Reflecting on Editing

I don’t usually reflect on my writing process much. I’m a big believer that if you put too much thought into something, especially creative work, then you can over-think it. Lately though I’ve thought more about my writing style and how it’s changed over the years. I guess if you plan to improve any skill, it’s important to keep track of your progress and see how it’s evolved. Maybe it’s just because it’s the end of the year, maybe it’s because I nearly have a manuscript finished, or maybe I just get more retrospective around the holidays. Either way, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how my writing style has improved over the last year or so.

Since I started really taking my writing seriously a few years back, I’m realizing that I never quite knew how to edit properly. I knew what I had used on research papers, when putting together short stories, and writing posts online; but novels are a very different animal. You have to keep a high-level perspective while you’re going through so you can maintain themes and personalities over a longer span. On the first few passes, I realize now that I was too close to it still (despite how many months I waited) to properly edit Pikes Peak.

This time around I’m adding much more. I’m rewording scenes, fixing awkward sentences, adding in character development, and describing the environment in far more detail than I had previously. For some reason on my first few passes through I didn’t realize how bare-bones the piece was. I was simply too focused on grammar and spelling; I was too distracted by the small parts to notice how much work I really had left to do. For the first time this piece is feeling really complete, and I’m really enjoying this edit more than the others.

So what changed? I don’t know if I have a satisfactory answer. I’ve been reading books differently, I know that much. Instead of just getting caught up in the world, I take the time to notice the sentence structure, the choice of perspective, and the way a scene is described. That was kind of the first step. Then I started finding a bunch of useful posts online about professional writers’ editing tactics (check out a few of my recent posts for some examples, like Revision Roadmap and Subplottin’). Around the beginning of this year I also bit the bullet and posted a few sections to the critique group on Scribophile. It showed me some major flaws in my writing method that I hadn’t even considered before, some bad habits I picked up over the years, and really just some fresh perspective on it. They weren’t problems I couldn’t fix overnight, but slowly I’ve used that feedback to help my writing style. I’m more conscious of repetition, word choice, pronouns (always my bane), and carefully crafting action scenes.

I look back on my work from last year or even two years ago and I’m noticing a huge difference. I pick out grammar problems pretty quick and I can also give you a piece’s strengths and weaknesses. You have to actively try to improve your writing and that takes time, but I guess that’s the case for any discipline. I feel like I’m getting closer to my writing goals though and that is a wonderful feeling.

The next step? Learning to cut out the weaknesses in any piece (despite how much I love it the way it is) and pump up its strengths. I suppose that’s where the ‘kill your darlings’ advice comes in, and although I wouldn’t consider them my darlings exactly, I’m still guilty of spoiling them. I’ll make excuses for why I don’t cut a subplot out or why I don’t rework a particular plot I like despite it making a story more convoluted. Writing isn’t just about putting words down on paper, it’s also about what you don’t put down. It’s a lesson I’m still grappling with.

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