25 Steps To Edit The Unmerciful Suck Out Of Your Story

I’m editing a book right now. It is its own happy brand of hell — but, for all its hellishness, it’s also a process I dearly love because it’s like purification through flames. It’s a powerful step in storytelling — often, I find that editing is the part where the story is truly constructed.

So, here you go: steps I sometimes go through to get the job done. Other times: I go through an entirely different process. These are not set in stone or meant to be a doctor’s prescription: these are just a handful of options in a relatively sensible sequence to help you get a grip on Forging Your Story In The Fires Of Mount Revision. Do as you will. And good luck, penmonkeys.

Stay sane.

1. Go Do Some Other Shit For A While

Hey, you wrote a book! Yay! Woo! Now go hibernate. Write another book. Travel with the machine elves on a hallucinogenic odyssey through time and space. The goal is to give yourself as much time between I Finished A Book! and I Am Editing That Book! as possible. You need to come to the edit with distance between You and It. You need to arrive as if some other asshole wrote this book. That will give you cold clarity about the story, the characters, the language, everything. You won’t feel nearly as much irrational hatred and absurdly protective love over it. Your co-dependency with the manuscript will be ground into the mud. This is tricky if you’re on deadline and don’t have a lot of time, but you gotta try.

2. Make Sure Some Other Human Actually Reads It And Offers Notes

Other human beings are essential to the editing process. Essential. Otherwise you’re operating in a vacuum. You’re floating in the amniotic goo with just a swollen cord connecting you to the story. You need eyeballs. You need hands. You need the doctor with the ultrasound to be all like, “This baby has three legs, hooves, and Tilda Swinton’s face growing up out of its back.” This other person might be an agent, an editor, a friend, a spouse, a beta reader, a stoned dude on the highway selling oranges, whoever. Just have them read it. And get their notes. Pay them if you must. Sob plaintively. Embrace blackmail.

3. Read Their Notes, Then Put Those Notes Away

They gave you notes. Good. Read them. You’ll hate those notes for anywhere between five minutes and fifteen days. That’s okay. Ride it out. In the meantime, just put the notes away. Hide those fuckers in a drawer and go have a cheeseburger or something.

4. The Re-Read

You need to re-read your book. It’s time. Sit down with it. Print it out and plop it in your lap. Or smear it onto your iPad or computer monitor. Whatever it takes: just re-read that sonofabitch. Do this quickly. You’re not reading for pleasure. Your job is not to savor it like it’s a meal. This is dirty, gnarly, fuck you I gotta get this done time. It’s mercenary. The object behind reading it swiftly is to see the entire picture and that often necessitates burning through it like a garbage fire. The faster you read, the larger the picture becomes, and the easier it is to see all the little and large fuck-ups that will drag your story down like a colostomy bag filled with buckshot.

5. Take Notes Like A Terminator

Your own notes should be cold. Merciless. Equal parts Follow me if you want to live and Your clothes: give them to me now. No emotion. Just the icy crimson stare of a sociopathic robot hellbent on fixing grievous errors (by driving a car through the front of a police station, if need be). Don’t only use the time to highlight stuff that doesn’t work. Highlight the things that do work, as well — stuff that, to you, counts as components of the story that do what they were designed to do. And okay, fine, if you want to drop the emotionless edit-bot motif for a second, feel free to doodle little happy faces or gold stars or tentacled elder gods giving you a thumbs-up (er, tentacles-up) in the margins to indicate: I’m making a note here — “HUGE SUCCESS.”

6. Think Upon Your Sins, Child

You have identified the problems. Now it’s time to conjure the solutions. Sometimes this is easy. “This paragraph doesn’t say what I want, so I’ll rewrite it.” A lot of the time, this can demand a whole lot of staring off into the abyss. “I’ve discovered a rather profound plot hole and to fix it I’ll… wh… I’ll rewrite this one part and… ahhh ehh… I could rejigger – no — I could flip it and switch it – oooh double no — oh I know I think I’ll go eat a cupcake and watch Adventure Time for seventeen hours.” Problems require solutions and so this is the part where you do whatever you gotta do and take whatever time you need to think up the fixes. Take a walk. Take a shower. Sleep on it. Divine the truth from pelican entrails. Find answers. And write ‘em the fuck down.

