From Writing Tips

Editing Challenge Day 30: Have the Courage Not to Be Done

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

You made it, writers! You’ve gotten to the end of the marathon! Here we are, on the very last day of our thirty-day editing challenge. Did you go all the way? Did you try to do a little editing every day, even if it wasn’t exactly the tip I prescribed? I’d love to hear what your editing process has looked like in the past month. Send me a note on Twitter @bhurley to tell me how things went. Are you proud of the story you’ve created? Are you surprised by what form it ultimately took? Are you inspired to create new spin-off stories, using the characters that were jettisoned? Tell me all about it.

I want to conclude this project with just a few thoughts about where to go from here. One teacher of mine, who offered some of the most helpful advice I’ve heard about editing, finished his talk by saying that at the end of all the exhausting work, you must be willing not to be done. So many budding writers get tired and then get frozen. They stop seeing things that could be changed in their work; they give up. They think the work is as good as it can be and that’s that and now it will sink or float the way it is. This period of fatalism is often followed by a flurry of sending the story out and having it get rejected. That’s when most people quit. They can even get bitter at this very delicate stage, and start blaming politics or the environment at literary magazines or whatnot. There are many reasons to be frustrated about the system and the way it works, but I think that’s a separate conversation from whether your work can be made better. And the truth is that the writers who succeed are the ones who have the courage not to be done.

It means being willing to pull that story out of the drawer, maybe right after it has received a disheartening rejection, and think about ways it could be changed. It means being open to radical changes even way down the track, even if you’ve had your heart set on one particular ending for weeks, months, years. It means being open to possibility, and to the wonders of your own talent and ability and hard work.

So today, on our very last day of our editing challenge, I’m asking you to do one more thing: to not be done. To revisit that story and other stories as many times as is necessary. To examine and re-examine and find ways to shake up your thinking so that you don’t fall into old rutted grooves. Print out the story in a different font or color. Make a game of cutting words. Read it aloud. Have a friend or partner read it aloud to you. De-construct it and build it again. Make it work. Keep working even after the joy is gone; push through the sweat and tears; take a break, recover your energies, and do it all over again. Do not be done until you feel deeply and firmly that the story is better than anything you’ve ever written, and that it’s ready to go out the door. And even then, read it once more, and find that one typo that has hidden in a sentence through twenty drafts. Read it one final time, and be proud of what you’ve created.

Editing Challenge Day 29: Read it Aloud

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

For our second-to-last day of editing, writers, we’re going back to one of the most tried-and-true tricks of editing. This is a technique that everyone agrees on: nothing is better for identifying awkwardness or weak phrasings or logical inconsistencies or dull bits or just about any other weakness in writing. This trick is why professional writers about to read from their published books can often be seen with pen in hand, hastily crossing things out in their printed books because they now know it won’t sound right.

So today, your job is easy: just find a quiet place, whether it’s out in the garden or in your bathroom; get somewhere where you won’t feel self-conscious, and no one else is listening.

And read that thing out loud.

Sound mortifying? That’s exactly why it must be done. You must be confident enough in your work to be proud of how it sounds, or for it to be at least tolerable to hear. If even you can’t bear listening, then how do you expect anyone else to want to listen to it?

The great thing about reading aloud is that sentences that are awkwardly phrased or unclear jump immediately to the fore. Now something that you could skim over with your eyes becomes clunky in your mouth. Now you can hear where your prose sings and where it squawks.

Good luck, writers. Have fun; enjoy yourself. The other great thing about reading aloud is that it isn’t only shaming; it’s an occasion to feel proud of the sentences you’ve created as well.

Editing Challenge Day 28: Type it Up, But Not the Way You Think

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It’s almost done! All those changes you’ve diligently been making, whether as red-pen scribbles on your printout, or as bleary-eyed typings on your computer, will all come to fruition very soon. Remember that victory goes to the editor who does not rest too soon. More on this tomorrow.

Today you’re going to do a very simple task — but it’s not quite what you think. You are going to type up the changes you’ve made. But you are not simply going to key in the little cuts and pastes that you’ve made into the existing document. Oh, no. This is a trick I learned from a teacher of mine, and though it sounds a little obsessive, I found there’s nothing better for making your writing more special, more vivid, and more amazing.

