Why You’re A Sucky Editor

Writing Advice

Opinion Fact: editing your own work is a pain in the dick. No, no, not a pain in the butt — a pain in the dick. Even if you’re a lady, editing conjures a phantasmal penis that attaches to your aura — then it upends a coffee cup full of tiny scorpions atop your new spectral wang, where those scorpions proceed to sting it with their angry tails and club it with their bludgeony claws. See? Pain. In. The. Dick.

Second Fact: The reason editing sucks so hard is because you suck so hard at editing. You do. You can try to deny it all you want, but trust me about this: I read about it on a bathroom wall. I read the words: “[Insert Your Name] Sucks [Smeared Ink Word] So Hard.” And I was like, “Ah-ha, someone sucks at editing. I know who this person is talking about. This person is talking about everyone who’s ever tried to edit their own writing.” I tried calling the phone number that was beneath it, but I guess it was a wrong number?

It’s okay. You’re not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from erectile editing dysfunction.

Let us highlight the many ways that you fail as an editor. Shall we?

You’re A Lazy Goon

The biggest piece of writing advice around in the last handful of years has been: “Put your ass in the chair and write.” That advice isn’t wrong, but it really only scratches a few flakes of paint off the surface (those paint chips are lead, stop putting them in your mouth). Writing isn’t just about writing. Writing is about editing as much as — if not more than — putting the first draft on paper. Secondary advice must then become: “Use a nail-gun to affix your slothful crap-can to the chair and edit.”

Editing only gets done if you do it.

Just like writing.

Stop being a lazy donkey. The only way that paragraph is going to get written is if you write it, and the only way it’s going to get folded, spindled and mutilated into shape is if you edit it.

You Don’t Actually Know How To Write

The sad and unspoken reality is, a lot of writers (or hopeful wannabe writers) don’t actually know how to write. They don’t know how to construct a proper sentence. They don’t know how to construct a proper narrative. If they write something that comes out not sucking syphilitic tit it’s because they got lucky. A good editor must first be a good writer — or hell, maybe it’s vice versa? I don’t know. Haven’t finished my coffee yet, shut up. Point is, you actually have to learn the nuts and bolts of writing. You have to learn where to place the commas and where to interject the themes: from top-to-bottom, if you’re not attempting to understand these things then what’s the point of editing? If you don’t know how to build a motor and you slap a few fan belts and soup cans together with some hot road tar and a pile of dry leaves, no “second draft” is going to turn that monstrous hunk of nonsense into a functional motor. Learn your craft.

And, if I may step on my soapbox? This is why writing advice is valuable. Don’t listen to anybody who tells you that writing advice is a valueless proposition, as if it’s just squawking into the void. You have to learn somehow. Even a simple book about grammatical mechanics is — ta-da! — writing advice. You don’t have to listen to any or all of it, but you damn sure should be considering it. If you’re not thinking and learning about this craft of yours, then quit now. Take off your writer pants, and go home.

Oh, who am I kidding? Writers don’t wear pants.

But I do wear a jester hat. And snow boots.

You Still Don’t Have Distance And Perspective

I told you before: get distance from your work. If you’re editing and you either feel like you’re stepping on kittens or punishing Nazis, you’ve probably not earned enough distance from your own work. If you love it too much to change it or hate it too much to let it survive, then you need more time.

And for fuck’s sake, don’t edit as you write. That’s like criticizing the taste of the tomatoes as you’re still planting the seeds. You do not have the proper perspective. Ease off the throttle, hoss.

You Conflate “Editing” With “Copy-Editing”

To build on the point above, do not get fooled by the notion that editing is only a pass for mechanics — yes, you need a copy-edit pass that goes over the fiddly bits like punctuation and sentence construction, but you also must reserve time to examine the larger units of storytelling. The beats, the acts, the characters, the narrative throughlines, the emotional cores, the themes, the moods. The mechanics aren’t the only things to suffer your scalpel, hatchet and hammer. You need to edit for substance, for content.

