Edits are Murder

Since writers are notorious for giving others advice, I thought it would be fun to dig up some of the most recycled tidbits on writing and share my thoughts with you. Not because I’m an expert. Not at all, but well, I covered all that self-deprecating stuff in my first post.

Today, I have a piece of advice from an incredibly prolific author who’s given us a zillion one-liners to chew on. This is a personal favorite.

Stephen King just kind of says it, doesn’t he? He’s good at that. And he’d better be with all that editing-is-like-murder business. But, I absolutely agree with him. And the longer I write, the more I appreciate this point of view. In fact, it’s increasingly difficult for me to turn off my internal editor now and simply read a book. I’m always editing other authors. Something I’m sure they appreciate. It’s okay; I know they’re doing the same to my books.

The liberating, albeit terrifying, truth is this: it’s not only the writing of a story that makes your stuff uniquely you, it’s also the ruthlessness with which you edit.

You should be overjoyed by this fact. It means that if you’re true to yourself and true to the process, your story will be unlike anything anyone else is creating. I know the crushing pressure to churn things out quickly. The haunting terror that someone, somewhere has already thought of all your ideas and written all your stories. It’s not true. It can’t be. Your voice is distinct, but so is that internal editor of yours. Find freedom in that.

There are ways to lessen the pain of editing, but one more thought before we go there. That phrase Stephen King uses, bare essentials, is entirely subjective. There are books that meander more than others, stories that do not walk directly from A to B. There are authors who set out to lead you on a delicious, slowly unfolding stroll. I think of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy and The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater. In each of these books, there are scenes that could have been sacrificed for pacing. But during the editing process, the authors decided those words were essential. And, honestly, who are we to argue?

What I’m trying to say is that regardless of a story’s pace or word count, every good author cuts. They delete. They whip out their almighty hatchet and they swing it. A well-edited manuscript is not necessarily a manuscript void of description and full of short sentences. A well-edited manuscript is one that uses only the words necessary to tell the story trapped inside the author’s head. But necessary is entirely a matter of style and preference.

That said, most of us meander more than we should. We need to unshackle our inner editor. The good news is that once you get a taste for hacking up a manuscript, there’s something very addicting about the whole bloody thing.

But it can be painful. As the mother of two, I’m not convinced it approaches the despair of murdering children, but for the sentimental author, it can be a lot like shooting paintballs at puppies. And that is quite painful enough.

Here are a few ways to dull the pain:

1. Consciously celebrate this stage of the writing process. Treat yourself to a slice of cake and a balloon bouquet. You have drafted a novel. Being IN EDITS means you’ve accomplished something only a fraction of us ever will. YOU WROTE A BOOK! You now have the privilege of brandishing your shiny new machete and hacking it to bits. You’re in an enviable place. Let yourself appreciate that for a moment.

2. Stop monitoring your word count. You did that all the way through the drafting process. You posted it on Twitter and all your followers squeed! I’m glad. Truly. We need others on this solitary journey of ours. But, now, stop watching those numbers. They will fall. You will lose a few brave soldiers, but this is war. Keep your head down and your eyes on your own work. It doesn’t matter that Suzy Floozy just tweeted out her impossible word count. What matters is that you’re past that now. You’ve been promoted. YOU GET TO EDIT!

3. Keep what you cut. Not everything. Not the four billion adverbs you used. Strike those down and move on. But if you’re cutting the bulk of a chapter, keep it. When I’m editing, I have two Word documents open. One is my manuscript and the other is called CUTS. Whenever I decide to scrap a large portion of text, I cut and paste it into this other document. There are three reasons I do this. One, like you, I can get attached to my darlings and I don’t like to vanish them entirely. Even if I don’t use the actual words, I may need to reference them again. It’s good to keep them close at hand. The second reason is vanity. I like to see how glorious a word slasher I’ve been. For example, my current manuscript has about 80k words that I’m almost certain I’ll keep. But, on my CUTS document, there are over 15k words. I wrote those words. They cost me time and energy and they moved my writing forward. They taught me what WON’T work and that’s just as important as what will. And finally, I save what I cut because some of it may work as an ‘Extra’ later. Once my book is published (optimism, people!), I’ll have pages of deleted scenes that I can share with readers during the marketing effort. This saves me from having to generate new material down the road.

So those are my thoughts on Stephen King’s advice. What are yours? How do you dull the pain of cutting the excess fat?


Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes Trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a focus on youth and young adult ministry. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California.

ANGEL EYES was Shannon’s debut novel and the launch of a young adult supernatural trilogy. It was published in the summer of 2012 by Thomas Nelson. The sequel BROKEN WINGS hit shelves in February, 2013 and the final novel in the trilogy, DARK HALO, was available August 20, 2013. Shannon is currently at work on a new YA novel.

Shannon is represented by Holly Root of the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency and is an active member of Inspire Christian Writers of Sacramento.

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