So here’s what you must do: create a brand new, blank document. Name it what you like: this is going to be the real, authoritative version of your story. If you’ve been making edits all month on the hard copy, you will now start to type up the new version of the story by hand. If you have been making changes to the document on your computer, open up that document side by side with the blank one and start to type up the new version of the story by hand. No cutting and pasting is allowed; no easy duplication. You must physically re-create the story. You must type the whole darn thing for yourself as though it were new.

The reason? You’ll discover that if you’re having to create the story from scratch, it sets up one more barrier to prevent bad or mediocre work from slipping through. That passage that was a little redundant but you’d let slide anyway? Now you will not let it make its way into the new document. Every sentence must now pass one more test of acceptability and general awesomeness.

It sounds arduous. But each time I’ve drawn a big sigh and been willing to do this, it has immensely improved my story. If it is that reliable an editing technique, then why not try it?

Editing Challenge Day 27: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

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This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

WE’RE ALMOST AT THE END OF THE JOURNEY. By this point you’ve re-thought and re-written and re-envisioned; you’ve cut and cut and cut some more; you’ve written back whole scenes that needed replacing. You might start feeling that you’ve lost sight of the whole beautiful creature that is your story. It might be feeling more like the Frankenstein monster at this point: an ungainly stitched together hodgepodge of parts.

So today, it’s time for some healing, as well as for going back over the story and returning to the fundamentals. You’ve cut on a sentence level, for example, and on a scene level, and you’ve probably re-written or added in entirely new scenes to make up for what you’ve lost. But now those new scenes and passages have first-draft-itis all over again. You’re going to have to repeat the process, slimming and trimming and re-focusing.

Say that on an earlier day, you realized you needed more development of a character’s background. You wrote a whole new scene of that character as a child. But now that scene is just as suspect as scenes you have written in the past. Does it further the story? Is it full of wordy phrasings? Does it carry emotional risk? Subject your new edits and additions to the same scrutiny that you subjected the first draft to.

It may sound boring, but we’re almost at the end of the marathon, writers. You want every passage in your story to be held up to the same high standard, and for scenes to feel like they flow from one to the next, not that they’ve been awkwardly stitched together to fix problems and plot holes. So lather, rinse, and repeat today — make sure all the new stuff you’ve added is just as polished as the old stuff that survived the culling.

Editing Challenge Day 26: Shuffle it Up

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Sorry for the delay, readers; this editing post should have appeared yesterday! To stick to our 30-day goal, you’ll receive two editing tips today.

I’m writing from a peaceful writing residency, thinking hard about my own editing and writing challenges. And while I’ve been here, I’ve had an editing revelation of my own. I’ve been trying to move up the drama that unfolds in my own novel, because things really only get going in chapter five. Five chapters in is way too long to expect a reader to be patient and just drift along through the scenery.

So over the past few days, I played around with shuffling things up. Why did I have to be frozen in the order of events as I’d had them? Why couldn’t the events of chapter five happen in chapter two? That’s exactly what I did yesterday; I jimmied a few pieces together and cut or shuffled others, and bam: I had the events of chapter five in chapter two. Now my novel felt immensely and immediately improved. Things were moving and shaking so much earlier than before. The introduction of a crucial character had happened on page 74; now it was happening on page 44. I considered that a big victory.

The good news is that with short stories, it’s even easier to try shuffling things up. Is your absolute favorite bit of the story, the place where the drama really goes down, happening on page ten? Why not have it happen on page five, or page two? Try moving it forward, and fix the chronology problems with flashback or just by skipping unimportant moments. Do you really have to have that conversation unfold in real time, for example?

Play around with your story. Shuffle it around like a deck of cards. One teacher of mine prints out his story so that only one paragraph is on each page; that way he can freely move things around and see how they fit. Try that trick today and see what it gets you.

Editing Challenge Day 25: Show Mercy

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

Like many readers, I was haunted by Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the awful tragedy of people leaving children locked in cars, resulting in their deaths. Weingarten explores many recent cases and comes to the thoughtful — and difficult — conclusion that this tragedy could happen to just about anyone, given the wrong collusion of certain circumstances. Smart, organized, loving parents can be guilty of this, just as lackadaisical and neglectful parents can. The article is absolutely heart-wrenching, so be prepared when you read.

