Writing Wrongs & Righting Writes

By now it’s been well established, mostly by me, that writing fucking sucks. It’s a horrible, wonderful, horrible way to spend your time.

But editing, holy fucking shit. Editing is the worst.

Trying to decide what words to cut out is harder than trying to hold down a job.

The other day on Twitter a friend asked me how to cut their word count, "the copy is too good to let go,“ they said.

Now I hadn’t read this copy, so I can’t judge, but in my experience this is the first mistake most writers make when editing; believing your words are any good.

"You’re rarely as witty as you think you are,” I @replied. “And at least half as brilliant.”

I was half joking when I said it, but also at least 60% serious. It may sound harsh but objectivity is the key.

That’s why I recommend leaving your manuscript in a drawer for so long you forget you wrote it. Or giving it to a lawyer and having it delivered to you at midnight, 12 years from now, by the side of the road in a small town you’ve never been to before.

Farfetched maybe, but the point is that you should be able to look at it with fresh eyes and say to yourself, without any doubt, “what a piece of fucking shit.”

Then you start cutting words.

“Shoot them all,” I told me friend, “play a game of ‘how many words can I take away and still be saying the same thing?’”

Why use five words when you can use one. Why have five punchlines when brevity is the essence of wit.

That is the point of editing; focus.

Like burning ants, you need to get that magnifying glass in just the right place to set those fuckers alight.

Say less. Say as little as possible. As long as your point survives, you win.

As for being funny. Don’t. You’re not. Anyone who tries to be funny is setting themselves up for failure (this blog, for example).

Funny is overrated. The real trick is to be honest.

Hemingway said 'all you need to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’

Read your manuscript again and highlight the truth in each passage. Cut out everything else until all you’ve got is honesty. And not just because Hemingway said so.

Truth is funnier than any joke you can tell. Injecting a healthy dose of honesty will make your manuscript more hilarious, more heart-breaking, and more poignant than by trying to force it in.

And if you’ve simply got to keep a darling in there, if you need to save your favourites, then - like a literary Sophie’s Choice - save one.

Now all you’ve got to do is make sure that your plot structure works, all your character arcs are fully developed, all the scenes take place where they need to, the dialogue doesn’t all sound the same and there are no continuity errors.


How do you approach editing? Leave me a comment!

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Put your novel away & stop writing

You’ve just finished writing your novel. Now what? Get drunk. Get sober. Leave the house. Whatever you do, stop writing.

Lock that piece of shit in a drawer and forget about it for a few weeks/months/years/ever.

The first feedback you need is your own, but at this point you’re too close to read your work objectively. So walk away. Run away. Screaming, preferably.

It’s necessary to get some distance and clarity. No one’s expecting you to get dressed, but maybe put a dressing gown on at least. Maybe order a White Russian.

Use the downtime to read fiction in the same genre as your novel, or even better, immerse yourself in something completely different.

Read non-fiction, newspapers, tweets. Start a band. Start a drug. I spent the four months between first and second draft of my current project building a social media ecosystem for my nonsense talk. But fuck me and my plans.

Once you’ve had a decent break, pick up your novel and a pen and do an objective read, by which I mean slaughter that bloated crap-fest like a retreating native. 

Be ruthless. The old editor’s saying is “kill your children” for a reason - you need to cut out words like you’re a unhinged drug addicted mother drowning her babies in a tub. Except, you know, with feelings.

Check your structure. Pull it apart chapter-by-chapter, paragraph-by-paragraph, line-by-grammar-defying-line. Does it need to be there? Is it in the right place? Can you say the exact same thing with far fewer words?

The answer to that last question is invariably yes, so cut some fucking words out and stop giggling at your own cleverness you self-congratulatory prick. (Harsh, but fair).

Less is more. Choose your words wisely. If you’ve spent ten pages describing the grass, fuck you.

Once you’ve had another pass at it, the next step is to have someone read it for you. There are several ways to do this;

Friends. You can ask your friends, if you have them, to read your novel. I wouldn’t recommend it. Your friends are assholes waiting to happen, and have absolutely no fucking idea what they’re talking about. 

Join a writers group. Use to find other writers in your area. Find writers of a similar level and experience to trade feedback with. Critiquing other abominations will make you a better writer.

Record a reading. Gather a group of friends and assign one as the narrator, and divide parts between the others. If it’s a first person story, read it into a dictaphone, and play it back. 

You’ll be surprised at how fucking terrible the words will sound being read back to you. 

Take on the feedback, draft some more, repeat the process. Drafting and editing takes time. Try and rush and you risk being rejected. You know, even more than usual.

As author Nathan Farrugia said in his recent Momentum blog post about editing, your novel needs to be 99% ready by the time it lands on the publisher’s desk.

As eager as you are for the world to read your work right now, a little patience is prudent.

And if you haven’t got any patience, then at least have a little self-respect. The world already thinks you’re an asshole for even trying to write. Don’t give them fuel.

Got any second draft tips to share? Offended by anything you’ve read here? Leave a comment!

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