I used to be afraid of editing. I used to think it meant all those lovely words I'd written – so lovingly crafted and so treasured, each and every one of them – would be hacked at; ripped apart; mutilated.
Now, I know better.
This is the metaphor I use when I'm doing school visits: Your first draft is a lump of play dough. It might be the colour you want for your novel. It might even have glittery bits or pretty swirly bits or it might even be your favourite colour ever! It might be a new formulation. It might have taken you ages and ages to get that lump of play dough. But it's still just a lump.
Editing is what turns it into something beautiful.
Editing might mean taking bits of the lump away, or adding bits on. It might means tweaking that part of the lump or making that bit flatter or that bit bumpier. It might even mean squashing the lump down and building it again. It might even – gasp – mean throwing that lump of play dough out because it's so full of dirt and fluff now that it's not even the same pretty colour it was before. There might be a lot of love – and even sweat (yuck) – in that lump but honey, it just aint purdy any more.
It's a long metaphor, I know, but I think it's a good 'un. So many beginning writers get to 50,000 words and go “Hurrah! I finished! That's it!”.
I'm the wicked witch who always says: “Good on you. Now edit.”
There are no hard and fast golden rules for editing, just as there are no golden rules for writing. Every writer is different and so is every editor. The editor is just as much of an artist as the writer. My wonderful editor at Random House said to me that as an editor she needs eyes in the back of her head and the side of her head and all over her head so she can see the scene from every direction. As our own editors (because yes, you must edit your work BEFORE you send it to a publisher), we kind of need the same thing. We need to see our manuscript – or our lump – from every angle. Because what's the point of a play dough sculpture that's pretty on one side but ugly and messed up on every other side?
Having said there are no golden rules, here are MY tips for editing:
- Put your manuscript away. Seriously. If you have a deadline this gets harder but if you have a bit of time put the thing away. Read some books. Watch some X Factor. Just don't think about it for as long as possible. Then, when you've almost forgotten what the book was even about, bring it out. Read it. Realise it's a lump. You'll see that it's a lump after a bit of distance. Whenever you've just finished a manuscript it's always the best thing you've ever read. After a few weeks? It's a lump.
- Read it first like you're a reader. Start to finish. Don't have your editing hat on yet. Pretend you've never read this thing before. Pretend you just spent twenty dollars on it and you're hoping it's the best book you've ever read. Make a note down the side whenever you go “huh”? Or “that doesn't make sense. Didn't they just ...” or “people so don't talk like that”.
- Then, read it as an editor. Read every scene with eyes all over your head (I know, that's a bit of a gross image). See it from every character's point of view. If there was a character who had a line at the start of the scene who then doesn't have a line until the end of the scene … WHAT ON EARTH WAS HE DOING FOR THE REST OF THE SCENE? If a character was on a boat and on the next scene they're up a mountain (sorry to my editor – I do this ALL THE TIME), HOW DID THEY GET TO THE MOUNTAIN?
- Read it out aloud. Dialogue especially but all of it, if your voice will take it. Read it to your cat. Do not read it to your sister or your boyfriend. Not yet. This is your time with the manuscript. Let them read it later. You and MS need some alone time to get to know each other.
- After you change a whole scene (which you will have to do – sorry), you will need to read the whole MS again. Changing even one sentence in the editing process causes a domino effect throughout the book. My tip? Every bit you cut or significantly change – don't delete it. Put it in a separate document and use a highlighter function in Word to highlight any sentences within that scene which you'll need to pop into another scene in order for your MS to still make sense.
- Use the technology. Use the notes function, the highlighter function, “track changes”. The technology is there to serve you. Oh and also? Save a new document every time you go in to edit. That way you can look back and see what changes you made or go back to an earlier version if you really stuffed up. Oh and back up. Please, please back up.
- Any word that doesn't need to be there? Cut it. Seriously. I learned this from my great friend, Christina Booth. She's a picture book writer and she had taught me so much about writing novels. She has to tell whole stories in 500 words. She's very, very good at telling lots in as few words as possible. It might be tempting to fill your novel with “fluff” just to get to that magic 50,000 word count (or 100,000 if you're writing fantasy). Just don't do it. Ditto “pretty metaphors”. Don't chuck lots in there. Stick with one and really go for it. And similes should be used very sparingly.
- Eat lots of chocolate. This last tip might sound flippant but editing does take it out of you in a way writing kind of doesn't. They're very different skill sets. When you're writing you're on a creative high. When you're editing you need to concentrate. Hard. So eat well (and that includes chocolatey treats for your mental health) … And take breaks. Don't rush this. It's a long process. But a very rewarding one.
You're making it wonderful.
Kate Gordon grew up in a very booky house, with two librarian parents, in a small town by the sea on the north-west coast of Tasmania. In 2009, Kate was the recipient of a Varuna writer’s fellowship. Her first book, Three Things About Daisy Blue – a young adult novel about travel, love, self-acceptance and letting go – was published in the Girlfriend series by Allen & Unwin in 2010. Now Kate lives with her husband and her very strange cat, Mephy Danger Gordon. Every morning, while Kate writes, Mephy Danger sits behind her on the couch with his tail curled around her neck. Kate was the recipient of a 2011 Arts Tasmania Assistance to Individuals grant, which means she can now spend more time losing herself in the world of Thylas and Sarcos. She is currently working on the sequel to Thyla. Kate blogs at http://www.kategordon.com.au/blog and you can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/misscackle. She sometimes says some funny stuff!