Editing is awesome. I love editing so much. But there’s a point at which even I have to put down my red pen and stop.
Stop, you say?!
Yeah, it’s really not that hard to get caught up in this perfectionist funk where all you do is wind around in circles on the same piece. Curb it from the beginning by having an idea of where you want to end. What should the reader walk away thinking about? What should the reader walk away feeling? Do things move fast enough to be interesting?
I stop editing when I get to a point where all my edits are just minor wording tweaks. At that point I’ll go back and forth, and I’m not even changing the overall impression the story creates. If it’s not productive, it’s not worthwhile.
Now that we’ve gotten dessert out of the way:
When to edit
So you’ve just finished writing a piece. Put it down. Do not touch.
Go do something else for a few days. Stroke your…ego, kick back and play videogames, read a book—actually, reading a book can be very useful if you know the author does something well that you have trouble with. In the past, I’ve read Pullman before jumping into edits on science fiction because Pullman’s descriptions are so much richer than mine. That way, the original write is still ‘me,’ but while editing, I’ve got a good baseline for intended changes.
Okay, have you taken at least three days? (Minimum: if you’re still in the mindset you were in when you wrote the thing, take more. You wouldn’t stuff your face right after hors d’oeuvres, would you?)
Cool, let’s do this.
How to edit
But the bigger purpose of editing is to consolidate the impression your story leaves on the reader.
- Keep the big questions in mind. Is your work doing what you want it to do? Is it engaging—will people even get to the end? Like good food, it shouldn’t be so uniformly spiced or bland that people get bored. But at the same time, it can’t be too obvious; the changes in pacing and subject should follow naturally.
- Reread your story. This is why taking a break is so important. You need the reader’s mindset, and readers don’t have 50 billion hours of backstory raging in their brains, nor do they already love your work. Note that this also makes it a lot easier to pick up typos. Your brain is no longer seeing what it thinks is there.
- Don’t spaz out if you don’t have the fix to a bad line/paragraph/whatever right away. These things take time. On average I go through about five revisions of a work before I’m satisfied enough. Sometimes changes get undone, too. Mood impacts approach.
- Save versions, or use Track Changes (all hail Track Changes). Especially with poetry, where the placement of each and every word matters—not that it shouldn’t for prose—you may go through a lot of iterations and not be sure which one is the best version. That’s okay. Save them all and do a little taste test when your palate is fresh.
- Done? Good. Now read it again. See above for when you can stop doing this.
Make sure your finished work has the right punch, match it with the right wine, and all will be well.