Chip MacGregor

October 21, 2015

Editing for Authors: Part 9, Writing Lessons from Editing


brick green no smile b:wHere we are at the final installment of my “Editing for Authors” series. If you’ve been following from the beginning, you know we’ve talked about several different editing styles and strategies and that the overall goal in employing any of them is to make your manuscript better (and by extension, more salable). Eventually, however, because there’s no such thing as a “perfect” manuscript, you’ll have to decide that it’s done and put your red pen away and send the thing off into the cruel world to make its fortune. And since, as the title of this series suggests, you are predominately an AUTHOR, once your editing duties are completed you’ll likely start working on a new manuscript in pretty short succession. And while the return to the freedom and creativity of writing can and should be a glorious change from the dictates of editing, you shouldn’t rule out the possibility that your recent editing exploits can offer several lessons to you about your writing– lessons that, if heeded, could result in that fun, creative writing process turning out a stronger, better-written first draft this time around.

For your future writing to benefit from your editing experience, you’re going to find it helpful to sort the types of edits you made into groups– did you have a lot of plot-related fixes to make? Holes, conflicts, missing information, out-of-order events, confusing timelines? What about cliche or repetitive language? Did you routinely overuse certain words or phrases? What kind of verbal clutter did you cull from the last manuscript? Attribution? Adverbs? Excessive description?

Once you’ve sorted your edits into general categories, you’ll start to be able to identify what your “weak areas” are. Obviously, everyone will make a few each of many kinds of errors/weak writing choices, but we all have certain shortcomings that are more prevalent than others, and these are the kinds of weaknesses you can hope to improve upon if you make yourself aware of them before beginning a new manuscript. Having just scrutinized your own writing with an eye for errors/weaknesses, you’re in the enviable position of having your editor voice still echoing in your ear as the creative side takes over again– by all means, let the creative side go nuts, but by going into the process with just a few guidelines from editor-you in place, you can go nuts with a better-planned plot, a clearer timeline, fewer adverbs, or a consistent verb tense and end up with a first draft that’s stronger than it would be otherwise.

Once you’ve identified two or three areas you want to try to work on while writing your next book (and limit yourself to two or three big ideas or categories– trying to keep any more in your head while writing is going to severely gum up your creativity), figure out how you’re going to keep an ear on that editor-voice when you’re in the middle of a writing frenzy that might otherwise take you down the same rambling or adverb-heavy or inconsistent path as last time. If you overuse certain words or phrases, make “taboo” cards for yourself and post them around your writing space to remind yourself to stay away from those words or phrases. If you had a lot of plot-related problems last time, consider planning out your plot a little more fully before beginning, even if you have to alter it as you go– having a clear timeline with major and minor events distributed along it in some kind of order can help you keep track of what needs to happen and in what order. And if you find yourself making changes as the muse takes over, go with them, but then update the timeline so you’re required to look ahead and behind a bit to make sure you’re not writing a problem or a plot hole you’ll have to fix later.

Did you have problems with consistent point of view or verb tense? Consider making a short checklist to be filled out for each chapter, either before or after you write it, consisting of questions such as, “Whose point of view is this written from? What tense is the story being told in? What information is the POV character missing at this point?,” so you can get in the habit of paying attention to things like POV and tense as you write rather than having to fix a bunch of inconsistencies at the end. Was your voice missing from or weak in your last manuscript? Create some voice keywords or a voice “mission statement,” or copy some passages from previous work where your voice showed through especially well, and post them around your writing space. Start your writing time each day by reading them to warm up your voice/get it in your head before you start writing.

By paying attention to the areas where you made the most fixes on the last manuscript, you can create tools and mental checkpoints that will help you focus your writing and improve on some of your trouble areas.

Thanks so much for following this series and for all the great feedback you’ve shared. I hope you gleaned a couple helpful tips for the next time you’ve typed “The end” and are staring down the barrel of a 100,000-word editing job. If you have craft-related questions or suggestions for future posts, please (please!) leave them in the comments or shoot me an email, I’m always looking for ideas for future posts!

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