This blog post is about the most important part of writing, the part that takes a mediocre first draft and turns it into something great. This blog post is about editing.
In Why My Love Life Sucks, Gilbert Garfinkle mentions his simple three-part method for fixing anything: take it apart, figure it out, and fix it. Easy, right? Editing works the same way: you take your story apart, you figure out what parts are working and what parts can be made better, and you fix it.
It’s as simple as that.
For many writers, though, there’s one major obstacle that gets in the way of completing these three simple steps, and it’s another word that starts with the letter E: ego.
I don’t mean that these writers are egotistical and think their first draft is perfect just the way it is (although sometimes that’s the case). I’m referring to the psychological ego, as in a person’s sense of self.
Sometimes the writer is the main thing standing in the way of a story being all that it can be. And it can happen in every stage of editing a story.
Here, let me break it down.
First, you can’t fix something without taking it apart.
Many newbie writers, however, are reluctant to truly do that to their story. Sure, it can be because they think their story is already perfect, but more often than not, it’s because of insecurity. It’s not so much because they think their story is perfect; it’s more that they’re worried that it isn’t.
They’ve read books that they’ve loved, and they want to be able to write like J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, Neil Gaiman, or whichever writer they admire most. The thing they don’t realize is that great books aren’t created by writers who produce perfect first drafts; they’re created by writers who produce imperfect first drafts and aren’t afraid to take them apart and edit them like crazy.
If that’s not enough to get you over your insecurity, the best advice I can give you is something someone told Tina Fey when she was starting out in improv (and I’m paraphrasing here): don’t worry that it’s going to suck, because it is definitely going to suck. You just have to let go of the idea that that’s a bad thing. It’s not. You have to create something that totally sucks first. Otherwise, you’ll have nothing to fix.
This isn’t just true about you. It’s true about me. It’s true about any writer who’s ever written anything worth reading. From the start, we all have to give our stories permission to totally suck.
So let go of your insecurities, and don’t be afraid to take your story apart. Once you do that, you can move onto the next part of figuring it out.
Unfortunately, a writer can also get in his own way here, and many writers do. There’s that darn ego again! It’s because many writers have a hard time looking at their stories with objective eyes, and a writer can’t really figure something out if that writer doesn’t even see it for what it is.
Many writers see their story as their baby. Well, I’m sorry, but it’s not. And the sooner a writer accepts that, the sooner that writer can actually figure out what works in the story and what doesn’t. This means the writer needs to check his ego at the door. Again, I mean ego as in a sense of self. A writer needs to understand that this isn’t about him; it’s about the story and only the story. Okay, maybe it’s about the reader, too, but it most definitely isn’t about the writer.
If a writer has a hard time separating himself from his story and seeing it objectively (as possible as that is when it comes to something as subjective as what works and doesn’t), there are a few things he can do. He can join a critique group to get different points of view. He can try to find beta readers. He can hire a professional editor. At the very least, he can put his manuscript away for a month so that when he comes back to it, he’s more likely to see it with fresh eyes. But whatever he does, he has to understand that any criticism isn’t about him; it’s about the story, and making the story better.
Finally, we get to the fixing stage.
Now you might think there’s no way the ego could mess this stage up. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. Because very strangely that insecurity that came with the first stage can often come back at this stage—and sometimes it’s even worse.
This is where a writer can spend an entire day taking one word out and then putting it back in. This is where a writer can suddenly decide after spending a year or more editing and editing and editing a book that it isn’t really the book they want to write. I’ve actually seen talented writers throw out brilliantly written and edited books that were almost done, because something—or possibly someone—told them their books weren’t good enough.
The only solution I have to this is to let it go.
Send your story out to the world. If it really isn’t good enough, a lot of people will probably let you know. But chances are it will be perfect in some reader’s eyes, and then all that work you put in will be worth it. And who knows? Maybe that reader will decide to write a book, too. And then your book will make her feel insecure, because she’ll have no idea how hard you had to work to make your story shine.
E is for editing, and when it comes to writing, editing is everything.