On writing: Essential editing techniques

One of the challenges of writing is not the writing itself, but editing what is written. Good editing is as important to the final work as the writing itself, if not more so. Editing is where the text takes shape, where the proverbial wheat is separated from the chaff. I’ve heard it said that a good writer writes 10% or more than will ultimately be included in the final draft. The writing we like, even love, may sometimes be cut from the final draft. (A few of my favorite lines from The Joining were left on the cutting room floor.) When editing, one must step back from the work, cast an eye over it, and be able to critically assess what is needed, what is missing, and what is extraneous.

So how does one get that distance? Well, here are some editing techniques that work for me.

Red beans and riceMy favorite technique is simply that of time. I like to imagine writing like making soup: you take all your words, your ingredients, and toss them into the pot. Then you must walk away and leave it simmering on the back burner so the flavors can mingle and intensify.

I began writing The Joining in 2011 and finished my first draft two years later. By then, I was able to return to what I had first written and examine it with a critical eye: it had been so long that sometimes it felt as though I was reading a stranger’s writing. Ultimately, The Joining took three years—a long time to write anything. “Dead Meat Running” was written over the course of three months: I took a month’s time in between the first draft and the second, then another month away before revising it deeply over the course of the third month. While it was not the same as years, those few weeks between each look allowed me to loosen my attachment on what I had written, maybe forget my intentions a little, and look at my writing with fresh eyes.

But what if you don’t have time?

For the second technique, you must have an editor. And, for me, this is just as essential as taking some time away from your work. Another person’s eyes will always reveal what yours cannot, and another person’s mind provides a wealth of perspective you might never consider. You may have heard it said “Behind every good writer is a great editor” and you had better believe it! When I say “editor,” it could be the real deal or a handful of trusted beta readers. Either way, your writing will benefit from another set of eyes and some friendly constructive criticism.

"Red Pen" - Jenny KaczorowskiFinally, one method that is perhaps becoming less common in the digital age we live in is editing with pen and paper. I love to edit my writing by hand; I find that printing out my draft and then sitting down with a red pen to scribble all over the paper is very satisfying. For me, editing by hand allows a freer form of thinking than typing. Sometimes I just want to highlight something or circle it: a note to myself that visibly says “this feels wrong but I don’t know what to do with it.” Circling something or underlining something on the computer is not as easy or organic. Also, seeing my words on a page gives me a better sense of how long some scenes are, if there is a lack of balance where one scene takes up six pages and another essential scene is only two. So print out those pages, take your red pen—yes, use red!—and bleed all over them!

Photos: “Red beans” at en.wikipedia (Public domain) | “Red Pen” by Jenny Kaczorowski (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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