By the way, this is also a mistake a lot of writers make when turning in work to an agent, editor, or developer. And that mistake should, in a perfect world, get you hosed down with bear mace and left blind and dizzy in a tundra wasteland where herds of starving, sex-deprived caribou roam looking for just such a slab of meat as yourself. Your job is not to turn in a grammatical miscarriage to your respective elders. They are looking to edit in a bigger way, and the last thing they want is a pile of jangled coat hangers that’s supposed to be a novel / article / essay / rug-shampooing pamphlet.

You Assume It’s One And Done

I hear it all the time: “I’m going to edit this and send it off to [Insert Poor Agent’s Name Here].” Yes, fine, if you did the job completely. But a lot of writers assume that they’re going to do a second draft and put that sonofabitch to bed. No. No, no, no, a thousand million billion times no. You do as many drafts as you need. You do as many as it takes. And then? When you think you’re done?

More will come. Because someone will ask for another pass at it. An agent, an editor, a developer.

When I do game writing as a freelancer, I generally only owe two drafts — first and final. But the first draft I send them is not actually the first draft. It’s often draft two or three by then. You dig?

You Don’t Have A Mission

Editing — especially when you’re on later drafts — requires a mission. Every time we go back in and put together a major or minor revision on our script, we go in with a mission. “We’re going to punch up the characters and insert more tension and horror. “We’re going to clean up the dialogue.” “It’s time to translate this thing from the Ancient Sanskrit — why the hell did we write this thing in Sanskrit, anyway?”

Have a mission. Go in with purpose. You’re like a SWAT team kicking down the doors of your manuscript. SWAT teams don’t just wander around a building, hoping they find something bad going on. They’re not mall cops. They go in with a plan. They’re looking for something or somebody specific — a pile of hash, a rogue monkey trainer, a dangerous cyborg meth dealer.

You’re Not Watching What You’re Doing

Repeat after me: track your changes. Keep an eye on your edits. If you’re editing in Word (and you probably should be), track your changes and keep them until the very end. If you’re editing by hand, then keep that printed-out bloody-looking-because-of-the-red-pen edit hanging around. Write comments to yourself in the margins. Maybe keep a notebook of critical changes. Sync with Dropbox and make sure that multiple versions exist for every revision. Hell, I track minor revisions — draft 8.1, 8.2, 8.3, 8.4, etc.

You will hate yourself if you cut a major hunk out and save over it.

You will hate yourself if you lose a significant edit.

You will hate yourself if you forget where you are and feel lost and incapable of moving further.

I mean, you’re a writer, so you probably already hate yourself, but why pile on?

You Fight Notes Like A Sleep-Deprived Honey Badger

You’re going to get notes. And you’re going to hate them.

And that’s the completely wrong way to look at them.

Notes are fantastic. Notes are like a game — or, rather, a storytelling exercise. They’re challenging you to do better. They’re highlighting areas worth looking at it — the note-giver may not entirely understand what it is that’s bothering her, and her solution may not be the way you want to take it, but she is calling out something that’s off-kilter to her. Like a picture hanging crooked on the wall. Like a third nipple.

Like a witch’s nipple.

Here is how to approach a note. Ready?

Stop approaching notes with the binary question of, “Is this good or bad?”

Instead, take each note and say, “What could I do with this note?” Allow it to be an imagination exercise. Fuck all those wifty fuckers who say that editing and process is all mechanics and no imagination.

Editing is the LEGO block portion of your manuscript: have fun with it. Take the note and examine the many paths and doors. Go for a ride with it. Test it out. See where it leads you.

If, at the end of this, you look at your new options and find that the original writing is better, don’t change it. If you like one of the new options — drum roll please — change it.

Stop kicking and screaming. Recline and open your mind sphincter.

You’re Flinchy And Easily Discouraged

You ever see one of those dogs that’s all flinchy? Closet door closes, new person comes over, faucet starts running and what happens? The dog quivers and pees. He quivers and pees.