7. Play The “What If?” Game

Here’s the part you will both hate and love. As you’re looking back on your story, play the What If? game. Ask the question: “What if X happened? What if Y went the other way? What if Z was actually an orangutan secret super-agent named Orange Julius?” This is the time for big thinking and absurd changes. Most of these will land with an irrepressible thud. And that’s okay. But once in a while you’ll hit on one that resonates, that fixes a whole bunch of problems in one fell swoop, that changes the story in big ways (but all for the better). It’ll require work, but hey, if you’re not here to work, then you’re reading the wrong blog.

8. Secure A Human Sounding Wall

Talk things out with another human being. In person or on Skype or via telepathic mindbridge. It helps. Even if they’re not a writer. Just to vocalize problems and potential solutions can offer a kind of intellectual and creative lubrication. And that person may be able to push back and offer opposing ideas. If an adult human isn’t available, you can talk to a toddler, a dog, a cat, a ferret, a horse, a door jamb, a hat rack, a Roomba, a cat riding a Roomba dressed as a shark, a mirror, a monkey butler, or a tea cozy with a smiley face knitted onto it.

9. Compile All Notes In A Giant Binder Of Editorial Doom

Put it all together. All the notes. All the problems and fuck-ups. All the proposed solutions and fixes. Jam that stuff into a binder (real or electronic). Look on your works, ye mighty — but do not despair. Because this is what getting shit done looks like. This is the job, and you’re doing it, so have a cookie.

10. Determine Validity Of Notes

Heat up a copper wire and dip it into the petri dish of blood, and if it’s the blood of The Thing, then the human meatbag will suddenly metamorphose — *is handed a note* — okay, that’s from a movie. You know, I was sitting here saying, I think this is from a movie, and sure enough: it’s from a movie. Okay. Deep breaths. Refocus. THERE. Okay, not every note you took or every note you received is going to be gold plucked from a leprechaun’s rectal rainbow stash. Some notes are gonna be great. Some are worth keeping just in case. And others? Ennnh. Meh. Neh. Not so much. Some notes may also disagree with one another (“MORE COWBELL.” “FEWER COWBELLS”). How to determine? Outside, say, a game of chance? Listen: this isn’t math. Gotta go with your gut. Cultivate instinct. Poll the jury of your intestinal flora.

11. Steady Yourself For The Tribulation Ahead

Have an adult beverage. Do some stretches. Pray to whatever ink-stained gods you hold dear. This is a mindset thing. Fuck winter: editing is coming. Editing can be a tough row to hoe: lots of changes, lots of uncertainty, lots of losing things you love and confronting stuff you don’t. It’s easy to panic. It’s easy to pull the ripcord and parachute away before you even begin. Don’t. Editing is where a story is truly told. Steel yourself against the coming hell. Time to work.

12. Outline The Book You Wrote

Maybe you used an outline to write that first draft. Maybe you didn’t. Whatever happened, now you’ve got this giant 300+ page leviathan whose individual components are hard to discern as separate from the whole. So: outline the book you just wrote. A retroactive outline, of sorts. The goal is to see what’s there in terms of story beats, character arcs, plot moments.

13. Outline The Book You’re Gonna Rewrite

Now it’s time to take that outline and reoutline so that you have the book you intend to end up with. Why do we do this? Because it’ll save you a whole lot of work later on. If you just dive into your edits like a drunk going to town on a pie-eating contest, everything will end up far messier than you like. Tweak one thing, another part breaks. Add one character, invalidate three others. Have a plan. A map. Some idea what’s going to happen next. More to the point: it’s easier to fuck up and adjust the story now than it is when you’ve revised and rebuilt the dread leviathan.

14. Have A Plan

Let’s talk about plans, actually. The outline is only one part. You should have some sense of how you intend to approach the edits. Just pick a page and dive in? From front to back? Back to front? Drop acid and rewrite the book from word one in a hallucinogenic stupor of your own devising? Figure out what comes first. And what comes next. (Oh, and use Track Changes. Always make sure you have a record of what you’re changing. You’ll appreciate it later.) Want some options? DADDY HAS SOME OPTIONS FOR YOU. Also, stop calling me “Daddy.” Because, ew.

