How To Edit Your Manuscript, According To The Advice Of 11 Famous Authors
So you've written a thing. First of all, take a moment to congratulate yourself. Take a break. Live a little. Pop open a bottle of champagne or something sparkly. And then sit right back down at your desk, because your work isn't even half over. Letting the words flow freely and getting a first draft done is an excellent, necessary first step, but it's just the beginning.
Or, as Ernest Hemingway allegedly once put it, "Write drunk, edit sober."
Intoxication aside, the spirit of Hemingway's words are vital for any writer: write freely, without judging yourself. Get a whole draft, or a chapter, or at least a paragraph on the page. Then, in the cold gray light of dawn... look at what you've written, and put your "judgment" hat back on.
That's not to say that you have to be too hard on yourself when you sit down to start the editing process. Joyce Carol Oates says that you ought to "be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!" Zadie Smith goes a little further, suggesting that you should "try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would."
But if the thought of reading and then editing your own words has you shaking in your boots (or in those pajamas that you've been wearing all day long), here are a few more tips from famous authors to guide you through your first round of self-editing fiction.
Before you get into the nitty gritty of editing, though, I do mean it about taking a break. If you go straight from writing to re-writing without a chance to breathe, you won't be especially productive. Coming to your work with fresh eyes will help you pretend you've never read this piece of writing before, when really you've been slaving over it for months.
In addition to reading your own writing from an enemy perspective, Zadie Smith encourages all writers to step back from their work: "When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second—put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal—but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle."
That doesn't mean that you're not allowed to think about your manuscript for an entire year. Many writers actually find it helpful to mentally plan out plots and revisions while they're occupied with menial, low-concentration tasks, like showering or walking around town. According to Agatha Christie, “The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes.”
So let's say that you've already stepped away from the vehicle. You've taken a little time apart from your manuscript, and now you've been joyously reunited, both ready for rewriting. What now?
If you want to take the advice of Anton Chekhov, you should start by going through what you've written, and making sure that you are following the cardinal rule of showing and not telling the story. As he puts it: "In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball."
Like all writing "rules," you can certainly get around it here and there. But for the most part, your reader does not what to hear you talk about what happened and where and when. They want to feel as though they've been dropped into a fictional world, broken glass and all.
Most authors would also have you pay attention to your adverb and adjective usage at this stage. Mark Twain's apocryphal advice is to “substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Stephen King offers the simple axiom that "the road to hell is paved with adverbs."
For Amy Tan, though, it's most vital to go through your writing and make note of any clichés. It's fine to take inspiration from another authors' style, but make sure that your own voice is still shining through: “Avoid cliches, avoid generalizations, find your own voice, show compassion, and ask the important questions.”
So your manuscript is now scrubbed clean of unnecessary adverbs, "very"s, clichés, and inauthentic stylistic choices. Surely, there is nothing else you can possibly cut from your precious baby manuscript, into which you have poured your heart, soul, and copious amounts of your free time?
Kurt Vonnegut disagrees. He says that, “Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”
Killing your darlings is an unfortunate stage of the editing process. But on the one hand, you're left with a leaner, cleaner, more readable piece of writing. And on the other hand...
You don't really have to follow any of this advice. Neil Gaiman has an important reminder for us all, when it comes to taking rewrite advice from anyone: "Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."
Use your own judgment when it comes to which editing truisms you choose to apply. Above all, remember to keep going. Keep writing. Keep editing that rough, rough draft until you start to glimpse the more polished piece of writing hidden deep within. In the words of Octavia E. Butler: "You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence."