Saturday, July 16, 2016

Editing: What if I'm Making it Worse?

I was chatting about editing with the lovely Savannah a few days ago, and asked her what her top three editing struggles were. The first one she mentioned?
"FEARING THAT I'M ACTUALY MAKING IT WORSE. Like, this is the biggest problem I have and it has literally driven me crazy and made me want to stop editing period. 'Cause I constantly scrutinize every bit and can't decide whether I'm actually making things WORSE!"
Seeing as it's been some time since I compiled any writing tips around here--and considering the fact that I'm drafting and thus, editing is creeping into my mind (it shouldn't be, but it is)--this is perfect post material.

My first tip? Save every draft.

Every single one. You added a new character? Save that draft. You reworked the entire plot? Save that draft. You changed the formatting? SAVE IT. Now, I personally don't go so far as to copy my story into a new document with every tiny change I make--that would be a waste of time--but every time I've worked through the book and made significant changes, I copy and paste it all into a new Word document. That way when I start a new round of edits, the old version is still there, safe and sound. If I hate the way an edited scene turns out, no problem. I can change it back to the old version. The Prophet's Quest, for instance, is preserved in eight separate documents on my laptop (not counting the original paper copy, which is something you never, ever want to read--trust me).

On small scale edits, try it several different ways and compare.

If that pesky paragraph just won't flow or that scene isn't settling into place like you want it to, write it again. And again. And again, if you have to. Then compare the different angles. Which do you like better? Keep that one and either throw the rest away, or save them too, in a separate document for such snippets.

Sometimes it helps to read the different versions out loud.

Get another pair of eyes to help out if you can. A fresh opinion will often smooth things out.

On large scale edits, run with it until you hit a wall.

Something is off in your story, you can feel it. So you decide to change your long-lost prince into the disinherited son of a duke, with healing powers instead of telepathy. Obviously the whole story is going to change. On the cusp of making that editing call, it's easy to be overcome with doubts. What if this change sucks? What if I rewrite the whole book and end up hating it? Guess what, buttercup? You won't know until you try.

So begin editing. Rework the story to fit this new path. You may decide halfway down that, you know what? He really should be a prince after all. But maybe you'll keep the healing powers so that he can save the life of the poisoned wine tester. Or maybe you'll write all the way until the end of the story before realizing that. Or these edits will be exactly what your story needed. You have to start working to find out.

"But that's so inefficient," you say. "To spend all that time and energy only to scrap those words in the end! The horror!" Yes. It is inefficient. But it's not a waste.


I should hope you don't have to create that many drafts to get to the gem beneath the rock, but you get the picture. You may write thousands of words of a second draft before realizing you're going at it all wrong and must start over. But those words were not a waste of time. You eliminated one option and so have a clearer idea of how to start over.

One of my long-time favorite writing "resource" (can you call a person a resource?) is author Gail Carson Levine. She has often mentioned how inefficient she is at writing, and how she'll often produce pages upon pages, discover something is wrong, and have to start over. Sometimes those failed pages are necessary for you to dig into the layers of your story and work through a plot knot or develop your world building. It may not end up in the finished manuscript, but it's a part of the process of getting to that finished manuscript.

Walk it out in your head.

At times, you won't have to actually pick up your pencil or set fingers to keyboard to figure out if a proposed change will help or hinder your story. Sometimes the answer is obvious after a little thought. So before you do go change the first thirty thousand words of your WIP, stop and consider the effects of what you're planning to edit. Every change you make, especially the big ones, has a domino effect on the rest of the story. (Or at least it should. If it doesn't, you're probably writing a collection of short stories, or else you have a plot problem.)

Changing the prince to the penniless son of a duke will mean that those palace scenes have to go, because your character is out on the streets with empty pockets and his finery all tattered from his unfortunate circumstances. But you need him to speak to the queen about the epidemic spreading across the neighboring kingdom to the west. How can he do that if he's no longer a castle resident? Well, perhaps he can summon all his noble gusto to bluster his way into getting an audience with her. Or maybe he can bump into her at the midsummer festival she officiates every year. Another possibility is making the queen a charitable soul who personally feeds the homeless, and she can meet your disinherited noble boy at a shelter.

Big changes take brainstorming to make them work, and the impact they'll have on the rest of your story needs to be considered before taking the plunge. But never fear! If it doesn't work out like you planned, you do have the old version to fall back on.

Take a break.

Staring at the same story for months on end means you're probably sick of it. You've been over the same plot so many times that all the twists are predictable. You've memorized every line of dialogue until they sound cheesy to your own mind. Every change you make doesn't seem to make this book any less disgusting, and you despair of ever turning it into something halfway readable.

