My Editing Practice

It took me a while to realize that learning to edit was a critically important part of my writing practice. Over time, I’ve developed my own editing process, and this is it, but I also believe that every writer has a different style of editing, just like they have a different style of writing. Develop your own and stick with it.

Being a writer, I love to generate words. I do it by the truckload. Each clever sentence or dazzling paragraph brings such joy. So, after my final draft I start editing with what I call my first-level edit. This is when I decide if a sentence, or paragraph, is relevant to the theme, plot, or characterization of my piece. If the answer is “it’s not,” then it’s nothing but wallpaper with no real importance to the structural integrity of the story, so it must go. Cutting out these superfluous passages can hurt, a lot. But it’s necessary, and after this I move on to my second-level edit: words.

I start this process by trying to use as few words as possible as I write. A good friend of mine calls this being parsimonious with words. Consider each word currency, and only use the ones with the most value. The lesser ones are best left in the bottom of an old cookie jar, but I still invariably use too many adverbs or adjectives, so I go back and cut as many of these as I can. It’s not easy thinking up strong, stand-alone verbs and nouns, so I rely on a good thesaurus. For me, it’s essential. Then I search out and destroy as many “to be” verbs as possible. I was shocked how many times they show up in my writing. I’ve also learned that there are other weak words that I constantly use. I call these “placeholder words.” I repeat them paragraph after paragraph, so I made a list of them. I use the search feature in my word processor to hunt for these words and then cut or re-word them. But I’ve also overdone this in the past. I have been guilty of over-editing, and that shows up the most in my third-level edit, reading out loud. Here’s what happened.

In what I hoped was one very publishable story, I cut vast swaths of unnecessary text. I agonized over replacing every “to be” verb with a stronger and more meaningful word. I cut every adverb and adjective, and I searched for repetitive words to cut. By the time I was finished, my story was technically as perfect as I could get it, but as I stood in my studio and read the piece to my imagined audience, I realized it was now boring. My characters were cardboard cutouts, and my settings were shallow. I learned from this experience that the trick is to edit a piece as much as necessary, but not so much that the story no longer sounds like my own. My readers are not robots. Editing must be flexible, and it should work around creativity, and not replace it.

I will end with some good news: each time I edit a story I instinctively remember many of the positive changes I made when I craft my next piece of writing. Going back to my wall analogy, it’s like painting a room. I learned that patching holes, sanding, and priming a wall before painting it creates a much better outcome on the next wall, and I don’t have to relearn how to do it with each new endeavor.

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