10 Pieces of Stellar Editing Advice from Celebrated Authors

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Editing is an essential but also annoying but also highly creative part of the writing process. Just like writing a first draft, there are as many ways to go about editing a WIP as there are writers – here’s a collection of excellent writers describing their unique approaches…

#1. Your first draft is going to be shit

“I don’t write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.”

Susan Sontag, filmmaker, general badass and author of Against Interpretation

#2. Find an editing process that works for you

“What I like to do is edit a chapter before I move onto the next one… I would write 20-25 pages of a chapter in draft form, and the goal would just be to write the pages knowing that they were terrible. Some writers just keep on going, and they write the whole novel that way. But I stopped because I wanted to pay a lot of attention to the prose so I needed to make the prose as perfect as I could before I moved forward. I would just write the chapter to get the plot down and go back and revise a couple of times before I moved onto the next chapter…So I only needed to revise that draft one more time before I turned it over to my agent. Then when my editor got his hands on it we revised it one more time after that.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizera NYT bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winning novel

Gif of Maya Rudolph shrugging and saying "probably not, I don't know."

#3. Trust the process

“When I get stuck I simply move on to another point, another character, another scene, and when all the scenes are down, I begin to join them together with transition passages. It jars in the first and second and maybe third draft, but by the fourth draft it flows… the important thing is to trust in the revision process — you can never be a good writer if you don’t.”

Helon Habila, author of Travellers, Chibok Girls and Oil on Water

#4. Find the positives

“It was just such bad writing but the amazing thing was, after that was done, I had a book. Then I was just re-writing from there – and that, I loved. To me, it was like editing a movie but with the endless ability to re-shoot scenes for free. I love editing. That’s my favourite part of making a movie.”

Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man

#5. Interrogate your WIP

“I go from being kind to myself to being brutal. Every word is suspect, every sentence a potential embarrassment. Every idea has to be interrogated, every bit of dialogue examined, every scene put the to the test of “What does this contribute to the story? Why? Do I need this scene? What does it add?”  It is a very different mindset, much more punishing. I’m way grumpier when I’m editing because I’m reminded daily of how crap I am at my job until I start editing.”

Sabaa Tahir, bestselling author of YA fantasy series The Ember Quartet

Gif of Wednesday Addams smiling in a gloriously terrifying way.

#6. Leave no trace

“The best part of it all, the absolutely most delicious part, is finishing it and then doing it over. That’s the thrill of a lifetime for me: if I can just get done with that first phase and then have infinite time to fix it and change it. I rewrite a lot, over and over again, so that it looks like I never did. I try to make it look like I never touched it, and that takes a lot of time and a lot of sweat.”

Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize-winning author of Beloved, Jazz and others

#7. Kill your darlings

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Stephen King, Edgar Award-winning author of The Shining, Misery and others

#8 Edit like a stranger

“Try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.”

Zadie Smith, Womens Prize-winning author of White Teeth, On Beauty and NW

#9. Make sure every sentence earns its keep

“Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Hugo Award-winning author of Slaughterhouse Five and others

#1o. Yeet the adverbs

“You won’t need adverbs anyway. Lose them in the edit.”

Ali Smith, Orwell Prize-winning author of the Seasonal Quartet and others

Gif of a very angry man grimacing and shaking

Need more hand-holding through the editing process? Check out these things:
Blog: Redrafting vs Surface Editing
Our ultimate guide to editing, Plotstormers II
Plus you’ll find a tonne of editing resources for short fiction in Beginners’ Guide to Flash Fiction and Writing Short Fiction

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Poppy O'Neill

Poppy O'Neill

Poppy does lots behind the scenes at Writers’ HQ. She also writes nonfiction books about mental health for children and adults and reads entries for NYC Midnight. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Chichester, for which she won the Kate Betts Memorial Prize. She lives in Sussex with her wife, two children, two cats and a dog.
A happy woman sitting on a green sofa with a laptop. Lovely kitchen in the background. I'd be happy too tbh

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