Editing is one of the most polarising aspects of writing. Some people love it, some people hate it; but we all have to do it. Here are some simple tricks to make every word count, especially when you have too many.
If you’re like me, and need the pressure of NaNoWriMo to get the majority of your words down, you’re probably familiar with the mantras, ‘Quantity over quality!’, ‘Just get it down!’, and ‘Editing is for December!’
That’s because National Novel Writing Month is about pure creation. Shoveling sand in the sandbox, as it were, a la Shannon Hale. You’re just getting your ideas out of your head as fast as you possibly can because you can’t edit a blank page, a la Judy Picoult (I’m name-dropping like a madwoman, today), and when you spit out 50k words as fast as you can, a lot of those words are going to be surplus to requirements. And ultimately, once you’ve piled up all of that wet sand, what is building sandcastles, but careful, delicate, precision shaving?
So here’s how you do that.
Be ruthless about scene quality. Not action, necessarily, but quality. Is it necessary? In my opinion, a scene should do one of two things: advance the plot or develop the character. If it’s not essential in doing one of these things, I rarely keep it. Not to say never, but rarely. I debate long and hard about it.
That doesn’t mean it needs to be high-tension and fast paced, but its presence or absence should affect the direction the story or character goes.
For instance, the first chapter of Magic Beans was a point of conflict for me in my writing group. It’s almost a prologue, in that it doesn’t take place directly within the same timeline as the rest of the book, and it is almost a self-contained story in itself. Yet, there are characters, items, and events that affect the rest of the story, and the circumstances of how they came to be affect events later on.
Backstory is another contentious type of scene. A lot of people will tell you to never include a flashback or to only refer to backstory in dialogue, avoiding the dreaded Infodump, or to eschew backstory altogether, and focus solely on the events that unfold in real time. Again, literary devices exist to be used, in my opinion, and their efficacy depends on the writer and how well they write, than the actual scene itself. A ‘bad’ thing done well is better than a gaping hole where character development should be.
There’s also the debate of show vs tell, which I’ll bring up again in a minute. If you’re meant to show everything, to get the audience emotionally invested, why would you just tell something as important as backstory in dialogue to another character? No action or decision comes about purely in the moment. We exist as a result of our past, and I feel that backstory is an important aspect of character development.
So macroedits are essential the wrecking ball of editing. Taking down these scenes, moving scenes around, and sometimes even writing whole new ones where narrative sinkholes open up.
Microedits are the opposite. These are the detail work of editing. Getting your foreshadowing where it needs to be, slipping details in here and there to make your setting pop, rephrasing whole paragraphs to sound less like incoherent rambling and more like an actual story.
It’s common during NaNo to forget a word and spend a little while saying things like, ‘that uhh word that means to talk in circles because you can’t remember the actual word so you just kind of explain what it is instead’ when you mean ‘circumlocution.’ Remember, NaNo is quantity over quality, and that first definition is 25 words closer than the actual word. And yes, we write ‘uhh’ a lot. Take all of that out. Be precise. Also, contractions are frowned upon in NaNo, so shorten those now.
For a checklist of specific words to cut, follow the link here.
This is also the time where you can really polish your showing. If you have a passage where you tell us that your character smelled nice food, that’s cool, but it isn’t visceral. Don’t tell us he smelled nice food; give us garlic and sage wafting on the breeze, with subtle hints of black pepper and thyme. Much nicer, right? Also emotion, here. Don’t tell us he’s scared; give us the tingle down his spine as the hairs on his arms stand up, and his pulse races as he tries to find a suitable hiding place. It is adding more words, but the quality of the words here is important.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got on my writing was to load slow scenes with the 5 senses. When there isn’t a lot of action, you still want your reader sucked in, and the best way to do that is to immerse them. I try to give every scene, even the fight scenes, a detail from every sense.
NaNo is about quantity, editing is about quality. You need both, in that order.
Have you ever watched people weaving fabric with those big looms, the shuttles zooming back and forth, and wonder how they do it? I think of microedits like that. Imagine that that weaver is going as fast as they possibly can, not even looking at the cloth, just throwing that shuttle. That fabric is going to be pretty uneven and lumpy. But afterwards, the experienced hands come in and tweak the threads back into place until it’s smooth. It’s still not done, but it’s a lot closer.
Macros and Micros Again
So now you’ve moved things around and done a lot of tweaking. Does it still make sense? Is there still that one scene that’s bugging you. You know the one. Yes, that one, the one you’re avoiding thinking about because I’m calling you out like I know. Of course, I know. We all know the same struggle, it’s part of the process.
If it’s bugging you, why is it bugging you? Is your character acting out of character?
Is the wording off? What are you trying to say? Say that. Even if it’s ugly, say what you’re trying to say. Then polish it, if you can. If it’s still ugly, move on and come back to it later. Let the betas chew on it, and if they don’t even notice, then you’re probably overthinking. We writers also do that a lot.
This is the boring part. This is the nitty-gritty, checking commas, fixing spelling, fixing subject-verb agreement, dangling modifiers, and generally making sure that if you turned this in in high school, you’d still get a passing grade. We on Scrib call it SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar). You do this last in the process because you don’t want to go through all this maddening work, just to cut the whole scene anyway. Cut it when it’s ugly. Only work this hard on the stuff you’re sure about keeping.
NOW, you send it to betas.
Now your book is ready to be looked at by other eyes. You’ve got it as nice as you can get it, by your own standards and it’s time to road test it. Of course, your betas, as experienced readers who know the genre, will have opinions on macros, micros, and line edits, and when they time comes, you have to decide whether or not to to take their advice, and start the whole process over again.
They say a book goes through at least five drafts before it’s ready, and in my own experience, I’d have to agree. It’s gruelling, detailed work, but by the end of the day, all your hard work really pays off.
If you want some programmes that will help streamline the effort, I recommend these!
And for even more help, sign up here to get my quick and easy word-cut checklist inspired by the amazing work of Rayne Hall, in her book, The Word-Loss Diet.