How to Edit Your Book: Become a Cold-Hearted Killer

editing-red inkI hate editing. Okay, I don’t hate it…but I don’t love it as much as writing. And perhaps you feel the same way? But, if you’re a writer and you want to succeed at being one, you need to know how to edit as well as write.

The Mariana Trench-like difference between writing and editing is simple: writing requires an adrenalin-fuelled idea followed by a creative outpouring of concepts, characters, plot, scenes and story built into a rather incohesive, yet exciting and climactic journey; whereas editing is the cold-hearted, knife-wielding maniac who waits in the shadows for you to finish your book until, one day, they jump out to stand ominously over your work – whilst tutting disapprovingly at the state of it – then they unmercifully slash it apart in the hope – amongst the spilt blood n guts – it will eventually make sense.

But, how do you go from one to the other? Especially when, like me, you’d rather leave the ominous second part because it’s so damn scary…

Well, if you’re a writer, then the first part – actually writing the piece, which we shall assume is a book for our purposes here – is sorted. You just have to churn out the right amount of words and get to the end. That’s fine. But then, here comes an important bit:


That’s right. After you’ve finished the book, do a little jig, have a beer and/or a glass of wine, scream at the top of your lungs, run on-the-spot happily, go on vacation or do whatever it is you do when you’ve finished writing a book. But, whatever you do, DO NOT READ IT NOW.

This is a time for the words you have written to rest. Yes, it sounds silly, but you’ve just hammered out your book in a haze of tea, beer, whiskey, crisps, chocolate, biscuits, bacon and cheese burgers, no exercise and very little socialising…so just give those poor words a moment to chill. Ahuh, this is where you leave your book alone. Ok? That’s right. Step. Away. From. The. Book. Just put your laptop down…

Many authors prescribe a 3-month cooling-off period after you’ve written a book. That’s 3 months of locking it away and not looking at it. This is probably the perfect amount of time, except not everyone has that much time [or patience]. So, I’d say print the book out – as a cathartic OCD-type tool to show your mind it’s done –  and then leave the book for 6-8 weeks.

cooling-off-in-the-summerDon’t touch it. Go do something else, or start writing a new book. Then, when you feel it calling you to come and get it, to let it out into the light again, then go get it.

And now you’re faced with a large pile of pages – to wade through, to cut, to re-write, to move around, to add new meanings to. You now need to hone its dialogue and to generally alter the book completely from when it spilt from your brain – in a mind-vomit first draft – into something new and sparkly.

But how on Earth do you face the task ahead?

Well, this is where some brain trickery comes in. Don’t let your mind think of the entire book at once. You. Must. Break. It. Down. In. To. Bits. That’s right, editing is about literally taking one page at a time. And please never punish yourself if some days you edit 10 pages but other days you do one. Just try to do some each day, no matter how much it is. And then this will let you know you are travelling towards the end goal, the book finishing line. Yippee!

Also remember that, as you go along, you may come across some very complex plot holes, dislike a character’s traits entirely or hate an entire chapter and want to throw the book in the bin (the trash, for my American friends). This is all normal.

Have your hissy-fit and then just take your time to see each obstacle you come across as separate to the whole book and you’ll work out a solution for it. Sometimes these obstacles seem like big brick walls – and even appear ruinous to the whole book – but on these occassions just step away from editing and come back to it the next day. The problem always becomes smaller when you’ve been away from it.

flying tractorEditing, I think, is like ploughing a massive, dirty, weed-ridden, unkempt field. All you have to do – the cold-hearted killer Editor – is to put yourself into an objective word-killer mode, perhaps even imagine the words in front of you are not yours (if that helps) and then climb inside your steam-powered, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang-like flying tractor and get soaring across that field to plough away all its extraneous, dirty, horrible, pointless bits into a beautiful, straight-lined [yet varied and complex], flower-filled sunny field that everyone wants to go into and see.

But, metaphors aside and back to practicalities because, remember, for a publisher to consider you as a good writer you must have rounded characters with believable, clear flaws people can identify with. Flaws that move their personal story – as well as the bigger plot – forward. When you’re editing, make sure you see things from each character’s perspective; see the world of the book as they would. And slice their dialogue down to a snappy bare-minimum so that people want to keep reading.

Your writerly descriptions can be detailed, flowery and paint a picture of what is happening, but just make sure you edit out any words that slow your eyes down. The words must flow, they must not get in the way of telling your story…no matter how much you love that sentence that took you three hours to get right!

Cold-hearted killer Editor remember? And so, when you become that cold-hearted character from the shadows to edit your amazing, bestselling, blockbuster of a book, you will find you can actually do editing and – shock! horror! – you might even enjoy doing it.

So, writer champions. Good luck on your editing quest. And may the Red Ink be with you. x