Stop. Step away for a while. A week may be enough time to refresh your mind and forget the flaws you've been zeroed in on for ages, or you may need a month or more. However long it needs to be, take a break. Read for fun. Write something small just because you can, no matter how imperfect it is. Refill your well of creativity.

For me, writing for the contests Rooglewood Press put on the past few years has saved my sanity as far as the Journeys of the Chosen series goes. Taking a few months to write and revise something relatively short and altogether new revitalized me. When I returned to The Prophet's Quest or The Prophet's Key, I was raring to go. I fell in love with those stories all over again, and resumed editing/writing with excitement.

Remember art is fluid.

Maybe you're doing all those things, and you're still scared to tweak and fiddle and entirely revamp things. I get it. I've been there. But your story might have to get worse before it can get better. And the only way to get to that place called Better is to start editing. And then keep editing. And edit some more. Your story will transform along the way, and you will too. You'll grow as a writer. Even if you have a huge mess on your hands, you're learning something!

Something I've realized after grueling rounds of editing is that the more you do it, the more fearless you get. I used to moan and groan and clench my teeth to even think of changing my books. (I still do, but those episodes tend to be more short-lived these days.) But as I slowly develop my sense of story, plot, and character, I begin to see the trouble spots more easily. Then I begin to dive in and fix them with less hesitation. The old adage is true: practice does make perfect. Or at least a whole lot better.

What are your top editing woes? What do you do when you're worried about making things worse by changing them? How do you stay motivated to keep editing when you can no longer stand the sight of your manuscript?


  1. Ooh, this is an awesome, awesome post. *pastes link into personal notes*

    1. Thank you, Emily! I'm glad you found it helpful.


    I've had that exact struggle. Sometimes I change things and worry if I changed it just for the sake of change, or if I'm actually improving it. It's hard to know when it's your own writing and you've read it over 2984983 times. I'm discovering having fresh eyes to look things over (like you and all my wonderful beta-readers) is one of the greatest editing tools I have!

    I am allll for saving every draft, yes! I have SO many documents on my computer of my stories. I refuse to permanently get rid of everything. It's comforting knowing you can always go back to your original writing in case you change your mind on the edits.

    And I agree 100% on trying different things, even if it takes a long time. Every single thing I've ever written has gotten me where I am today. Some of it (okay, a LOT of it) is complete trash that I'll never, ever allow to see the light of day, but I still absolutely value it. Because it helped me grow and learn. My Colors of a Dragon Scale series is a MESS and totally inconsistent, but I don't even sort of regret writing each book during NaNo. They've shaped me SO much and I learn more and more with each and every book. I don't think any writing or editing, even if you don't plan on keeping it, is a waste! I LOVE what you said on the subject. "Guess what, buttercup? You won't know until you try." PERFECT. XD

    Brainstorming in my head and taking breaks have become key tools for me. Yes! They can be the most helpful things.

    "Art is fluid". Wonderfully said! And so encouraging. You're absolutely right in that the more we do, the more fearless we get. Just even the word editing used to make me shiver in my boots, and though it still daunts me sometimes, I'm getting there. I'm learning more and more that it's OKAY to completely scrap and change parts. Can even be *gasp* fun sometimes!

    But I've still got a looong way to go, and this post was so timely! Thank you for sharing. I needed all this! <3

    1. (As long as it's not *Mr.* Gold. Heh. Random OUAT reference.)

      Fresh eyes are so so so helpful! I absolutely treasure getting feedback from people who haven't imprinted my story on their eyeballs like I have, because they find new angles, affirm what I'm doing right, and point out what I'm doing wrong. <3

      Me too! I have a whole folder of outdated drafts, and several others docs kicking around that haven't been properly filed yet. :)

      Yes, exactly! I'm slowly learning that myself--that not everything I've written/will write is going to be "publishable," but that doesn't make them any less important. They're stepping stones. I love how much you've grown with your Colors of a Dragon Scale! (And as messy as you always insist they are...I'm still burning with curiosity to read them one day. Ha. XD)

      I feel like I stole that "art is fluid" line from somewhere, to be honest... My brain sucks ideas and things from the world around me, mixes it into a subconscious soup, and then when something bobs to the surface, I think, "Oh look! What a brilliant, original idea!" XD
      But I digress. CHRISTINE, YOUR EDITING SKILLS ARE AWESOMESAUCE. *lookin' at you, Burning Thorns* And I totally agree that editing can be fun. With certain stories, I find editing more fun than drafting. o.o

      I'm so glad you enjoyed!

  3. I'm always saving drafts. They're all mixed up there in my random pile of files.
    I like what you said about art being fluid. It's so true.

    I actually like doing some larger changes while editing. It makes the story shiny and fun again.

    1. But at least they're THERE, mixed up or not. At least you have them to fall back on if you need them. :)

      It does indeed! Especially when you see the story begin to strengthen and tighten because of those changes. That's always thrilling.