Don’t be that dog. Man up. Quit your trembling, stop your lip from quaking. You’re reading your draft and it’s easy to be discouraged, but don’t be. Don’t pee and show your belly. Fix your shit.

You’re Afraid Of Change

Here it is. The kicker, the corker, the game ball. This is the worst thing that plagues a writer during the edit process. It’s ultimately something that cannot be fixed by gaining distance, it’s something that cannot be fixed by mechanical training, it’s something that can only be fixed with — well, I don’t know. A lobotomy, maybe. Electroshock therapy. LSD. Drastic action.

You’re afraid of change. You wrote a novel and you don’t want it to change. I hear it all the time. I hear it from my own mouth. “But I don’t want to lose [Insert Bullshit Thing You Don’t Want To Lose Here].” You don’t want to lose that character, that theme, that sentence, that ending, that blah blah fuckity blah. Once in a while, you’re right. Most of the time, you’re wrong. The draft you end up with should almost never look like the draft you started with. You need to change things. You need to lose this and add that. You need to kill Chapter 31 and stab that epilogue right in the heart. You need to add a Sexy Accountant character, and you need to give her a Golden Retriever who is both blind and with puppies.

Change is good. Change is fruitful.

Change gets us the edits we need.

And yet! The biggest reason you suck as an editor is that you fear change. As to how you get over it? You just do. Or you fail. You recognize it — like any failing, any addiction (and your addiction is to the status quo), you must identify it and step on its neck until you hear the little snap.

*snap*

39 comments

  • Ouch.. I just finished my very first manuscript ever. May not be Shakespeare, but I did it.
    I know the pain is coming, though. I felt it probing at me as soon as I wrote the words THE END. Your post just twisted it in and scrambled it around a little bit. My metaphorical dick is hanging pretty low right now.. But thanks.

    • @Ziggy —

      Terribleminds *is* my relaxation tape. It’s like ancient Renaissance medicine, where they expelled vile humours from their body to cleanse the taint. My blog posts cleanse the taint.

      Heh, taint.

      Ahem.

      — c.

  • You know, I was expecting a swift kick to the keister. Instead it’s like I got a tap on the shoulder and then you whispering sweet nothings in my ear. I uh …. don’t know how I feel about that. I mean, I’m happy I’m not as sucky an editor as your imaginary editor model (at least not on this current pass on this current novel). But I just don’t know if I like your tongue circling my ear canal.

  • I have a ways to go before I get to editing, but I have somewhat an idea of how I am going approach it. I am going to take a couple passes at it, fix the mechanics, tighten things up & then I am going to hand it off to friend who is an avid reader. Plus, she also has a phd in English, so that should help with the mechanics that I’m sure to miss. After she rips it apart, top to bottom & I make the necessary changes we will go through it together. Like I said though, I am not even close to that stage yet.

  • @Chuck

    “To build on the point above, do not get fooled by the notion that editing is only a pass for mechanics — yes, you need a copy-edit pass that goes over the fiddly bits like punctuation and sentence construction, but you also must reserve time to examine the larger units of storytelling. ”

    I believe this with the fury of a thousand suns.

  • “Track Changes” is probably the most powerful feature Word offers, and no one fucking uses it. Not only can you save all your precious changes, but you can also look at the manuscript without all those changes, so you can see what a manuscript looks like without all the red ink. Switch back and forth to see if what you’re cutting looks right.

  • “If you’re not thinking and learning about this craft of yours, then quit now.” EXACTLY.

    I say this daily to the teachers I work with. Sadly, this just results in them hating me.

  • Ha ha ha ha ha! LOVE it! Yeah, I am taking a month away from the first draft and reading at least 10 best-selling books similar to the one I am writing. I am taking notes and breaking them down and filling the sunconscious with loads of good stuff….and forbidding myself to go near that 1st draft.

    One thing I have learned is that the sections I am most fond of are the ones to look at FIRST. If I am that fond of them then they are likely a “little darling” that needs to die. I used to hope that Stephen King was wrong (Blasphemy! I know), but I was hopeful. Now, I am no longer doe-eyed innocent and stupid. Okay, maybe a little stupid, but no one smart decides to write fiction for a living.

