From ‘Good Enough’ to ‘Amazing’
How to Become a Better Editor of Your Own Work
by Robyn Ryle
Susan Orlean, author and staff writer for The New Yorker, recently wrote on Twitter, “Being a good editor of your own work is almost as important as doing good work the first time around.” Editing matters.
There is an almost irresistible temptation as a writer—especially a new writer—to stop at “good enough.” “Good enough” can look pretty amazing, especially in the giddy rush that comes after finishing a first draft. In reality, for most writers, the distance between “good enough” and “amazing” is much farther than it seems, and the best route between the two requires patience and a serious editing plan.
Below is a list of seven different editing techniques and tips I’ve found crucial to traveling the long path between “good enough” and “amazing.”
Especially if you have scenes that are written from multiple perspectives, edit to make each voice distinct. Pay attention to unique things your characters are likely to notice. Make a list of the things your main characters are likely to see and pay attention to within their world.
If your character is a musician, she’s probably going to notice the music that’s playing or the way someone’s voice sounds. If a character is a notorious womanizer, he might keep a running commentary on the bodies of the women around him. If your characters were playing I-Spy, what things would they see?
2 Do You Smell That?
It sometimes seems counter- intuitive to writers, who are mostly word people, that senses are what really put people in a story. We live the stories we read when we feel we’re there, and our senses—smell, touch, sight, taste, and sound—put us there, inside the story. Go back through your manuscript and imagine what your characters might be seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, and feeling in each scene. Keep in mind that different characters might rely more heavily on one sense rather than the other, another thing that makes each voice unique.
3 A Dark and Stormy Night
Find the clichés. All of them. Then find a better way of saying the same thing. I read about a writer who would circle every word in his manuscript that wasn’t specific and evocative enough. Then he’d go to the dictionary and look up not just synonyms, but the definition of the word. All of this in search of a better way to express the original idea. It sounds like a lot of work, but it could mean the difference between mediocre writing and really amazing writing.
4 Paper Dolls
Every character has the potential to sparkle if you’re willing to put in the time. No one has to be one-dimensional. The best villains are not evil simply because they need to be in order for the story to work. They have their own history and their own trajectory. They have mothers and fathers and annoying younger siblings. Take the time to give each of your characters some layers and it will pay off in a more believable and enjoyable story.
5 You’re Reading Too Much Into That
A collection of letters to a high school student from famous authors on the subject of symbolism in their work recently made the Internet rounds. In order to win an argument with an English teacher, the student had sent a rudimentary survey to the likes of Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, and Jack Kerouac, many of whom admitted to being baffled by what some people read into their stories.
It’s true that once you put a story out into the world, the meaning it may acquire is beyond your control. But it is a good idea to think about whether there are any potential themes in your early drafts. Are there some themes that seem to come up, whether you intended them or not? Are there themes you’d like to keep and perhaps amplify? Are there others you’d like to drop?
6 Did I Write That?
Put it aside until, as Stephen King suggests, you kind of forget that you even wrote it. This is the hardest part, but there’s a reason this is an important editing step. If you’ve done even a few of the edits listed here, you are now drowning in your own words. You may no longer be able to tell if they even make sense. Time turns you back into a reader rather than a writer, or as close as you’re going to get. Walk away from your story until you’ve pretty much forgotten what happens next.
7 Browne and King
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King is quite simply the best book on editing I’ve read. Buy it. Read it. Read it again. Read it once more and then print out a copy of your manuscript, grab a pencil and go to town.
Patience is important. It’s a lot of work, and you might be asking yourself if it’s all worthwhile. Are readers really going to pay attention to these details? Maybe not on any conscious level, unless they’ve been through their own editing odyssey, but these details might make the difference between a reader who stops after a couple chapters and the reader who can’t put your book down. These edits can be the thin line between what makes a book “amazing” compared to “good enough,” even if the average reader can’t really explain why. ■
Robyn Ryle’s (“From ‘Good Enough’ to ‘Amazing’: How to Become a Better Editor of Your Own Work,” p. 29) short stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, WhiskeyPaper and Cease, Cows, among others. She teaches sociology at a liberal arts college in Indiana. She is also the author of a sociology of gender textbook with SAGE Press, Questioning Gender: A Sociological Exploration (2014).