Creating content is only half the battle. If you want your ideas to stand out, you need to schedule time to edit your work before you press Post.
Perhaps the most famous editing advice ever given is:
“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
Usually people attribute this to William Faulkner, who did indeed say it. But so did many other people.
My favorite variation on this theme comes from Stephen King. I’ve never read his novels, but I found his book On Writing: A memoir of the craft wise and witty. In it, King wrote
“…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
I love King’s formulation of this advice because in it I hear the frustration of both the writer asked to hit “delete” and the editor who recognizes the (temporary) narcissism of a writer admiring the creation. And of course all good writers must have both writer and editor living inside them. The trick is to know which one to unleash, and when.
An editor surveying King’s advice might itch to red-line the two extra iterations of “kill your darlings.” (They are a bit much.) The writer will recognize that repeating the words doesn’t convey additional information, but the poet inside the writer will take a stand for the words: Because they convey emotion. And words that can do that are golden. They keep your reader or listener engaged; in fact, they deepen that engagement.
Still, editors have more objectivity than we do. So if you’re lucky enough to work with an external editor (i.e., one who doesn’t live inside your head), try to pay attention to their reasoning. Sometimes they see our work better than we do.
If you’re editing yourself, as all of us do in our early drafts, you may have to manufacture some objectivity. Put the work away for a day, two days—a week if you can—and then go back to edit.
Practical editing advice: When, how, what
Did I just say “Go back to edit”? Yes, writing and editing use separate parts of your brain, so don’t try to do them both at once.
Write first. Write as much as you can—the whole draft, if possible. Don’t look back until you’re done. If you edit as you go, you won’t get very far. Oh, you might have a killer opening line, a brilliant first paragraph. But if that paragraph doesn’t lead to others and, eventually, to an equally brilliant closing paragraph, then no one will see that brilliance because you’ll never finish the work.
You can find lots of English teacher-y advice on how to edit a sentence. So let’s look at the bigger picture—your piece as a whole.
With each paragraph, each sentence, each phrase, ask yourself:
- Is it redundant?
- Does it contain emotion or other hooks (like humor) to engage the reader?
- Does it move the story forward?
And make no mistake about it—you are telling a story, at least if you want people to remember what you have to say. So make sure every passage drives the story. If it doesn’t, then highlight, copy and…
Relocate your darlings
You don’t have to hit “delete.” You don’t have to “kill your darlings.” I prefer to relocate them instead.
So I copy and paste things into an “Outtakes” document. That way the writer in me knows my brilliant prose is safe, and I can maintain the fiction that it’ll come in handy somewhere else. In 25 years of writing, I don’t think I’ve ever rescued something from the Outtakes file. But I could if I wanted to, and knowing that makes it so much easier to edit.
If you’re writing for yourself, these guidelines will serve you well.
How much time should I spend on editing?
Don’t obsess. Imperfectly finished beats perfectly unfinished every time.
But make sure that editing doesn’t become a form of procrastination. Because at some point, you’re going to have to “ship,” as Seth Godin says.
Do you? If you’re writing for your own pleasure, fine—keep it locked up in a drawer for the guy at the used furniture store to find, if you want. You’ll acquire a posthumous reputation. You and Emily Dickinson can swap stories about writing over tea in the Great Hereafter.
But if you’re writing to move people, you have to let people read it.
Start small. No—not with your family. Start with people whose opinions you value, whose writing you respect. Join a writing group—in-person or online. Take a writing class. Find an environment where you feel safe and share your work. You don’t have to take their reactions as gospel, but they’ll give you a good idea of where you stand. And they might even like your work more than you do. When they compliment you, don’t swat it away with, “I can do better.” Say two words: “Thank you.” And then shut up and let the compliments sink in. Because you’ve earned them.
You’ve probably also earned some criticism. And that’s okay too; it’s just part of the circle of writing life.
Learn to hear and accept constructive criticism. And yes, I know that’s always easier to type than it is to do.
Writing for clients makes it remarkably easy for me to accept comments and edits. Because I’m very clear that it’s their work, not mine. And that’s bled over into my own writing as well. Mostly I’m able to hear comments as helpful suggestions, not as thinly veiled hints that I’m the worst writer in the world.
But the question we started with was how long should a writer spend on editing?
That depends on what you’re editing. An hour may be about right for a long blog post; it’s certainly too short for a book.
Sometimes when we fuss over a piece of copy like it’s the Thanksgiving chicken, we take something pretty good and turn it, word by precious word, into crap. (That’s a technical writing term there.)
Sometimes you need someone to gently remove the pen from your hand, or lovingly pry your fingers from the keyboard and say, “Let it rest.”
Now, I admit that when it’s my work—when I have to prepare a bio for a pitch or give a speech—yes, you will sometimes find me up at three in the morning, searching for that just-right word. I have been known to rehearse a speech so hard that I barely have any voice left with which to give it.
Which is to say: I know both sides of this editing thing. My advice comes from hard-won experience. So I hope you’ll take it; I’ll certainly try to.
The most important thing is to write.
The second most important is to accept that your writing will hardly ever be perfect.
The third most important thing is to know that, and let people read it anyway.