15. Option: Tackle The Most Heinous Fuckery First

This is the equivalent of being the new fish on his first day in prison and walking up to the biggest, baddest dude in the cafeteria and trying to punch his lights out. This is you exerting your dominance over the story. This is dinner before dessert. The value-add here is that you’re attacking the hardest, jaw-tightenest, teeth-grittiest part of the story first. Everything is cake after this. And it also means that all the difficult fiddly bits are figured out. Easier as you go.

16. Option: Tackle The Easiest Shit First

On the other hand, sometimes you want to start at the shallow end before you go playing Marco Polo in sharkier waters. Pick the easy stuff. Little things that are easy to fix: the equivalent of a shoelace untied or a remote control without batteries. The value: you start fixing little things, you feel productive. You feel good about making changes. And you gain momentum. And by the time you get to the heinous fuckery, you’re like a warrior in an RPG: you’ve leveled-up, you’ve got your Authorscale boots, you’ve got your +4 Truncheon against Editorial Mayhem.

17. Option: Tackle The Thing From Front To Back

You’re just going to start at the beginning and edit front to back till you get to the end and boom, the motherfucker’s done. Value: you get to read how the story’s going to play out to readers and adjust accordingly. You see how all the pieces will slot into place (or don’t, at present). It’s a clean, progressive way to edit, though doesn’t guarantee you won’t have to do some loopbacks to fix things that cascade throughout the draft like a power outage or a tectonic shift.

18. Banish Cut Copy To The Negative Zone

Anytime you cut something: keep it. Snip it from the draft, plop it into another Trash Pile file. Why? Two reasons: first, because if you ever decide, “You know what, that whole paragraph I cut needs to go back in,” then hey, ta-da, there it is. Second, because even if you don’t use it in the current story, maybe you’ll discover something in that narrative midden heap worth rescuing some day — the equivalent of finding a five-dollar bill in the laundry.

19. Invoke The Rule Of Threes

One is the loneliest number, but three is the awesomest number. All things in your story should probably get three (or more!) beats. If I may expound a bit about Chekhov’s Gun (if you don’t know what that is: PLEASE TO CLICK THIS INTERNET LINKY), part of where that theory fails for me is that it assumes two beats: see the gun in the first act, gun’s goes off by the third. We usually require a beat in the middle, though: another reference or glimpse of the gun, something subtle that allows the audience to consciously or subconsciously sense the continuance. Three beats allows any aspect (theme, mood, supporting character, plot component, whatever) to stand on its own. Two beats can feel shallow and convenient (or inconvenient, depending). In your edit, look for places where elements fail the rule of three.

20. Re-Read Again, And Read That Shit Aloud

Time for another re-read. This time: read it aloud. No, you don’t need to stage a dramatic performance at the city park — er, unless you want to, though it’s a good bet you’ll get Frisbees thrown at your head or be eaten by the hibernating bear you woke up with your clunky prose. Rather, sit at your desk, speak (or mumble) the words quietly. Listen for rhythm. Listen to pacing. Words on a page are just proxies for words spoken in our heads and from our mouths. Reading your work aloud isn’t a universal catch-all, but it will highlight a lot of places where the language sounds bumpy, where it hitches and slews toward an awkward, muddy decline.

21. Copy-Edit As You Go

As you re-read and read aloud, copy-edit. Tweak. Poke. Twist. (Reminder again: Track Changes is your friend.) Massage the language as you go. Look for spelling errors, typos, duplicated/repeated words, fucked-up punctuation, awkwardness, fragments, poor word choice, incorrect word use, junk language, tense issues, POV issues, stylistic goofs, unnecessary adverbs or adjectives, passive constructions, wonky metaphors, and anytime you describe someone’s genitals as “turgid” or “tumescent.” Attack. Kill. Repair. Read and repeat.

