(originally published here).
This week, I return to editing. I unpack my pens, take out my notebooks and open my word processor to the same opening chapter, visiting familiar first lines I have visited hundreds of times before—begrudging passes and red ink at 3:00 a.m. with only caffeine to fuel me.
It's nothing new for me. My world seems to always come back to editing at some point. In 2013, I started and finished a journey in writing my first novel. Quite coincidentally, I began attending college around the same time. A full plate of writing and essays since entering school and an even bigger project when I realized that my lovely first draft of a novel was not finished until I had edited it. For most students, the idea of editing the average essay is a painful thought. My novel had landed somewhere around 155,000 words.
It fills me with dread just thinking about it.
After three years of working, college and writing in conjunction, I've learned a thing or two about the editing process. That which has brought out the best in my academic writing has, in turn, brought my novel where it is today. The struggle is ever-present and complicated, but these are a few of the best pointers I've found for editing one's writing, both creative and professional.
Distance is key.
Contrary to the popular trend of the all-nighter, most of us need more time to edit than 24 hours (not to say I haven't been there, but hear me out). Any time we write a first draft, we are only experiencing what Terry Pratchett called “telling ourselves the story.” Whether it's a 2,000 word essay or a 50,000 word novel, early drafts tend to spill out in messy, unpolished concepts. Revision and editing are not new applications to remedy the chaos of a first draft, but distance is often very important in churning out quality products. I usually give 48 hours to return to papers for classes, and a minimum of two weeks before returning to any creative project. The less familiar you are with your work, the easier it will be to edit and find your own errors in the long run.
Kill your darlings.
The art of writing is paired, hand in hand, with the art of deleting. Another quote about writing often coined and used is the famous “kill your darlings," meaning we must part with aspects of our projects, even if we love them. Once you're put some distance between you and the draft, you often find yourself with a slew of content you no longer need. After multiple edits, actually, a work can begin to reshape or even change altogether. Some of the most difficult points in the writing process are where you have a piece that you absolutely, completely and totally adore, and it no longer fits with the rest of the work. I tend to keep a file for deleted scenes or sentences I'm fond of. They always find their way back into your writing, one way or another. Sacrificing words from a work will often strengthen it, in the long run.
The more eyes, the better.
When all editing is said and done and you have properly cleaned up your work, it is in your best interest to hand off your writing to a few trusted friends and well-read eyes. For some, the idea of opening an unfinished work to criticism causes more anxiety than finishing the work itself. Nevertheless, there is something great about the presence of a reader in a project. My beta-readers, past and present, have been some of the most valuable voices in changes and last edits. They can catch errors, continuity problems and tone changes that you might have otherwise missed. It can be a frightening part of the editing process, but worth the bravery it can take.
What are your favorite pieces of editing advice, or tricks that get you through a drafts? Do your processes differ with your creative and academic work?
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Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.