What I Learned From Editing

Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear. — Patricia Fuller 

What have I learned from editing both a novel and poetry? They aren’t as far apart as I thought. I learn from editing poetry how to make novel sentences more succinct and to punch up the imagery. From editing novels I learn to look at the big picture of a poem and how to decide whether to cut or expand to enhance meaning. 

It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book. 
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Poetry editing may take two, twelve, or twenty passes. (At least for me) The novel can take 100. They need what they need, but poetry tends toward more instant gratification. Editing a novel can make despair set in. Will this furshlugginer thing ever be done? As with poetry, eventually, you have to abandon your work and declare it done. Continual editing is counterproductive. That way lies madness. 

The writing itself is no big deal. The editing, and even more than that, the self-doubt, is excruciatingly impossible. 
— Jonathan Safran Foer

I like editing, smoothing out the big, glorious mess that’s a novel, or paring down a poem to the essentials. Hopefully, I don’t wind up with haiku, because haiku have their own baggage to contend with. On rare occasions, the prose needs to be added to instead of cut. When I go into editing swinging an ax, I can overlook spots where more is better. Problem nail, meet hammer.

“Editing. It’s like dieting; except a lot more violent.” 
― Leya Delray 

Poetry and novel writing both share the same problem. In editing too much, the freshness evaporates into a saggy old balloon. I think it’s true you need to put new writing away for a while to look at it with new eyes, untainted by the story you had in your head. Poems, from anywhere from a week to a month. Novels for a month or more. But writers are impatient. We want to see our poetry in print as fast as possible. Ditto novels. 

While writing is like a joyful release, editing is a prison where the bars are my former intentions and the abusive warden my own neuroticism. 
— Tiffany Madison

I don’t write or edit to music. I’ve done it before, but even 10 years on I can still hear the piece of music I wrote a certain scene to playing in my head. After 10 years, I still hear every word and guitar riff, and I can’t write a similar scene without the piano refrain rearing its head. (Correction, my music is the chirp of birds outside my window. I even recorded 10 minutes of it and looped the redwing song into an hour-long feather-filled backdrop for writing.)

I am one of those strange writers who can actually derive pleasure from the editing process. 
— Cindy Matthews

However you edit, dive into it with open eyes — and a glass full of your motivator of choice. Novels, poetry, the rambling essay, they all benefit from a good nap before you edit your way to success. How do you like to edit? 

Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don't see them.
— Elie Wiesel

Other Essays on Editing

Pulling Words Apart to Smash Writing Together

Revising 101 (Housekeeping)

Advice Paralysis

Author Places to Learn About Editing

Nathan Bransford Blog

Holly Lisle Articles

Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

Pulling Words Apart to Smash Writing Together

I’ve been largely silent for a while from having a whole lot of editing on my plate. 2 novels and a chapbook of mine, things from other people, working on Gyroscope Review and the Press. Good thing I like editing. As much fun writing a new novel is, I really get into the flow when I settle in to edit. Multiple passes with multiple purposes. Right now, I’m eradicating weasel words from my novels. You know, words like “that” and “just” and “be able”, baggage words adding little to your prose because they’re part of our everyday speech and sneaky as hell.

Editing the novels also helps me edit poetry. The same thing happens there, lazy, non-freight bearing words creep in and somehow duck, dodge, and evade the editor’s knife. I’ve resorted to spacing poem lines 3-4 spaces (or more) apart, so I can only see one line at a time. It helps me find the bumpy places. It also forces me to think about what form I want the poem to take when it has no form at the moment. And still, unneeded words evade me. It’s nice when my writer’s group sees the problems in my blank spots. Then I can go about fixing them. The recommendations aren’t always in line with my vision, but they provide excellent ideas for revision.

I have a habit of not letting my work out to beta readers until it’s mostly done. I know you are supposed to get novels out to beta readers sooner, in case of plot holes, but I want my work as tight as I can get it before flinging it into the world. Then, if a plot hole needs to be patched, the whole novel is fresh in my mind and I can (usually) backfill and spackle over fairly easily. I know this method will probably come back and bit me in the butt someday. Most things do.

Trying Something New

It’s why I’ve come around to doing better outlines. Previous outlines have consisted of paragraphs of “this happens, then this, then this” and 10,000 words of backstory to help me find my way. I like my method and it works for me, but I see where a bit more stringent outlining will speed things along. I have an outline for editing. A checklist of stuff to evaluate and correct. Like weasel words. I’ve made one for editing poetry also, trying to address my blind spots. It’s a good method to try.

I know a lot of writers who only tolerate the editing stage of writing. I like editing, I think it comes from being an artist. I love the process, I’m a process person, not a project person. (Which doesn’t bode well for novel endings. Alas.) Teach me something new, and I’ll happily spend time puzzling it out. That’s what editing is to me, a great, big puzzle, or the boss level of a video game. What is editing like for you? I’m curious about other people’s methods—poetry, essay, or novel. What gets your editing brain in gear? Any advice?

Some of my other essays on editing:

Revising 101 (Housekeeping)

A Few Words on Revision

Self-Inflicted Wounds – Revising Poetry, Part I

Telling Little Stories – Revising Poetry, Part II

Here are some outside links to articles on weasel words in writing

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers

The Wright Practice

Outside Links to Editing:

25 Rules for Editing Poems

The 12-Point Checklist for Poetry Editing

The Ultimate Fiction Editing Checklist

Fiction University

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