The Best Editing Advice I Was Never Given

I say I was never given, because I stole it from the internet. Hey, don’t turn me in, a girls gotta do what she can to survive in this dirty business they call publishing (because they have no imagination..) and the editing…oh the editing..  the editing is the secret ingredient. We’ve mastered the art of plotting, or pantsing, we’ve accepted the oft quoted ‘get it down’, after all as ….. said we can’t edit a blank page. We’ve finished it as … and …. insisted. And we’re not going to argue with Mr Hemingway –  not even if he can no longer reply –  we accept the first draft of anything is shit. Problem is now we have that ‘shit’ the good advice dries up. And everyone starts talking about adverbs – espeiclly the ones who use them a lot – yes, Mr King, Ms Rowling – I’m looking at you. (I don’t know why I’m talking like a mean teacher in a 1980’s high school movie.. but I like it..) breakfastclub

Essentially, editing seems to be one of the parts of writing few can really help you with – or at least they are reluctant to help you with. So I helped myself. And now I will – attempt to –  help you, as long as you don’t turn me in. We got a deal?

First piece of good advice came from a man called Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Also known as Mark Twain. Not the one to write ‘damn ‘ in every time you feel the urge to use the word ‘very’, so your very proper editor will edit it out. Not least because I don’t think any editors are still around from the 1800’s and unless damn has a doughnut attached to it I doubt they will notice it. He had a lot to say that was interesting and much of it could be applied not surprisingly to writing, but good philosphy, which much of it falls under, only goes so far. I’m looking for more practical advice, short of digging the man up and making him critique my work. I mean this..

The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.

Which may not strike you immediately as very encouraging, given you had probably thought yourself 90% of the way there. Or 70%, after a couple of depressing read throughs. Somewhere past the middle anyways, not at the beginning. But good advice isn’t always – in fact most often isn’t – telling us what we want to hear. Its telling us what we need to hear. And when it comes to editing, we must begin as if we are beginning. Too many writers labour away – labour hard, but labour uselessly – thinking all they are supposed to be doing is tidying up. Whether you are a pantser or a plotter, until those words are written you don’t really know what they are going to say. And once they are, your task begins anew. The good news is that means whatever you did write, isn’t wrong. It did its job – it revealed the story, the character arcs, the twists, the theme, the tone. And now you have a new task.


The second piece of editing advice I have stolen is from a writer named David Ebenbach.

You have to care more about the well-being of the piece than about your own comfort level, your own mood, your pride, your original goals for the work. If you care more about your own mental state than about the piece, you’ll let things stay bad just so you don’t upset yourself. You’ll let things fail because revision puts you in a lousy mood. If, on the other hand, you care more about the well-being of the piece than about anything else, you’ll do whatever it takes—add enormously, cut savagely, change wildly—to make the piece great.

Because lets be honest the biggest roadblock all of us have to editing is our egos. Our egos stop us from seeing past what is and seeing what could be. Sometimes (yeah I’m looking at me..) it stops us from even starting. And why? Because we might not be perfect ‘instantly’? A great deal of editing is refining world building, playing with scenes, dialogue.. all the things that most storytellers love. And all it’s asking of us is to get stuck in and work it til we get that eureka moment, til it shines as an example of just how amazing we can be. So while it might seem like it hurts to dig in, we’re actually hurting ourselves a lot more by refusing to.. The-Breakfast-Club---1985-001

Third, I can blame no one for but myself.

Allow the industry to guide you

This may seem like a strange one. In the rebellious era of the self-published following guidelines can feel like an entirely unnecessary shackle, but underneath any concept of rules is often a nugget of truth. Here’s a couple of their oft repeated mantras that are worth looking at with less jaded eyes.

  • Length

Some writers struggle to make it over novella length hitting their wall at around 50k, while others can’t keep themselves under 200k. The average publisher is looking for somewhere around 80-100 thousand words. Of course, nothing is set in stone and with print runs replaced by pixels, conventions are being overwritten. Serials are gaining popularity which allows the long winded to break down their tomes and sell them piece meal, while the short-winded can compile a collection. But even so its worth considering that the reason certain lengths worry the gatekeepers often has nothing to do with the cost of printing. The problem is often the same one handled in different ways; put simply that the writer hasn’t found the best balance to bring their world to life.

The short winded often leave us with white room syndrome, skipping over descriptions and letting dialogue carry too much of the burden. They may think they have mastered show with their straight to the point, adverb free delivery of ‘he did this and then she did that’.  In actuality they’ve left the reader blind.

The long wind-er hasn’t mastered the confidence required to know what is essential and has thrown everything and the kitchen sink in. Nothing is more futile for the writer than trying to second guess the readers emotions. Murder is never foul enough. Romance climaxes with petering reluctance. A spurt where you desired a gush. Was his rejection cruel enough? Do it twice, send him to another country, a battle torn wasteland; give him a wife and curse his child with a degenerative disease- crying yet? No… did his wife lie to steal him, was the child another man’s? Still no tears.. his brothers child.. the one who took his own life….Still nothing?

Neil Gaiman says laugh at your own jokes. Does he still laugh after the twentieth edit? When confidence is still lacking, let the industry norms be your guide. When you have to fit their mandates, you’ll be surprised how strongly your gut suddenly kicks in.

  • Know your genre

Sometimes cited as know your market, identify your audience, this is one I’ve always struggled with. So I hope I’m right when I say, they don’t want you to name a demographic – young mothers, raised in the north east of middle class income, but working class roots and liberal leanings, prefer John Lewis to Marks and Spencers and with vegan pretensions, favourite colour steak sauce red…  They do however, need you to acknowledge that this isn’t just about your self expression, it’s about selling a product. I’ll take the selling emphasis out and instead just say, know what you have created. the-breakfast-club-1985-anthony-michael-hall1

Twilight alienated many vampire lovers because it was unashamedly a romance novel. It didn’t hurt it in the long run, it found its audience and if Stephanie had tried to please both camps she might well have alienated both. In a way knowing your audience is about embracing your vision. Trying to please too many people, writing literary prose when all you want is some gorgeously cheesy gun-slinging pulp, can actually dilute your novel’s effectiveness and make it hard to sell – to anyone.

It’s a common moan amongst writers to say that the industry is afraid to take risks and anyone breaking convention is punished. It’s not quite the whole picture. True, there is often a wave and riding that can make millionaires, but even that can be down to luck. Many who have tried to cash in on the current trend of dystopians have failed; true some of those who got in early have lucked out, but the rewards usually follow a steep downward curve.  Meanwhile the oft derided Twilight and Da Vinci’s were all doing their own thing – cheesy, smaltzy, aye – but they knew what it was they were offering the reader, what their basic appeal was. After that, it was a matter of doing the rounds til they found the agent who fit their audience.

Editing is about looking at things a new. Scrubbing your eyes and your mind of preconceived notions and that includes preconceived notions of the industry and those working within it. The best way  I can think to put it is, its about approaching your book as if you were a reader.

Of course the very best advice you will ever hear on editing is the most common

Put it in a drawer for a month

Nothing will look fresh until its gathered a little dust. Good luck, fellow editors… the breakfast club gif



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