Some of My Common Editing Pitfalls

So, first off: woo! I have a new job. This is going to mess with my schedule a bit. And since my first priority is making sure I keep writing on my schedule, this blog may flag a little.

So I’m going to spend some time talking about something personal. I’m currently in the middle of a fairly substantive edit of a YA fantasy. It’s a haul.

I’m also a professional editor. (I was before, too, but now I’m a senior editor. With an office an everything!) And while I don’t edit novels for a living, I do spend a lot of energy on it. And this means I spend a lot of time analyzing my process.

So let’s chat about the things that trip me up.

Line editing too much is dangerous.

I am a line editing machine. I need to chop 1,000 words? No problem. You need someone to tighten up a sentence? Sure thing. I will go word by word through every sentence, consider each one, and squish anything that doesn’t say exactly what I mean.

This is surprisingly dangerous.

I can spend hours line editing. It tickles every pleasure center in my brain. But there are a lot of problems with line editing:

  • It makes it impossible to focus on large-scale problems. Tightening language and strengthening word choice is fun. But if you’re too busy thinking about how “thinking about how to plan her escape” could be dramatically shortened to “thinking about her escape plan,” you’re probably not thinking about how this scene interacts with the last one or if you’re integrating all the themes you introduced in the earlier chapters. You tunnel vision.
  • It encourages you to keep content you’ve already written instead of thinking about what needs to be rewritten. Line editing makes me fixate on the words I have. I can feel it. I start to think “How can I make what I have right here, in front of me, work?” This encourages me to polish weak language instead of thinking “Should something else happen here?”

That’s it. I fixate on words instead of issues. I polish what I have instead of worrying about why. I can usually connect what I’m writing to what happened immediately before and immediately after, but I lose track of overarching issues and themes.

This is one of the major reasons that line-editing is one of the last steps in my editing process–I write quickly, do big-concept edits, and line-edit at the end. But even though that’s my ideal process, the fact is that I end up tidying my language for all sorts of reasons (largely so my beta readers can see what I’m doing without going blind). Also, this process falls apart when it doesn’t go completely according to plan–like now, when I was asked by an agent to do an R&R that resulted in doing substantial rewrites and edits to the first half of a novel I had already thoroughly edited last year.

So now I’m line editing some things and rewriting others, and it’s messy. Line editing tempts me to do bad things.

I need to do a better job of creating a “story encyclopedia.”

The R&R I’m working on requires changing nearly the entire beginning of the story. There are characters who appear there who have had totally different backstories tagged on, and several characters have completely different relationships. And while the events in the second half of the novel aren’t changing, the underlying details are: these are now characters who came here with a different story.

It’s tempting to say “Well, hey, I won’t have to change much because the things that happen are the same.” That’s also a lie. It’s going to change way more than the dialogue and the tension. It’s introducing insidious, tiny changes that need to bubble up everywhere.

And what I’m doing a fairly poor job of is keeping track of those details. I’ve recently started keeping an “encyclopedia,” an alphabetized list of all the proper nouns in my story. I jot down each character’s background and details–just a paragraph each. I write down the names of locations. I write down races, terms, phrases.

But I usually only realize I need to do this when I hit a spot and go, “…oh shoot, is this the Royal Observatory or the Royal University? Did I change what I said in Chapter 4?” And, sure enough, I decided to change something early on but forgot to write that down somewhere.

A really up-to-date “encyclopedia,” even if it’s only tracking things you changed during this edit, would be amazing. I’m terrible at it.

(It’s worth noting that I write fantasy, where this sort of thing is extra important. But I’m sure it’d help anyone.)

I have tried jotting down my new recurring themes on notecards, and it’s still not helping.

I’ve added a few new themes to the story that need to be echoed fairly often. There’s a refrain the main character thinks to herself. There’s an ongoing fight with one of her friends that’s tied to an event that happened before the story began. All of this stuff is new.

I currently have it on a notecard next to my writing desk, where it reminds me to PUT THESE THINGS IN THE STORY. But, because I’m doing a lot of line editing–arrrrrgh, line editing!–I end up polishing the content that’s there, which doesn’t include the new themes, and ending up with infinitely more frustrating tasks like “I should re-read chapters 1-10 again and make sure this is mentioned whenever appropriate.”

And that’s awful. Big, fundamental things like themes should really come out naturally, because I thought about the events in the scene, said “Here is what’s happening and how it ties in to this important thing” and wrote it like that on purpose. Pasting on commentary makes it feel–and read–like an afterthought.

So I clearly need to do something else: read my notecards before beginning a scene? Remind myself of the big challenges before I dive in? Put my notecard in a more visible place? Stick that thing on my friggin’ computer monitor?

Heck, maybe just writing this blog post will remind myself to do it.

In any case, editing remains rewarding–and exhausting.

Editing is really the most delightful part of the process. It’s the point where I finally, finally see my story go from something messy and disorganized into something beautiful. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Gosh, no.

So these are a few of the things I’ve been struggling with this month. I’m sure I’ll struggle with more later! Editing is complex.

6 thoughts on “Some of My Common Editing Pitfalls

    1. Thank you! It’s been an exciting time. I have no idea when I’m going to find the time to write as many blog posts, though! It’s been hard enough moving my writing time around. :)

  1. I line edit too much too. Having an encyclopedia can be really helpful! It took me a long time to realize the necessity of it. I also have trouble with themes. It’s especially annoying because often times I change it in the middle of, or even after finishing my first draft.
    PS: Congrats on your new job! Take your time on posting. We’ll wait for you.

    1. I knoooow, and usually when I finish my draft I have a hard time remembering what the current cannon is. An encyclopedia really helps (although I am, again, woefully out of date on mine.)

      And thank you! :D I’ll do my best not to vanish! You guys are the best.

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