Writing is Editing So Editing is Writing

Writing is Editing So Editing is Writing

Editing is an inescapable part of the writing process. People might try to debate it, but it can’t be denied.

Lots of people think that editing just means going through your manuscript and looking for typos – or hiring someone to do it for you. But that’s only one small part of the editing process. In addition to mistakes, editing involves addressing the flow of sentences, paragraphs and scenes. It involves tweaking word choices to make sure everything has the maximum effect. And it involves all those fiddly little grammar rules that lots of people learn but don’t like discussing.

Even more important, though, and often forgotten, are the story aspects of editing. The biggest part of the process is making sure that you’ve told the story in a coherent fashion. You need to make sure the details are accurate and don’t contradict each other. You need to make sure the characters and stories you’ve built make sense. And above all, you need to make sure that you’ve told the story you actually want to tell. (Most writers know that stories can get off track and out of hand pretty quickly.)

There’s a quote that gets bandied around the writing world: writing is editing. Writing is re-writing. Most writers believe that, even swear by it. But I think lots of writers also struggle to live by that mantra.

Editing can be a rewarding experience.

I have a love/hate relationship with editing. Earlier this year, I started hiring out my editing services. It’s a time consuming process. And it’s frightening to leave notes in another author’s work suggesting that they change something. I know what it’s like to receive that feedback. Sometimes it’s hard to stomach. Sometimes it makes you want to scream or cry. But sometimes addressing that feedback also makes your work a hundred times better than it started.

So I fill the quiet hours of my evenings with editing for other authors. It’s been an amazing experience. Every time I hear back from an author saying that my notes helped, or that they appreciate my efforts, my heart soars. It’s worth all the time I spend looking up definitions as the clock ticks toward midnight, or checking this one little detail because I want to make sure it’s perfect when I leave my note for the author. And most fun of all is getting to lavish them with praise when I find the most perfect, commanding, powerful sentence in the manuscript.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel that way when I edit my own work.

Self-editing is hard.

Every writer can quote the laws of editing. Ask yourself, does this serve the story? Cut mercilessly if it doesn’t. Cull the filler words and fluff scenes. And kill your darlings – not always, but often.

In other words, editing involves staring your writing’s flaws dead in the face. And that’s not half as easy as it sounds. I’m a big believer in not editing when I’m writing. I want to get all the words and concepts out, so that I have a bigger picture when I start polishing. But often that means coming back to scenes I loved and realizing how stilted they are. Or how long I rambled before I found the point. Or how none of what I wrote the first time actually fits into the grander scheme of the novel anymore.

I once had to re-write a significant portion of the end of a novel (it was Sea of Twisted Souls for anyone who’s curious), because I somehow lost the villain’s motivational threads after the midpoint. I set it up so the villain in the first half of the novel was smart and clever, always one step ahead of the good guys. And then for the last half, the villain was basically a mindless beast, intent on violence and destruction without care for tactics. (Oops!)

It’s hard as hell to look at something you loved and accept its flaws. Harder still when you find that one small part you loved that simply no longer fits and have to remove it. It’s a series of bitter pills of varying sizes, and they never actually get easier to swallow. Some of my editing sessions leave me feeling absolutely exhausted. It’s not an exaggeration when I say it can be a totally soul-sucking experience.

No one seems to know how to measure editing benchmarks.

But editing isn’t all bad. Much as I hate the process of wading through my own work, challenging my skill and tearing apart the first set of words I put on the page, I love how my books come out the other end. And without the feedback I get from others, I can verify that my work wouldn’t be half as good as it turns out to be in the end. I’ve even had writers tell me that they don’t feel like they can really get into the craft until later drafts . So clearly not all writers feel the same as I do.

Still, no matter how writers feel about the editing process, we all seem to have one universal problem: no one knows how we should track it.

When I started tracking my daily word counts five years ago, the result was drastic. Suddenly I could see how much I actually did in a day. And now, 5 years later, I watch myself breeze through two or three times as many words as I struggled to produce on a good day back when I started tracking.

If writing is editing and editing is writing, clearly we should be tracking the time, effort and words we spend on it. But how?

Some people track by pages – but in a late draft, you can speed through pages far faster than an early draft. Some people track by time – and that does seem like the most accurate measurement. Although sometimes you can spend 20 minutes on a single sentence and then breeze through an entire page in 5.

Myself, I went with words difference (plus or minus). But even this doesn’t feel like it accurately represents the sheer amount of emotional effort that goes into editing. Not when I spend 4 hours editing for a whooping word count of 10.

Editing takes a lot of energy.

No matter how you feel about the editing process, it takes time. And effort. And energy. I spent the first two months of the year writing and my final word tallies boggled my mind. Now I’m spending just as much effort wading through two big project edits, but my word counts are in the gutter and it’s killing me.

I feel like I should be doing more. Like I’m slacking. But I know that I’m spending the same amount of time to produce that apparent fraction of the results. I know that just as much energy and effort is going into those edits even if there’s no raw numbers coming out the other side. And I can certainly attest to the emotional investment with my exhaustion by the time I finish every afternoon.

Writing is editing and editing is writing. But my brain doesn’t seem to accept that when I look back over my totals. More, it keeps whispering in my ear. You should be doing more. Even though I’d need a clone of myself to try cramming more into the day.

In the end, I guess I’m still struggling to accept what I know is true: editing is hard work.

I’ve started playing with how I measure the results of my editing. I’m trying to take the number of words I’m covering into account so my numbers feel more realistic. But I don’t want to artificially pad the numbers either, because then it makes it hard to keep accurate track of what I’ve done word wise. But I’m also trying to find a middle ground where the me that looks back over my notes doesn’t think I hardly did anything, compared to the me who spent all day doing the stuff.

The only really accurate measurement of editing seems to be the emotional toll it takes. But how in the world do I measure that?

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