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.