  4. This post is brilliant.

    That is all.

    (You have such good writing tips and your posts are awesome and I love themmmm. I also don't want to think about editing now because I can hardly even write at the moment. XD *hides under a tapestry* *saves post in UsefulWritingTips bookmark folder*)

    1. You are awesome.

      That is all.

      (WAY TO MAKE MY DAY, GIRL. <3 And if now's not the time to think of editing, don't. Now's not really the time for me either, so I'm trying to find my inner editor's off switch. *hides under tapestry with you* Ooh, when did Adventure Awaits get tapestries on the walls? I like it. XD)

    2. Heehee, my hiding behind tapestries is a thing that started when I was reading Lauri's original novella version of Burning Thorns, and I kept making comments like "MEEP. *hides behind tapestry* because of it being in a castle and having all sorts of STUFF going on... :P So I still do that and sometimes forget. XD But yeah, Adventure Awaits TOTALLY has tapestries. *nods* *goes to hide from editing again*

    3. Oh, that's right! I think I remember that. That's awesome. ^_^ And yesh, lots of gorgeous tapestries around here!

  5. This speaks to me.

    I was recently revising a short story, and I felt like I was trimming a hedge: Snipping here and there to even it out—but ah, that's too far, now it's lopsided again, let's just fix this part—until nothing remained but a skeleton rattling in the wind, stripped of the lovely foliage for which I planted it in the first place. (I am sleep deprived so that likely made no sense, but you get the idea.)

    I have learned the art of saving every draft (now that I use Scrivener, this is so much easier! I can save just one scene, if that's all I change), because the truth is, my evaluation of my own work is terribly subjective and liable to change. I may well decide the original version I so loathed last week was in fact better, and needs only a facelift rather than a heart transplant.

    Your advice is sound!

    1. That's an excellent analogy, and one I sure can identify with! Especially when I'm editing with wordcount restraints in mind, it can feel like I'm lopping off all the wrong parts, and the whole hedge gets to be lopsided and half bald. Or that's what it feels like.

      Oh, you use Scrivener? I hear some writers absolutely love it, but I think I'm (currently, anyway) too content with my current homemade systems to consider getting it. ANYWAY. RABBIT TRAIL.

      Ugh, yes, our own subjectivity is so hard to get around. Fresh eyes are hugely helpful when we hit a wall with that! So is time away.

      Glad it was helpful! :D

  6. I NEEDED THIS POST (and you wrote it in response to my comment, so I guess that makes sense XD. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! *hugs you*).

    Saving drafts. I SO agree with that. I've got two copies of the novella I'm working on right now, but I have a feeling that more are coming :D.

    I love the Edison quote! That's SO what happens to writers. We try a MILLION different things and when the last one FINALLY works we throw a huge party and don't write for a month and buy ourselves doughnuts XD. And, just sayin', Gail Carson Levine writes really good books. Have you read any of them?

    I've heard lots of people say that when you finish writing a first draft, let it sit for six weeks before picking it up again and editing. I always scorned that advice (Pfft, how am I going to wait SIX WEEKS to work on my story again?) until I realized IT WORKS. You can pick up so many more things after not reading it for a few weeks.

    'Art is fluid' YESH! That's one of the things I try to keep in my edited drafts (and one of the things I have the hardest time with); I feel like my edited drafts aren't as fluid and well-paced as my first drafts are. I'm working on it XD.

    Wonderful post, Tracey! THANK YOU FOR THIS!! Good luck with your editing!

    1. *hugs you back*

      Make as many copies--or rather, do as many rounds of edits--as you need! I can tell you it's definitely worth it. :D

      I actually hadn't thought of that quote in relation to writing until I put together this post. It's so encouraging to remember that the wrong turns are not a waste of time! And doughnuts are always a good way to celebrate. ;)
      Yes, I've read a number of her books, besides following her blog for years. Ella Enchanted, Fairest, Ever, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and also some of her short ones like Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep. Oh, and her two writing books as well! (I'm partway through Writer to Writer.) Do you have a favorite of hers?

      It IS great advice! Time away helps you get some distance and perspective that you can't find otherwise. :)

      I hadn't thought of "art is fluid" in that particular light, but I definitely relate to that choppy feeling some edits bring to a story. Especially when you're changing major events, it's difficult to smooth things over in the rest of the book to keep it consistent and well paced.

      I'M HAPPY YOU ENJOYED IT! Thanks again for the post inspiration! <3

  7. Really good thoughts. I'm in the middle of rewriting/transcribing my first novel. But I started the rewriting process in my head long before I finished the first draft. So I've certainly thought of the implications of changes. Then I realize it still isn't going to lead to a proper ending and I change the whole thing again. Right now I'm sure the story is getting better. This draft is certainly more consistent and I think that my characters emotions and motivations make a lot more sense.
    I'm certainly intending to keep track of all my changes. An agreed one letting things sit. I finally figured out the driving element of the story while I was working on something else.