    Oh, and I am also going to go get Dropbox. I have a hard time keeping track of different versions. NF is sooooo much easier. Thanks for taking the time to offer your expertise. It is really appreciated.

  • Good post!

    What I find hardest about editing is that I can see the problems in other people’s work, but seeing them in my own work? Major Fail! It’s like even with distance (weeks/months – a few short stories – years!) I can’t see it!

    Of course being in a writer’s group helps. I know it has helped me a lot to see things for others – my (other people’s) editing skills have definitely grown. My stuff, still working at making the editor do his thing properly. Bleah!

    One bit of advice (since I’ve been seeing this a LOT lately on some stuff), if you’re working on a manuscript and you hit on an idea/plot/name for the alien thingie, make sure you make a note and GO BACK and put things related to it EARLIER in the script! It’s horrifying when you see something pop up midway and they’ve never laid any seeds leading to this so it comes out of nowhere and feels like a bat to the head.

    On the same vein, if you decide suddenly that the jugs are called “drak” in your world about midway of 3/4s of the way, go back and call jugs “drak” from the beginning!!! I know this sounds like a no brainer but I’ve seen it time and time again. 🙁

    Just something to think about. May our inner editors edit! Huzzah!

  • You’ve totally pegged me on the “afraid of change” business. It was touch and go for me when they changed the packaging of my favorite granola bars. Bastards.

    It’s the same with my writing, but I’m getting better at chopping and adding and rearranging. I hope.

    • @Elizabeth —

      As someone who was both a book developer and who strives to earn more freelance work, I am nothing if not a mighty friend to both agent and editor. 🙂

      Thanks!

      — c.

  • Just one note. If you use Track Changes, and will be sending your final draft as an attachment to the editor/agent, save the file in Rich Text Format instead of Word.

    Track Changes code lives forever in a Word document. You can’t see it, but it’s there, and it plays havoc with layout. Saving to RTF makes the code go away–you can convert back to Word afterwards if the recipient will only accept Word (for whatever misguided reason).

  • Okay, I have to admit, I did pee a little when I got my beta-reads back. But, I did sit my ass back down in the chair and edited until my brain fell out. A few passes later and the ms is SO much better it’s not even funny. Change can be good people.

  • The image of editor as SWAT team is my new favorite. I tend to be a harsh – and thorough – and demanding – editor. It feels unkind.

    But if I’m a SWAT agent, then I’m trampling the baddies in the work, which is necessary and good, and I’m being kind to the good folks, and I get to wear body armor and yell, right?

  • “Don’t be that dog.”

    I love this. And yes, I love editing. Ripping out the scenes that suck. Adding in that cool new stuff my editor asked for (but that I negotiated over nonetheless – because I don’t roll over). And I make regular backups in Scrivener, so I can retrieve old versions.

    But thanks for the tough love. I’m sure I’ll be able to point someone at it, sooner or later…

  • It’s hard to peg down how much distance I have with this manuscript yet. I wrote the first half years/moths ago and let it languish, then wrote the second half during the dreaded NaNoWriMo. Also did an unholy amount of edit-as-you-go while writing the first half, much to my shame. Also, the main mission for this pass is to put in a lot of the bits I was too rushed to get down the first time through, so who knows.

    My fear of losing anything though has made the watching what I’m doing that much easier. Right now my manuscript is two files(first draft saved under original working title, and first rewrite copy saved under new title, and in a separate folder) and an inked-up print-out. I never intend to throw away or delete any of them, ever. I may be slightly obsessive on this.

    Still, keeping in mind/assimilating your advice, changing strategies as I go when I need to. Thank you for keeping my brainmeats flexible.

  • *golf clap*
    This was fucking outstanding…

    I am going to print it out and put it on the wall next to my writing desk to remind me to shut the fuck up, pull on my boots and get some shit done.

    -S

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