22. Keep A List Of Pretty Pretty Peacocks

I keep a file. In this file are the photos from my days as a male pornstar, DONNY DONG. I also keep another file, which is probably more germane to this discussion, where I keep a list of crutch words and precious darlings: anything I tend to rely upon as a lazy construction or word choice or character traits, or, or, or. It’s an embarrassing file, in a way, but really useful, because I can search for all this stuff during an edit and say, “Oh, I used the word ‘cock-taco’ seven times in this book and really, that’s a once-a-book word, minimum.”

23. Eradicate All The Pretty Pretty Peacocks If Need Be

As the saying goes, kill your darlings. A darling is often ill-defined as those things in your story that you love, but that’s daft. Don’t kill those things. Might as well say, “Murder your wife, burn your house down, YOU DO NOT DESERVE SUCH THINGS.” No, a darling is something that you love but that cannot justify itself in the text. You write a chapter in the middle of the book that has no bearing on the rest of the book and it drags down the pacing but you love-love-love it, well, that chapter might need two bullets in the chest, one in the head. Behead those precious, preening peacocks. (I list this late in the post because I tend to do this at the very end, often because that’s when I actually have enough context and instinct regarding the draft that I can see those divots and nodules at a healthy distance. That said, it’s something to be aware of throughout the entire writing and editing experience.)

24. Do It All Again If You Have To

One pass might be enough. Might not. Rewrite till it’s right.

25. Submit And Celebrate

You’re done. NOW EAT PIE. Or whatever dessert you hold dearest to your heart. After that: take action. You just went through a special kind of hell — you crawled through burning slime pits, you endured imps biting your sensitive bits, you slid through the sulfur-sluice and emerged bloody and burned with a proper manuscript in your demon-callused hands. Now it’s time to do something with it. Get thee to a literary agent. Or an editor. Or publish that motherfucker yourself. It’s time. You rock. You’re almost there.

Freeze-frame fist-pump: YOU’RE THE BEST AROUND.

*cue end credits*

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71 comments

  • Hi Chuck

    Are you a mind reader? This post is exactly what I needed today. Now I feel armed and ready for combat with the scary beast that is the last work in progress.

    As a side note 14yr old son read Under the Empyrean Sky and said “It’s good. Feel free to get more the rest”. For context this kid read the Harry Potter series and said “Rowling could have thought a bit more about it. It’s patchy in spots”. So big congratulations, he’s given you the same praise he gives Robert Ludlum and Matthew Reilly, writers he would take a bullet for.

    Nicole

  • I asked a guy to be a beta reader. I read his reviews on Amazon and he sounded insightful and intelligent. He was very helpful in many ways and gave me some good ideas. But he questioned some things like the terrain and a person’s armaments which I had researched and paid attention to and When I tried to explain myself he got kind of hostile I thought. Like he had said my “love” scenes were realistic and hot and suggested another place for one which I thought was good. Then when I tried to explain about my terrain and weapon research he got all argumentative and added, “Even the sex scenes could be fine tuned.” I mean, no matter who you deal with, it is a human with an agenda. Your take?

    • This is where I could end up sounding like a rampant ball-buster… *puts on flak jacket*…oh well…

      It sounds a little to me like he was wanting to provide some ‘manly input’ to you. ‘Love scenes? That’s a girl thing, and this lady’s done a fine job with them. Weapons and terrain? Oooh, that’s a MAN SUBJECT, so even if I have no actual experience of those things myself I must be SEEN to be knowledgeable and provide advice in this arena – because even a man with no actual experience of such things MUST, by the laws of nature, know more about Man Subjects than ANY woman on the planet.’

      Yes, I know it sounds harsh put like that – but there IS an element of that thinking amongst a ‘certain type’ of male beta reader (y’see guys, I didn’t say ALL!) I’ve experienced it myself; one male beta reader on a ‘certain website for such things’ (not wishing to name names or point fingers) picked holes in a chapter I’d written about an internal committee of managers in a computer engineering company; he argued that they would never say the things I’d said they had or do some of the things I’d said they’d done.

