Ruthless Editing for Nice People
Congratulations! You’ve finished your latest masterpiece. The final words are locked in, your story arc is complete, and page after page of tension and excitement stand ready to march you through to the bestseller list in no time.
But, okay, hold on a moment… you didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?
Because before the market gets its hands on your book, you’re going to have to subject that novel to some strict editing.
Most of us are familiar with the cringe-inducing embarrassment of reading through our first drafts. You knew what you wanted to create – all those images that were so crystal clear in your mind – yet some passages just don’t scan well. Scenes feel a little out of place. Characters show up and disappear too fast. The climax is rushed, and everything seems to come crashing to a halt at the end like some terrible, invisible brick wall has popped up out of nowhere.
And you know what? That’s fine. This is a draft.
But now it’s time to make adjustments. And no matter how nice you consider yourself to be, it’s time to get ruthless.
It’s hard, though. You’ve put so much time and effort into this – neglected other parts of your life and became invested in what you’ve created. You’ve spent hours, days, even weeks in the company of these characters – how could you possibly dare to deprive them of moments, to rob them of speech, or shake the bedrock upon which their stories thrive?
The truth is: it’s time to toughen up because editing is no place for sentimentality. But how do you bring yourself to do it, given how much of yourself you’ve already transferred into those pages? Here are a few tips to help you unleash your ruthless inner editor…
Step 1: Not too fast
Ah… did you think you were going to launch straight in like a rabid honey badger that woke up on the wrong side of the sett? Well, it isn’t to be.
When your draft is complete (and this also goes for your second, third, and each subsequent draft until you’re done), give yourself at least a full 24 hours away from your manuscript. Longer if you can bear it.
It pays to give your creative brain a chance to calm down. Relax. Take a long walk. Spend some time with your loved ones or disappear for a much-deserved holiday. Just get away from your writing zone for a little while.
That way, when you return, you’ll have enough emotional distance from your work to…
Step 2: Get into the mindset
As much as we may not like to admit it – or even think about it – if you want to see your name displayed on banners in bookstores, you need to accept that you’re writing for the audience just as much as you’re writing for yourself.
Success as an author means creating a product that resonates with “your” people. An audience of one does not a bestseller make.
So instead of thinking of your book as your darling little baby, it will serve you much better to get into the mindset of refining the product. Yes, it’s a creative work – but it’s still a product, intended for the consumption of an interested audience.
What does this mean? It’s mean that nothing is off limits for the chopping block. Nothing is too precious. No word is safe.
Repeat that when you go in, and do it often. Believe it. No. Word. Is. Safe.
Step 3: Start with the basics
Begin with the basic nuts and bolts. Many writers turn off spelling and grammar checks for the first draft, letting their creativity flow without the interruption of red and green marks popping up all over the place.
That’s great, but remember to put these back on when you’re done, and correct typos and mistakes as you conduct your first complete read-through.
Step 4: Make sure it sounds right
Next, consider the pacing and tone of your story. A good way to check these is to listen to your work aloud – this way, you can catch plenty of errors that may have eluded you during a silent reading.
Online text-to-speech programmes can be helpful if you don’t want to narrate your own work – but it’s much easier to catch instances where your voice just doesn’t sound like you thought it did when you are the one speaking the words aloud.
This also goes for pacing, as some passages can seem okay on paper, but being to drag, wheeze, and collapse when reading out loud. Don’t forget AutoCrit’s pacing reports, too!
Step 5: Be prepared for a character cull
So your story is getting leaner, stronger – but there’s still fat to trim, in the form of unnecessary characters. Every writer has them at some point.
To decide if a character is unnecessary, think clearly about why they exist. If you can’t come up with a better reason for their involvement than mere exposition, cut them. There are more inventive ways to add explanations (or you could even leave it out – readers often enjoy making their own interpretations). Characters that only appear in your story for a few pages and then disappear can often be merged with other minor ones. This allows the action to remain tightly focused on your key protagonists.
Cutting characters can be difficult. Even if you realize a character is dispensable, you’ll still feel attached to them. There’s an easy fix for that – cut and paste. Lift redundant characters out of your story and save them into a new file. They can always be resurrected for another story, and given their own time in the limelight.
Step 6: Savage those scenes
Now you’re into the flow of cutting, go back and reread the whole piece, this time focusing on the scenes. Does every scene push the plot forward? Is your story loaded with consistent conflict and drama?
Look for needless sections of back-story and exposition. The reader doesn’t need to know everything going on in yours and your characters’ minds – so be sure to give your audience the chance to think for themselves and truly become engaged, instead of shoving in scenes that only exist to clarify things you could easily clarify much more quickly elsewhere.
Trim back long monologues and delete mundane conversations. Again, most of the time certain points don’t need an entire scene of their own – they can be inserted into the action elsewhere, and in doing so you can deliver the information without breaking the pace or flow of the overall experience.
Step 7: Do it all over again
Now go back and repeat the process. When you’re editing ruthlessly, you’re going to feel like you’ve been ruthless with yourself, not just your book. Repeat until that ruthless version of you turns around and says, “You know… I don’t see anything else to snip.”
And then give yourself a nice big reward for a job well done!
Editing is bittersweet. Some characters, scenes, wordplay, and conversations you worked hard on will not make the cut. But if you’re just too nice to do the slashing by yourself, there is another option: find someone else.
A paid human editor worth your cash will be ruthless on your behalf – you can count on that! Or maybe you can join forces with a writer friend and do an editing swap? They’ll trim and hone your work, as well as give advice on sections that need improvement. Be careful with that approach, though, as often friends or relatives will coat their feedback in a nice big crust of sugar, so they don’t risk offending you or hurting your ego.
Getting yourself an AutoCrit subscription is the next best thing to hiring an independent editor – and its simple guidance may be just what you need to help you get as honest, and ruthless, as you should be with your work.
Overall, here’s the thing – part of being a writer is hard graft. But knuckle down, do what’s necessary, and at the end you’ll have the joy and satisfaction that comes from taking a roughshod first draft and creating a better, silkier second… and however many more you need before your book leaps off the shelf and into the hearts of your readers.