When you finish a piece of writing, whether it’s short fiction or a novel, you’re often at a point where you can no longer see the story. You’ve picked out all the inconsistencies and plot holes and loose ends you remember, and now you’re holding something which looks – dare we say it – perfect. Except that you know it isn’t. It can’t be. You’ve just been staring at the piece for so long that you can’t get any kind of objectivity. So how do you get the distance you need to really hone your story?
Firstly, put it away for a bit. This is absolutely standard advice, but worth repeating. Don’t look at it for a few weeks, and when you pick it up again, read it like a reader. Don’t stop for little grammar errors or slightly less than beautiful phrasing. This is an overview read – is your story working? Are there any bits that drag, or feel repetitious? Are the character arcs well-defined, building to a series of changes that are clearly portrayed? Is the plot satisfying, plausible, and inevitable? To facilitate objectivity here, try printing out your work. It’s astonishing how many problems are clearly visible on the printed page but completely invisible when scrolling by on a screen. Changing the font has a similar effect.
Secondly, have you had anyone read it? Have you talked about it to other writers, or keen readers of your genre? You need critique, and you need it at every stage. That could be in the form of a detailed read by someone you trust and who will be honest with you, or it could be in the form of a discussion with a friend about the mechanisms of your plot or the motivations of your characters. An honest perspective from someone well-informed will help you get that objectivity you need.
Thirdly, don’t underestimate your own knowledge. If you’ve just had comments back from a reader, I’m willing to bet that you already had some doubts about those parts of your story that have been flagged. A lot of editing is trusting your gut. If you have wondered, on and off, whether that element of your plot is really strong enough to support that thing that happens at your midpoint twist, it probably isn’t. Sorry. You know how to write, and you know what a good story looks and reads like, and you knew that wasn’t it. This is good news. Open up those fears and catalogue them: follow them up, because you likely already know the answers to the problems. You just didn’t want to look at them before now.
Finally, go back to your notes. Look back at your plan for the piece. If it’s a novel, and you’re a planner, you probably mapped out its course and the arcs of its characters. You will not have followed this plan to the letter, because you’re human and stories are alive and all the better for random inspiration, but your plan could help flag up where you’ve not fully realised an element of your story, or where things have got lost or forgotten. Check the very basics: does everyone want something? Does everyone change? Does every character have their own (no matter how tiny) story, rather than existing solely to facilitate your protagonist’s development? If you used a course like Plotstormers to plan your novel, you can go back and re-run the course, checking it against your manuscript – or there’s always Plotstormers II: The Edit, for a thorough step-by-step guide to deconstructing and reconstructing your story.
Once you’ve printed, re-read, sought critique, checked your original plans against your manuscript, searched your soul, and agreed that yes, there are things that need fixing and yes, maybe you yourself have some of the answers already, you’re ready to start on the spadework. Make notes, and lots of them. Don’t be neat. Draw if necessary. Connect Post-Its with bits of string and make a corkboard that would be at home in a conspiracy theorist’s basement. Don’t feel you have to have all the answers. Ask questions. What if Sophie committed the dognapping? What if Mo sabotages the phone line? Let it flow without interruption. Editing is a creative act, a sister to drafting: it’s not polishing, it’s re-imagining. The objectivity will help you to focus that creative lens on the problem areas, but once you know what you need to fix, you can invite creativity back in, with its mysterious, boys-in-the-back-room modus operandi. Your questions are prompts to your writing mind, which will start once again to whir away in the background, spitting out ideas at really convenient moments like when you’re just about to go to sleep.
And now, the hard work starts. You lift your hands and begin, hesitantly, to disassemble the thing you have worked so hard to make. There’s a point somewhere in the middle of a book edit where it starts to feel like doing a French plait for a gorgon: this is the worst point. Stick with it. The story you will emerge with will be stronger for your hard work and objectivity, for your willingness to override your ego and your fears and face the work honestly. And you will have mastered a new art: the mysterious, hard-won art of the edit.