Web Analytics

Marginal Notes

The Dangers of Editing

"A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned." W. H. Auden, paraphrasing Paul Valéry

I edit books for a living, so I know it's true that writing is rewriting. But I've sometimes seen clients fall into editing traps that can cause real damage to their work. Although some simply waste valuable writing time, others get so caught up in the wrong kind of editing that they either lose sight of or actually blot out their vision of the book.

Before we get into these traps, a caveat. Every writer has their own approach to writing, including rewriting. There are plenty of exceptions to everything I say here. So unless you recognize yourself in the problems I describe, feel free to ignore me.

Do not start editing too soon. I've written before about how all the elements of a story interconnect with one another to form a complex ecosystem. If you start delving into detailed rewrites before your story, with all of its interconnected character and plot threads, is in place, then you are probably not doing all the editing you need. You cannot know how a character's voice should sound until you know who they become. Nor can you judge the importance of descriptive details or the relative weight of different events until you know where your story is going. And you may waste time editing scenes that you later cut.

It's tempting to jump into the editing too early. You may have reached a critical juncture in the plot where you're not sure what happens next, so you dive back into the weeds of what you've written so far, looking for a way forward. Sometimes this works. But more often, the editing is just a distraction. It's better to buckle down and finish your first draft before you start delving into the details.

Starting too early isn't the only trap you can fall into with your editing. You can also start too late, working and reworking entire drafts to try to nail down details that can only become clear through line-by-line editing.

I'm currently working with a client who has written and had me review three complete drafts of his novel. He still has a couple of minor plot problems to resolve, but he wants to write another draft, beginning to end, before we tackle them. I pointed out that his suggested solutions would have serious implications for his character relationships, which is what I was helping him with most. The way to make sure that the large-scale plot changes would work was to do granular line-editing to the key scenes that set up the changes. We had the basic story. We had some suggested revisions. It was time to dive into the details.

Another pitfall is editing way beyond the point of diminishing returns. If you feel the compulsion to keep going over your manuscript until you stop finding things to change, then you're committing yourself to a lifelong hobby. I promise you, you will always find something else to fiddle with.

My co-author and I are currently working on a third edition of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. In the process of going over the manuscript that I know more intimately than any other, I find I'm still making little adjustments and refinements to passages first written nearly thirty years ago. But I know that, at this point, these changes aren't correcting fundamental problems with the writing. They're just coming out of my mood of the moment, so my editing is not an improvement. In fact, a sure sign that you've edited too long is when you change something on one pass through the manuscript, then change it back at the next.

Finally, there's another reason to get stuck in the editing process -- fear of letting go. After all, if you declare your draft finished and start sending it out into the world, then other people get to read it. And judge it. Novels, especially first novels, are like children. It can be hard to see them go. And if you've been working on a novel, especially a first novel, for years, declaring it finished can lead to empty nest syndrome. It's much more comforting to simply take another editing pass through it from the beginning.

If this is you, then let it go. Even if it's hard, even if life will feel empty without it, let it go. Auden wasn't entirely right. It isn't abandonment. It's trust that your work can finally stand on its own.