How to Edit Fiction – 2 – Avoid Feeling Overwhelmed

Posted on July 11, 2011 by


MyLittlePony-HeadBangSo this is you. Hello, you!

I want you to mechanically follow my instructions. If nothing else it’ll prevent you from getting brain damage.

Please note:
Every single time I say “chapter” in this webinar, I’m referring to either a) one chapter of a completed first draft of a novel or b) a short story from your novel-length portfolio of completed stories. Completed first drafts and short story collections will both be referred to as “manuscripts”. For best results, please choose chapters/short stories that are 3,000 words or longer when doing exercises.

i) If your manuscript is handwritten, type it up (with a computer, not a typewriter). Transfer it exactly as it was written. Don’t cheat on me. You’ll need every single mistake.
ii) Pick a chapter of your manuscript at random. If you know it by heart, i.e. reading it makes you a little queasy or you can recite lines from it verbatim (I’m betting chapter 1 is in this category), choose another one.
iii) Isolate it from all the others. This means either printing it out and putting the computer away, or transferring it to a new file.
iv) Go make yourself something soothing to drink. Hot tea, chocolate milk, whatever.
v) Find a comfortable place to work, with a writing surface. Clear everything off that surface but your drink, your chapter, and this post. (That means you need to leave Twitter. Sorry.)
vi) Put your chapter aside. Drink your soothing drink. Sigh a little. Doze off for a bit. Whatever gets you relaxed works fine — just don’t leave. Exist quietly in a workspace with your chapter for a little while.
vii) How you doin’ ? Doin’ okay?
viii) All those voices subdued somewhat?
ix) You can put the drink down. Go fetch your red pen — metaphorically if you’re working on the computer, literally if you’ve printed that sucker out.

Feeling a bit better? Everything we do will make you feel better.


Lesson One: Progression, a.k.a. Stress Relief

There are two kinds of editing. The first is the editing you do before you finish the first draft, and the second is the editing you do to achieve subsequent drafts.

The first kind of editing should be automatic, mechanical — and entirely stress-free. Like sharpening pencils or tying your shoes. It’s actually even more gratifying than doing menial tasks because it makes up the bulk of editing and you can actually see your manuscript beautifying right before your eyes. Magical.

When you’re practiced enough at this kind of editing, it becomes so automatic that you can go right back to writing first drafts without any “editing” at all. Remember how I told you to forget the “just get it down” rule? Once you get really good at editing as you go, it stops being “editing” and becomes this editing/writing hybrid that allows you to “just get it down” without the absolute agony that comes from moving from draft one to draft two.

The very first thing that will help you is learning that there is a progression inherent in editing — a hierarchy, if you will.

Every writer brain I know is wired to freak the hell out when presented with a messy manuscript. They go through the stages of grieving: stress, anger, denial, &ct. &ct. It’s enough to drive you nuts. So here’s what you do: you don’t try to solve every problem at once. You edit in a progression, so that each step you take makes each subsequent step easier to tackle.

Language is a beautiful thing: stories are built with chapters are built with scenes are built with paragraphs are built with sentences are built with words. If you fix your words, your sentences are easier to fix — and so on and so forth.

Here’s your list. Take a good long look at it.

Progression During Automatic Editing
1) Spelling/Typos
2) Morphology
3) Syntax/Elegance
4) Formatting
5) Factual Errors
6) Transitions



I. : Progression
The list? Print it out and stick it on the wall somewhere prominent — somewhere you’ll be able to see it when you write. You’re probably going to wake up with it tattooed on your thigh at some point. Don’t worry. Allllll part of the process.

II. : Typonauts
Fix all the typos in your chapter without fixing any other errors whatsoever. None. Do not even think about fixing any other error. You are a machine. A machine that fixes typos.
What, when you get down to it, are “typos”? My definition here is, “all the things you meant to type in this particular way, but which you actually typed in this other way”. That’s not the same as “misspellings”, which are, “words you spelled wrongly because you made a mistake in judgment and not simply typing”.
Try to learn how to block out everything else. Become a homing missile for typos. Even if there aren’t that many to fix or even any at all, look for them. (Protip: the hardest to find are double spaces between words.) Learn to scan your work with a specific goal in mind.
If you’re moved to do so, go ahead and extend the exercise to your entire manuscript.

III. : Tell Me About It
How difficult was it to shut out all the other noise and just focus on the very, very simple task of fixing typos?
Did you give in to the monster who told you to fix that one teensy weensy little grammatical error you found? He’s a total dick, by the way. Smack him on the nose.
How long did it take before you could focus entirely on that task? Was it a relaxing exercise?


~~ NEXT TIME: Spell Like a Linguist ~~