10 December 2014

An editing secret


Today I had a conversation with my developmental editor, Diane, about a short story I've been working on for a while. A few observations about that conversation:
  •  While discussing the intelligent, compassionate and constructive feedback I received from several different readers, I experienced a range of emotions: frustration, impatience, disappointment, confusion, anger. Not because the feedback was negative or discouraging but because something in me rebelled against the directions they were pushing me to go. They had some excellent points, but some of their suggestions didn't feel right.
  • "If you've written the story as well as you possibly can," said Diane at one point, "then you're done." Given another ten (or twenty or hundred) years, I'm sure I could write the story better. I could even spend another 20 hours this month playing around with structure and point of view and experimenting with expanding it in certain ways. But that's not what I want for myself. I don't want to even spend another 10 hours on this story. I want to finish this story in another three or four hours tops and move on to other things because I've already given it quite a lot of time, attention and brain space.
  • Then Diane articulated quite clearly the core of the story - also sometimes called "the center of gravity" or the "theme" - and light bulbs went off in my head. Suddenly I understood what the problem was and saw how to fix it. Hallelujah! (Well, I think. I'm going to revise the story on that assumption and run it by Diane again to see if that fixes it.)

This led us to a discussion about my approach to editing in response to developmental feedback, which I realized I wanted to share here with you.
My editing secret
In my experience, if something in the manuscript isn't working, the quickest and easiest solution is often also the most elegant. Many people think that to make a story better you need to add more to it. Sometimes this is indeed the case, but my approach is to first consider what I can take out that might solve the problem I'm having.

My process is:
1) Have a clear idea of the story's narrative arc and center of gravity;
2) With the help of a developmental editor and/or beta readers, identify what's not working about the story;
3) Think of the quickest and easiest way to solve the problem, which may mean deleting something.

Really, that's it. Quite simple. It saves time and energy and allows me to move on to one or more of the other million ideas knocking around in my brain.

This is also, incidentally, the way I approach developmental editing for my clients; I articulate for them what I perceive the problems to be (as well as the story's strengths, of course!) and suggest one or two possible solutions, including the quickest and easiest solution. 

Of course the quickest and easiest solution might not always be the best one; it's important too to listen to my gut instinct about the story. For example, a particular object in the story raised a whole bunch of questions for one reader that weren't answered, which left her feeling slightly unsatisfied. I considered taking the object out, but that wasn't the right approach in this case.

Nine times out of ten, though, I've found I can solve the writing problem by cutting something out or adding just one sentence or even half a sentence.


  1. Great info here, Sione. I'm glad you figured out what had you stuck. 😄 I'd love to read it when you've published. Or beta... 😚

  2. It's amazing how just a sentence here or there can fix a problem that feels big and unwieldy. The first bullet point, too, is a lesson for readers: it's important to stress where we're "bumping" (what feels off) and then leave it to the author to fix how they see fit (though sometimes I'll make suggestions). I'm not always good at this as a reader but as an editor, too, I try to be. Great post. Good luck with this one <3