Editing is basically the undesirable step-child of writing; ugly, uncouth, a little more violent than you’d like, and rarely discussed in polite company. When you write, you have to love your ideas, but when you edit, you can’t love everything or you won’t be able to brush away the clutter to reveal a landscape of clear, strong thoughts.
I am revising my screenplay right now. To do it well, I have to be able to read a scene and say things to myself like “Nothing interesting happens in this scene. Whoever wrote this scene was a very boring person. Good thing I’m here to clean up the mess.” I couldn’t be that honest if my ego were sitting in my lap, sobbing and choking out the phrase “I THOUGHT WE WERE SPECIAL.”
Here are three tactics to kick your whimpering ego out of your lap for the editing process– use one, use two, create a hybrid of all three– I usually need all of them to get it done, but you might be smarter than me and just need one. Check it:
1. Start Something Better
Egos are flighty creatures with no loyalty. Your self-esteem is a desperate trend-chaser and a heartless gossip that only cares about the most recent thing in your life. Anyone who’s had the confidence they earned over 10 years of hard work erased by a single failure knows this– and anyone who’s had 10 years of failure forgotten in the thrill of a single moment of triumph knows it, too.
The good news? You can get your ego out of your edit just by distracting it with something shiny and new. Start a new project– don’t put a lot of time into it, and certainly not enough time that the work starts to get difficult– stay in the honeymoon phase. Write the exhilarating first chapter of your mystery novel where they discover the body. Start outlining your webseries, or translate just the one verse from that epic French poem you’re in love with.
Your ego will attach itself to the new project, investing itself in the sure success of that next idea. It will forget about the “old” project, which you’re now free to start editing, without the pressure of having your whole ego riding on every decision you make. Cut a line or a chapter? No biggie. That sub-plot sucks and should be jettisoned? “Whatever,” the ego will cry, “I don’t need to hear the blow-by-blow, nothing you do to that old, tired project can hurt me anymore– just get it done so we can go do something fun.”
2. Do Your Blurbs
Marketing is a beast for any creative person, but thinking about how to market your piece can actually help you focus at the start of the editing process, when you’ve finished a draft and need to get mercenary about what to cut.
Zoom out to a panoramic view of what you’ve just finished writing. Pretend that you are your own agent or manager, and try to pitch this work. Write a cover letter, do a logline, write the blurbs for the press release. “It’s a darkly comic tale about a neurotic postman who gets eaten by his dog.” Okay, great.
Now, walk away from the project for a minute, or ideally for about two weeks, and let yourself forget the details of what you wrote and why. In that time, try to read a lot of stuff, see a lot of stuff; don’t talk about the project, don’t explain it to anyone; if a friend asks, just say it is going well and you are revising it, then ask them about their love life or their kid.
When two weeks are up, sit down and read the blurbs, read the press release, read the pitch– and then try to read the work itself as though that pitch or cover letter were all you knew about it. Pretend to read it like a stranger who’s been loosely enticed by the hype.
Did it live up to your expectations, exceed them, disappoint you? Are you left thinking “If it’s a comedy, why do we have that whole melancholic flashback section about the grandma’s experiences in WWII?” As a reader, what might your questions be?
If the project doesn’t match the way your imaginary agent described it… how would you describe it more accurately now? Which do you like better, the old or the new description? Cool. Now, sit down with your book or your script or whatever you’ve written, and cut and revise and cut again until what’s left feels exactly like the project you’ve described. (The worst is behind you; you’ve admitted not everything in your text is perfect, and if you want this to live up to your expectations, something will have to go.)
The idea here isn’t to make sure your work is marketable– it’s to make sure that what you’ve written is what you want to have written.
Your ego would rather gnaw off its leg than be trapped by failure, so if you convince it that you need to edit to succeed at achieving your specific (and now very clear) vision for your result, it will let you cut the work.
3. Use The Number
If zooming out to a panorama doesn’t feel right, try zooming in. We’re talking about putting the text under a microscope, and working upwards from the details of word choice– words are the atomic structure, and if you cut or alter enough of them individually or in clusters, you’ll have tricked yourself into editing your whole piece.
Give yourself a number– a cold, unforgiving number, one that you can’t bargain with or sweet-talk your way out of. “I want this story to be 6 pages long,” or “60 pages,” or “I want this to be no more than half as long as the last script I wrote.” Try to aim for something just slightly shorter than you’re really comfortable with.
My favorite number is “I need to cut exactly 20% from the current word count.” By losing 20%, you won’t topple your structure by accidentally gutting your foundation… but when you’re done, you’ll probably feel a difference across the whole project, not just in an isolated zone. (I’ll often take 20% away, and then if the remaining product is anything but totally brilliant, I’ll take another 20% and see if that helps.)
Once you’re working with a number, editing becomes more like a game– you get to play with what stays and what goes, almost like chess. “I need to cut one out of every five words, so if I cut this word, I could keep that one…” or “Ooh, I can get rid of this whole section about the dog’s fleas, which means I won’t have to take anything out of the grandmother’s flashback sequence!”
It makes the choices discrete and specific– no matter how much you love listening to the sound of your writing voice, choosing between cutting that word or this one is always a do-able bargain. When you go by the numbers, you’re constantly telling your ego “Yes, this has to go, but if we get rid of it we can keep that other thing which you love so much,” which is a very powerful and comforting pacifier.
So, if you’re staring at a draft and are having trouble gearing yourself up to take a hatchet to your carefully constructed work… start something better, and/or do your blurbs, and/or use the number. I’m hands-on with these techniques in the trenches, on the daily, and I’ll keep using them until I find better ones. I invented these because I didn’t have anything, and I can’t promise they’ll save your life or your novella, but I can promise you pretty dang confidently that they are better than nothing.
Those are some thoughts on how to cut, which is the first step. Now as for what exactly to cut… and how you can tell what to cut and what to keep… I think we’re all natural born editors, but that’ll have to wait for my next post.
Xoxo – Megan