Editing Like a Boss

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with editing. There are times when I it feels great to get stuck into a story and give it a good old shove in the right direction. Other times I stare at the page in confusion, lacking either the ideas or the motivation to take whatever I’ve created and turn it into something coherent. 

Whether you find editing a joy or a chore, it’s always useful to have some tricks up your sleeve to make sure you’re as efficient as possible. Here are my tips on doing just that:

Figuring out a clear path through the woods is so important when you’ve got a big muddle of words and ideas (more of a jungle?) to navigate. Image credit: Unsplash

1. Leave it Alone. 

I mean this in two ways. Firstly, resist the urge to tweak too much when you’re in the process of writing. If, like me, you tend to write your stories in chunks, it’s very tempting to do a full edit on what you wrote the day before. The problem is, not only will this get you bored with the story far more quickly (who knows how many times you’ll read it?!), it also has the potential to cause problems later. You might find you need to cut that beautiful sentence you rewrote five times because it isn’t needed. If you’re going to have to kill your darlings, at least make sure they are rough, first draft darlings!

Secondly, leave a space between finishing the draft and sitting down to edit it. Short of replacing your brain with a new one, it’s the only real way to approach your story as a reader rather than a writer. If it all possible, try to pretend you’ve never seen it before and that you are seeing it for the first time. Printing it out also really helps with this. 

It’s surprising how helpful it is to make notes in different colours. Looks prettier, too. Image credit: Unsplash

2. Get Organised

You’re going to have notes all over the place, there’s no getting around it. But you can make them a bit easier to decipher. I use different coloured pens to make sense of my notes when I come back to them. Red = structure, pink = character, blue = style, green = accuracy. That way I can focus on each of them in turn rather than trying to do fifteen things at once. 

3. Start Big, Get Small

There’s no point starting with typos. If you start off with the little errors, you’ll get so bogged down in it you’ll miss out on the big stuff stuff. My biggest issue at first is usually plot, or lack of it. For this reason, I don’t even think about words and phrases until I’m sure that the overall story arc, character arc and paragraphs make sense. 

Also, this is a fun place to start as it usually means lots of lopping big bits off and changing the order. It helps with the earlier-mentioned problems of getting bored of re-reading the story and refining extraneous bits that will end up on the cutting-room floor. 

The words you come back to again (and again…) will be just as unique as the coffee you need to get you writing in the first place. Image credit: Pexels

4. Style Breakdown

This is always the most daunting category, so I try to break it down into parts. I’ve identified the ones that work best for me as cl = clunky, comp = compressed, wc = word choice, nqr = not quite right, and ? = I’m totally confused. Again, breaking it down before I get to rewriting means that I can do helpful activities like identifying the overall style of my vocabulary, or that of my character. It also allows me to ‘skip over’ bits that I know aren’t really working, but I don’t want to sit down and think of a solution quite yet. We’re in editing mode, not rewriting mode.  

4. Know Thyself 

Once you’ve read a few of your stories, you can start to get a pretty decent idea of what’s going to come up. I’ve put together an ‘overused phrases’ list which has such gems like ‘intent on…’ and ‘thick.’ Why are so many things thick in my stories? I don’t know, but they are. 

Have a bit of a laugh with it, we all get hung up on the same words and phrases sometimes. Being aware of your ‘go to’ list will make you more aware of them and less likely to keep repeating them. 

Yes, you’ll get sick of hearing your story out loud. Yes, you need to do it. Silly voices make the whole experience more entertaining. Image credit: Pexels

5. Get Used to the Sound of your Voice

A lot of people recommend reading stories out loud before any editing. I have to say, I don’t think it’s the way to go. My first drafts are such a big jumbled mess sometimes, there’s far too much to be done before I can start thinking about the finer points of rhythm and flow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an excellent editing technique, but I think it’s best to save it until at least your second draft, so you’ve got something a bit more polished to work with. 

There’s something beguiling about writing all over your work, brimming with ideas on how it can be great. Until you get to the next rewrite, of course…

There you have it! There’s my (reasonably) foolproof list to make your stories great. If you’re a short story writer and you’d like me to help you out with your editing, I run a ‘Perfecting Your Story’ workshop. You’ll get detailed line edits on the story itself (up to 5,000 words) as well as a full editorial report. Following on from that, we’ll have an online workshop (maximum 5 people) where we’ll use various exercises to edit and improve your story before you send it out into the world. You can sign up to it, and my other workshops, here

Featured image from Pexels

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5 Replies to “Editing Like a Boss”

  1. Hi Sarah,
    About number 3-Start Big, Get small, I know that I should be doing spelling, word choices, punctuation etc. later on, after at least the first or second draft. It makes perfect sense because yes, you always end up cutting chunks of phrases or whole paragraphs out later anyway. But those small things are always the first things that jump out at me, both while writing the first draft of anything (a post, an email, essay, story) and during later edits and rewrites. The perfectionist in me can’t help but edit those. I actually love the editing part of writing but I had the same problem when writing my thesis and yes, I had reread and edited the same thing for those minor details so many times that I failed to see the bigger issues with some of the work. It slowed me down. And then the section I spent the least amount of time on, I got the best feedback on it! So all that other work was for nothing. Do you have any suggestions on how to approach changing those habits? How did you develop better editing habits? I know what I’m supposed to be doing but I don’t know how to make that change.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello! I know exactly what you mean. I was an English teacher for years and I find it really hard not to get drawn in by that stuff. One way you can do it is to just follow the colour coding suggestion. That way, you are allowing yourself to at least make notes on the errors, but you are also making notes on the bigger stuff. Then, when you come back to re-drafting, ONLY look at your notes in red. That’s why I chose the colours – red is the one you want to deal with first, while green, even though it’s what I often notice first, is a friendly colour which should (hopefully) fade into the background while you’re sorting the bigger stuff out. The other option is to do some framing of your thoughts before you even start. If you just think ‘oh I’m going to edit this’ then your brain will be drawn to the usual stuff. However, if you think, ‘right, I want to analyse the way my plot works here’ and make some sort of outline or frame to fill in as you read, then you’re already looking for the big stuff before you get stuck in. Does that help?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, that helps a lot, thank you. Specially the part about framing my thoughts before I even start. I’m going to work on doing edits with a very specific plan of action now.

        Liked by 1 person

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