      Even after I politely explained to him that I actually worked in software engineering in an avionics company, and also regularly took the minutes for high-level Software Managers’ meetings (therefore I had at least SOME real-life experience of the situation) he still wouldn’t have it – he made some crack about ‘being a glorified secretary is not the same as being an actual executive in that situation,’ and told me I’d be better off listening to what he said because ‘I’ve built my own gaming pc from the ground up, and it kicks ass better than anything you can buy off-the-shelf.’

      He wasn’t trying to be sexist – he was genuinely trying to help – but the ‘Men know about Men Things’ psychology was was just too indelibly imprinted in his mind. This does happen – sorry all you nice, pro-women guys out there, but it does. So it pays to be aware of that as a possibility and get a selection of beta readers – of BOTH sexes – if you possibly can. If all (or most) of them say the same thing, they might have a point; if it’s less than half… well, you get the deciding vote. ;^)

  • I’m right in the middle of my third edit and trying to cut out a total of 75,000 words from my manuscript because they tell me no one even look at it otherwise. Thank you so much for this. I’m going to tack it to the wall above my desk. Off to kill a few more darlings…

  • I realized early on that I’m a “but” man. In one draft, I think close to 1 out of every 100 words was “but”. I let it go through on the first draft, “but” hunt them down like the cybernetic cockroaches that they are in the next round.

  • Great stuff. I’m going to print this one for reference, because you really put some structure and order on a process I tackle in utter chaos. I waffle a lot about where to put some things. Like readers. I like to edit some before I inflict my prose on others. But maybe that’s a waste of time. Or not. It might keep my editors willing to do the job.

  • This is beginning to get a little creepy and quite sincerely, un-nerving (is that a word?). I hate to admit, I may like it. It is like you are in my head (are you in my head Chuck?) I finished my book a mere eleven days ago before leaving Abu Dhabi…put it to bed and have been home circling the globe Mach V with my hair on fire since…had a great girl’s time-out with my Momma the last few days at the Artesian Hotel in Oklahoma of all places. Today, I realized it time to begin the journey to the center of the Universe (read: my precious) and start the editing process….and Voila! here it is, like freakin manna falling from the skies….25 steps to edit. I wanna be freaked out, but I feel this crazed cosmic connection….so I keep putting one little foot in front of the other. Again, if you ever need a kidney…Thank you. Much gratitude.

  • I’m curious, Chuck, when you talk about giving space between the draft and the editing, how, in your experience, does that translate to shorter works? I find myself wanting to leap right the fuck in on a short story in a way that I don’t on book-length stuff. Your thoughts?

  • It’s like you looked into my mind, and maybe through my window, because this is how I edit. I’m on step 4 or 5 of my third draft of my novel. I go front to back. Some days, I wonder if I should just rewrite the whole thing. I think there will be some major surgery. Editing is a special kind of torture. You get to go from feeling awesome about finishing writing a book, to like you’re the least talented human ever to exist. But at least, at the end, if you get there, you’re right back up.

    http://angelacavanaugh.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/round-three/

  • Thank you times a million, Chuck, for this perfectly-timed essay of wisdom and reassurance. So the editing process is MEANT to be this hard, this slow and this goddamned brain-meltingly awful then?

    Hooray! As I hit my next editing session, I may well be forced to airlift in emergency supplies of chocolate… gonna need all those antioxidant thingies, don’tcha know…. ;^)

  • Good on ya, lad! I needed this today, too! I’m in the process of revising TWO novels at once. One I just finished and the other that’s been done for some time. Good reminders here to be ruthless. But one can never be as ruthless with their darlings as another can.

  • Ugh! I’m editing right now, and doing all the above for the past two weeks is making me cray-cray. Even when i do other stuff. Enter reality. Oh wait, it leaves again really soon.

    Grrrrrrrrrr…..

  • 1-24 recursively for months now, and I woke up today with a fever blister. I don’t have to leave the house for another day or two anyway. What the hell. Back to it.
    And thanks.

  • Winks to Portal AND Karate Kid in the same post? If making stealth pop culture references ever becomes an Olympic event, I’m betting my organs on you, sir.