    1. Thank you, Anna! Ooh, transcribing? Did you write the first draft by hand?

      Sometimes it takes several different ideas/plans before you hit upon the one that fits and pulls it all together. I'm glad your editing is going well for you! It's one of those things that can be a headache or an absolute thrill. ^_^

      I LOVE IT when a separate creative project sparks just the idea I need for another one. So fun!

      Happy editing, Anna!

  8. This post is splendiferous! I'll have to remember it. :)

  9. This is some really good advice. I hadn't thought of making editing worse as a defined fear. I've had a bit of that fear, but not as pressing as others. I always save my old drafts. It really helps. Recently, I rewrote a draft and I changed the POV. I didn't like it, but I still have the old POV to switch back to. Thanks for the advice!

    1. Different fears for different writers. :) And sometimes for different stories, too. With some, I adore the drafting process and editing is a chore, and with others it's the opposite.

      Yes, saving old drafts is a must. Changing the POV sounds like a big task--kudos for taking the plunge, even if it didn't work out as intended!

      Glad it was helpful, Tori! ^_^

  10. Love this post! I'm near to embarking on the editing process, and things have been playing in my head about how it's going to be, what needs to go, what needs to stay, what about major changes. I actually had to change some huge plot events around while first drafting multiple times. It felt like I was wasting my time as I kept hitting a dead end and realizing I'd have to change things. But in reality I was still discovering my story. I was getting to know the novel and what would make it work. Sometimes that can only come through a little trial and error so in the long run it wasn't a waste of time at all.

    I like what you say about working with the wording. Sometimes I write three different ways to say the same thing on the same page so that later I can go back and pick which one works best. It makes for a long and confusing first draft though. So I'm a little apprehensive about editing. The choosing between what fits and what doesn't!

    Great post! Happy editing!

    1. Oh, fun stuff! Sometimes it's awfully tricky to decide whether to go back and make changes when you hit a wall during drafting, or whether to press on as if you've already changed things, and leave it for editing... But you're right, it's all the process of discovery.

      That would be hilarious to read over later, I'm sure! "The meadow glistened in the morning light. Dewdrops sparkled in the rising sun. The rising sun scattered diamonds across the meadow." (That's what I'm imagining, anyway. XD) But then you have ready-made options to choose from when you're editing.

      Thanks, Ashley, and same to you!

  11. Excellent post! All your tips were super applicable as I am currently trying to rewrite some short stories from the past two years while my WIP stews a while longer in my brain. The last time I did any serious editing, I found that one of my biggest problems was keeping track of which scenes I had eliminated or added and what details I had changed from the previous drafts. Especially since it was a story I'd been working on for a long time, some of the details that I needed to change had become like facts in my head and I kept forgetting I'd changed them.
    Hope your drafting is going well! :D

    1. Short projects are a fun way to keep the writing muscles flexible while waiting on the larger stories. Great idea!

      Ohhhh, do I ever relate to that struggle! It's even worse when you've majorly changed a story more than once, and your brain keeps going back to the old version that you've known for so long. They really do become like facts in your head. :P

      It's plugging along, and my enthusiasm comes and goes in fits and starts. But it's progress! Hope your rewriting is going well too! <3

  12. Editing is one thing I struggle immensely with. Bless this post!

    1. It's a struggle for everyone at one point or another. Glad you enjoyed! :)

  13. This is something I've been thinking about, because even, like, opening TCATT to check a detail for SITC or something, I'll be changing words here and there and rereading stuff and getting stressed and it IS stressful because you know that in one way you will never be finished. There's always more you can do and always stuff you can improve and it's hard actually to shut the lid and say, it's done. I'm moving on.

    Years after publishing Rings Tolkien said, "Now, if I reread it, there are parts of LotR that I find tolerable."

    ... I take comfort from that!

    Going for walks is good. You start to hash stuff out in your head and work through knots. (I love plotting walks!)

    1. Going back to the prequel when writing the sequel, for me, either results in "Ugh, what is this mess?" or "Oooh, I'd forgotten about that part--it's pretty fantastic." That never being finished is the funny thing about art. It's not like the more left-brained tasks that have a definite mark of completion, you just reach a point where you decide to stop working on it. I've had those thoughts MANY times in regard to The Prophet's Quest. :P

      (But you're writing SITC! Eeek!)

      He really said that? That IS very comforting! I guess even the greats were never completely satisfied with their work. But it probably means growth, which is good.

      Plotting walks are the best! ^_^