.

3. Let it simmer. You’ve finished your novel and you’re anxious to begin the editing process. Don’t do it. Set it aside and don’t look at it. Stephen King recommends letting it sit for at least six weeks. That’s right. No peeking! Here is what Stephen King has to say on the subject, and it’s quite embarrassing how well I can relate to it:

“Your thoughts will turn to it [the completed story] frequently, and you’ll likely be tempted a dozen times or more to take it out, if only to re-read some passage that seems particularly fine in your memory, something you’d like to go back to so you can re-experience what a really excellent writer you are. Resist temptation. If you don’t you’ll very likely decide you didn’t’ do as well on that passage as you thought and you’d better retool it on the spot. This is bad. The only thing worse would be for you to decide the passage is even better than you remembered—why not drop everything and read the whole book over right then? Get back to work on it! Hell, you’re ready! You’re fuckin’ Shakespeare!”

Heh heh. I love him.

4. Read your manuscript. It is best if you read it out loud. I also talked about this in my post titled Can You Raed Tihs? Why Tihs Stduy Is Improtnat for Wirtres. It is astonishing to see the number of errors we miss when we read. While reading your story, focus on specific issues like the following and make notes:

  • Contradictions in character motivation, description, and other attributes
  • Plot holes (inconsistencies in the story)
  • Redundant words (e.g., past history, new beginning)
  • Dialogue tags (avoid using anything other than “said”)
  • Incorrect homophone/homograph usage such as there/their

5. Use technology to help you edit your manuscript. You’ve read over your manuscript and identified areas you need to fix. Now review it again with the aid of technology.

  • Adverbs. Use the search function in Word to find words ending in –ly and delete most of them. Replace the verb with a stronger one if it still feels lacking.
  • Wordiness. Use Wordle (see my post WORDLE: A Nifty Little Tool for Writers for more information) to help you find overused words. Use the thesaurus in Word to replace them with better words.
  • Misspelled words. Use the spell checker in Word to identify and correct typos.
  • Grammar. Use Grammarly to identify and correct errors (e.g, spelling, grammar, punctuation, overused words, etc.).
  • Look for words to eliminate from your writing (e.g., just, that, very). I’ll provide more examples on A to Z “X” day.

6. Invite others to critique your story. When you’ve finished with your edits send your manuscript to others (beta readers, critique partners, editors) for feedback.

When it comes to editing, what has worked best for you? What other tips or tools do you know?

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21 thoughts on “Editing: The Risk of Overdoing It”

  1. Oh Melissa, I have so been there. I over edited the first half of my first novel so much that it could have used as sleep medication. I sanded down the rough edges until it was smooth and shapeless. Thank god for technology because I was able to find an earlier draft on my hard drive and start again. I learned my lesson to not overedit too soon or too much.
    I want to pick up on something else you said – “shut the world out” I could not agree more. Too many voices, too soon can muddle the story inside your head.

  2. When I first started writing with the goal of publishing, I made the mistake of trying to incorporate everyone’s comments from my critique groups. I’m thinking it was Neil Gaiman who said that when people tell you something is wrong with your story, odds are the advice they give you on how to fix it is wrong, but their opinion that there is a problem is usually spot on. That’s what I try to remember now. I look at the problem areas mentioned by my critiquers and actively brainstorm the best way to address them. This takes time. So percolation is key for me.

    1. I’m so glad you brought that up because I’ve read that advice somewhere too, but couldn’t remember who to give credit to so I left it out of the post. It is great advice! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  3. I agree that you shouldn’t let people read it until you are done. I actually like to make one editing pass before I let people read my writing. My sister complained she hasn’t read my writing in two years, but it’s because I haven’t finished anything yet.

  4. Haha, the overtweezed eyebrows story made me laugh!

    I am so guilty of overdoing it as well when it comes to editing. I have a tendency to hack and hack away at my writing so that only the bare bones are left. That’s the art of editing isn’t it, getting that balance just right.

    Using Wordle by the way is a fantastic tip. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I will definitely use it next time I do line by line editing. And it would be really fun to have a word art version of a story!

  5. Melissa another great post thank you so much. My created folder for your entertaining and very useful advice on my computer is growing apace. I am very grateful thank you again!

  6. I like your suggestion to take it to a critique after its finished. I’d been going to a critique group weekly and got bogged down in the comments between sessions instead of working from the creative place.
    Thank you. I share your post of fb too. 🙂

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