Editing: Empowering or Soul-Destroying?


Some people hate editing. They think the magic lies in creation not correction. Some people love editing.  They think it’s when they have a chance to find the magic and make it come alive.

Myself, I have a love/hate relationship with editing. I love editing my nonfiction work because it so vastly improves how well my ideas are communicated. And I hugely appreciate being edited by a professional. 

But I hate editing when it comes to my fiction writing. Why? Because it’s really hard to know whether you’re making something better or worse. I’m pretty sure I made my first novel (the one that’s deep in a drawer) much, much worse with my editing. It can be agonizing. Getting editorial input can hurt as much as it helps.

But edit we must. It pays to be a relentless, hard-ass editor of your own work. You come off as far more professional, and you learn how to write better in the long run. Here are my top-ten personal editing rules, that I share with my students:

1. I Take Time Off: I try not to edit new work on the same day that I have created it. I can be much too ruthless if I do that. When I have had a break (even just 24 hours) and gained some perspective, I see my work with fresh eyes. This is necessary for me to be appropriately tough on myself.

2. I am Dogged, Relentless, Absolutely Anal: I go back again, and again and again, even when I think I’m done. Chances are, I’m not actually done the first, second or even third time. I hold myself to high standards. Writers are a dime a dozen, and I want to distinguish myself. You should too.

3. I Always Edit on Hard Copy: I do first edits on the computer. I always print out a hard copy when I begin deep revisions. Something about pencil on paper, seeing the work in a different format, triggers the editor’s eye. Some writers change fonts when they edit their work in order to see it differently.

4. I Take it a Chunk at a Time: I read each and every scene and ask myself, What am I trying to convey here? Have I achieved that? For nonfiction, I do the same for each chapter and each sub-section within the chapter.

5. I am Looking to Slash and Burn: In re-reading, I am mostly looking to CUT extra words, scenes and/or characters. Anything that is repetitive must go. MUST. Most agents/publishers want fewer words not more. Then I look at where I need to ADD more detail, more action or more facts.

6. I Step Back: I take a macro look. What are the big themes? Is the pacing good? Are my anecdotes varied? Does the book/ story/ chapter begin and end where I want it to, and are the beginnings and endings connected? Are the settings varied enough? Here is where I look at continuity issues: crosschecking names, ages, descriptions, references.

7. I Step In Close: I take a micro look. Grammar, sentence structure, rhythm, errors that spell check might miss (it’s & its, their & they’re etc). I look for “filler” words, or words I over-use, like: very, suddenly, so, surprise, look, turn, smile, moment. I vary the way I structure each sentence and look out for the passive voice. I read entire sections aloud to see how they flow. When I trip up, I detangle and/or cut.

8. I Get (and Take) Serious Feedback: After doing an exhaustive edit myself, I listen to the advice of a professional editor. Their objectivity and experience is invaluable. I am rarely defensive. Though I remain open to all suggestions, I don’t always implement them (instead, I’ll offer another option). I don’t expect to be told how to fix things, just what needs to be fixed. I only give work to friends to read if they have a specific expertise or perspective that could be helpful to me.

9. I Follow the Guidelines Like a Total Suck-Up: I use a cover page, put my name in a header on each page, number the pages, give a word count and save in Times New Roman or Arial 12 point. I read submission guidelines carefully. It can take me an entire day to check and re-check a document before submission. Errors nonetheless occur, but much less frequently. Sometimes, I hire a copy editor since that’s not my forte. My goal is to have the presentation be flawless, and to be noticed only for the content.

10. I Chill: If I’ve done the best I can, I try to chill. I have a nice meal, I watch a great movie, I go for a run. Everyone deserves to feel good about the level of effort they put into their work.