  • I’m on my third novel and just finished the second complete draft, so some of this I’ve already done, some I have to do *again* (it’s very long), and the rest is just part of the polishing. But I was just starting to think maybe I should outline again, since the original outline is now so far out of date it’s useless as a reference, and here you are recommending it. Good idea, sez I! By the way, not everyone gets it when I say I keep all my excised paragraphs in a file called “Spared Darlings” but I knew you would. :)

  • Cracking post and validation, to me for what Im doing now. Like you I rather like editing because it turns a couple of hundred thousand words of crap into a decent book. I’ve just binned 50,000 words (its OK I still have another 70,000 in hand) and started rewriting them from scratch and yeh, I’m fixing stuff. it feels good.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • Just terrific! Thanks for this. Though now I’m going to have “Still Alive” going through my head for the rest of the day.

  • Brilliant post. I’m going through the third draft of my novel at the moment and sometimes I get so bogged down with the details that I lose the bigger picture of the story. There seems to be so much to alter. Will keep this article to hand. Thanks for sharing.

  • #23 worked for me on my current rewrite. I deleted an entire chapter and then inserted many elements of it into other chapters. It was a better way to show instead of tell.

    #16 17 is something I have been doing together. I take care of the easiest shit front to back first and then go back through and take care of the rest on another front to back to take care of the other bad crap that I found.

  • i chose to read this on my break at work rather than continuing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for the 4th time, it was a wise decision. thanks for the laughs and insights.

    P.s.- i rewrote this post several times because of your advice.

  • Niiiice. Just tweeted this because I have some followers who need this. I like that it has options, and a sense of humor about this whole horribly disgusting difficult process. I think I really like the bit about putting other people’s reactions away for a while.

  • September 14, 2013 at 4:19 PM // Reply

    Not only is the substance of your post helpful, but the structure of it is a lesson in its own right: You start with a great hook, stay true to character, remain unpredictable, and keep us “page-turning” through the steps. (I know. Duh. That was your point.)

    I like the “read out loud” suggestion. I pictured myself reading some of my prose aloud and could already see where my mouth will trip. Great tip.

    And thanks for validating my instincts about peacocks. I have a list if eight words to which I plan to devote an entire search-and-destroy editing round. Appalling how often I fall back on some of these words!

    Mostly, as I just reached the 57,000-word mark, with a target of around 86,500, and am now at the point where I know exactly what’s going to happen from here, plot-wise, I feel I’m at the mountaintop, headed down into the shadow of the valley of Fucking Editingville, I love the suggestion to go back and create an outline of the finished draft. I sense structure problems and holes. I know the draft outline will reveal these. I think it will save me from meandering around my manuscript, scrolling up and down, looking for missing links. It’s hard to see what isn’t there. The outline will “show” me what I forgot to write or wrote poorly.

    Can’t wait to finish and put all of this great advice to use!

  • Found this really useful, thanks a lot!
    One thing that has helped me lately is writing the first draft on pen and paper. It seems like a waste of time at first – after all, I can type much more quickly, edit as I go, etc… But it’s handy because I just can’t go back – on the first run through there is no chance to be obsessing over a particular paragraph and if something’s not quite right I just have to let it go. It’s slower so I find I have to write more slowly than I think, meaning I don’t catch up with my thoughts as often and have too much writer’s block… And there’s much less temptation to ramble. When it comes to typing it up, it feels like the joy of writing all over again but much much quicker.
    It still needs editing from there, of course, but it’s less daunting on the second draft.
    Might not work for everyone, but thought I’d put this out there just in case it helps anyone else.

  • Thank you. Thank you so damn much. When I was writing my book I went through a lot of this, and I experienced a “kill the darlings” moment at the hands of an editor who told me that one whole chapter was a waste and only held the story up. DAMMIT, it is a perfectly good chapter and adds flavor and introduces the reader to the story and…aw, hell, he’s right. I ended up doing so much chopping and rewriting at the hands of that editor, and we practically came to blows over certain plot elements, but in the end my book is so much stronger for his honest evaluation, and I’m freakin’ grateful. I wish the editors I’ve dealt with were always so brutally honest.

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