Five Tips & Four Myths About Preparing To Edit Fiction
About the Author: Jacquelin Cangro
Jacquelin is a book editor, creative writing instructor, and writing coach with 20 years of experience at Penguin Random House. She helps writers develop the confidence and skills they need to get their stories on the page. Visit her site at www.jacquelincangro.com to find many resources to improve your writing, including her new free program: How to Read Like a Writer. You can also find her on Instagram @jcangro and in her Facebook group for writers.
Editing a short story or novel is its own craft, using a separate skill set from writing. It’s a different approach and needs a different mindset. This isn’t to say that editing can’t be creative; it’s creating solutions to problems. Through editing, you’ll identify problems in your story and figure out the best solutions.
As you make the mental shift from writing to editing, you have to be able to look at your own work with a level of objectiveness in order to make your story the best it can be. In this post, I’d like to offer suggestions to help you gain perspective on your manuscript.
Five tips to mentally prepare yourself for editing…
Tip #1: Find a new location.
If you write at your dining room table or in a spare bedroom or in your basement-turned-office, consider another spot for editing. A change of scenery, even if you simply move to a different seat at the same dining room table can provide a fresh perspective.
Tip #2: Shift to the reader.
Now that you’re in editing mode, your primary responsibility is to the reader. I know this might be controversial. Some writers feel that their responsibility is to their characters and only their characters. I respectfully disagree. While you’re writing, yes, your goal is to tell your characters’ stories as faithfully as possible.
Once you’ve done that and you want to send this story out into the world, it belongs to the readers. It’s important to consider them. How can you best tell this story to make sure readers receive it as you intended? This leads me to…
Tip #3: Consider two important questions.
What do you want readers to take away from your story?
What is the overarching message that you’re trying to convey?
Having the answers to these questions at the top of your mind will help keep you and your story centered. And this doesn’t need to be complicated. You may want your reader to feel light and happy after reading your novel, or you may want your story to convey the significance of freedom of choice over groupthink.
When you’re wondering if you should delete a scene or modify a character’s actions, you can determine if the change falls in line with these answers.
Tip #4: Get organized.
Editing can be messy. Organization is key.
Once you begin editing, you may be surprised at how ideas start to flow and you’ll want one place to capture them. Don’t rely on stickies or napkins or the notes app on your phone (please, don’t do that). Having a single, separate place to track your notes goes a long way to keeping your thoughts in order.
I like to have a small notebook to carry with me. This way, I can jot an idea whenever it strikes. I often use a new section of my current journal. This is a place where I can think freely about my story from the point of view of an editor.
Tip #5: Acknowledge your story’s strengths & weaknesses.
There are probably areas of your story that are causing you concern. Are you worried that you never got the opening quite right? Do you have an inkling that the inciting incident arrives too late in the story? Is the villain one-dimensional?
Likewise, there are elements of your story that you’re proud of. What are they? Is a section of dialogue spot-on? Did you describe the town where your protagonist lives with just the right details? Take this opportunity to note these areas in your journal or notebook.
Refamiliarize yourself with your story by reading it through without making any changes. If it’s too long to read in one sitting, pick your favorite chapter or section and read that. Remember why you love this story and these characters so much. Remember what drew you to them.
Four myths about editing novels & short fiction…
Myth #1: Your story, your characters, and their outcome is set in stone.
Of course when I put it like this, you may think it’s obvious, but I’ve worked with many writers who experience resistance when faced with editing a character’s actions or the story outcome. They feel married to the original idea and consider it a betrayal when they need to edit out a character or remove a plot point. Editing upsets the apple cart, and sometimes you have to deconstruct your story to build it back up. Which leads me to…
Myth #2: Editing is about checking for typos and subject-verb agreement.
This is true for copyediting and proofreading, but developmental or content editing is about opening the hood of your car and taking apart the engine to find what’s making that pinging noise and then making sure all the parts fit back together properly.
Myth #3: Editing is just rearranging the furniture.
Editing is more than deleting a few words or moving paragraphs around. Editing asks you to reconsider the characters, the structure, and the plot — the very foundation of your story. Developmental editing is messy. It can be confusing, and it is hard but necessary work. Give yourself the space.
Myth #4: You’ll never be able to do this.
Yes, you can. You’ve written a story, taken an idea that existed only in your mind’s eye, and given it form. You spent months, maybe years, generating something out of nothing. You’ve come way too far to stop now. Every book you see in a bookstore, every classic on your shelf, had to undergo this process.
It’s not a race. It’s not about perfection. It’s about telling this story in the best way you can right now.
It can be difficult to step back from the story you’ve invested so much in, but preparing yourself before diving into the editing process will help you gain a more objective perspective to lay the groundwork for a smoother transition from writing to revision.