Weingarten writes about how the introduction of a random element in life can result in some family’s world being shattered. If one day the other parent is taking a child to day care instead of according to the usual schedule, this can happen. And it got me thinking about all the near-misses that must occur as well. For every time a child is left to die in this horrible way, there are probably ten or a hundred times where it almost happens — and then it doesn’t. All of our lives are probably made up of these near-misses, and most of them we probably don’t even notice. When we do become aware of a near-miss, it’s a chance to reflect and to feel gratitude for how the universe has rolled the dice.

All this morbid talk today is a long way of saying that I think a near-miss in a story can be just as dramatic as a tragedy, and it might even feel more honest and real in your story. Many Alice Munro stories are built on this premise — a child falls into a pool, an animal escapes into the coyote-ridden forest, an aging father has a stroke. All of these stories could topple into the almost inevitable-seeming tragedy — and yet, they don’t always. The more realistic depiction of life is not this operatic bent toward tragedy, but rather that sometimes tragedies happen and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s our fault, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s our fault, and yet still, the universe is merciful.

So today, consider your ending, and consider showing mercy to your characters. It’s the compassionate choice, but it might also be the more emotionally honest choice. It lets both your character and your readers draw a breath and sigh with relief — but to also feel the wind of the near-miss on their necks.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 24: Write a 100-Word Story

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

By this stage in the editing struggle, you probably feel that you’ve whittled the story down to the bare nub. There can’t be much extra flab left, you think. And yet, our perceptions of what is truly essential and what makes a powerful story can still be clarified all the more.

Several years ago I discovered that Microsoft Word had an “auto-summarize” feature. Open any document of text, select “summarize”, and you’d get a bizarre hodgepodge of sentences, an AI’s attempt to discern what was essential and what was not. Once I put a novel draft into this feature and boiled it down and down and down until all I had left was “Nicole said” over and over. The feature is essentially nonsense, and yet I found it fascinating and eye-opening to see what another’s perception (even an artificial perception) was gleaning were the most important and recurring pieces.

Sadly, Microsoft Word doesn’t have this feature anymore, but I discovered that Preview does on Macs; visit this instruction page if you want to learn how to activate it!

But that brings me to your exercise for today, which I always find tremendously helpful for my own thought process. Today, you are going to write a 100-word version of your story.

That doesn’t mean just summarizing the plot points as well as you can. This must be a powerful stand-alone story in its own right. That might mean choosing just one powerful scene, or composing new lines that best capture your characters and their conflict. Whatever you do, make it a story. Make it work.

It’s a fun challenge; don’t let yourself accept a single word over 100. And when you’re done, you might be surprised by what scenes and characters you’ve chosen to highlight. It can give you insight into what is really at the core of your story.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 23: Cut and Replace the First Page

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This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

The editors of literary magazines (myself included) will tell you again and again that a story is made and lost by its first page so much of the time. Again and again I see stories that start to really pick up and present their conflict on page two. Sometimes we editors can forgive that of the story, and sometimes we just don’t have the time to do a writer’s work for him. Why does this keep happening?

You, dedicated editor, can get a leg up on the competition today by being smart about your first page. Look back at the opening of your story. Do we slice swiftly into the meat of the conflict, or do we meander for a while? Is there prologue and obfuscation? Is there no sign of a distinctive character or voice? These are things that can be fixed.

Today, draw one big red bloody line across your first page and see what you have. The second page might be a big nonsensical without some of what you’ve lost, so try starting over and doing some re-writing today. Focus on getting to the action of the second page as quickly as you can. Think of today’s exercise as a temporary experiment; if, at the end of the day, you think you’ve sacrificed too much, you are permitted to reinstate that page. But just try it for today. You may be shocked by how vital and fast-moving your story suddenly becomes.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 22: Pull Out the Explanations

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

There are only nine days left to go, editors. You’ve been working hard and diligently on that story you first printed out twenty-two days ago, and I bet it looks quite different from the way it did on day one. I’d love to see your marked up pages; tweet a picture to me @bhurley and I’ll be delighted to retweet.

So today I’m suggesting you do just a bit more cutting. Just when you thought you couldn’t cut any more, you discover a new spot that is redundant or weak or just over-explaining the magic of the scene that you’ve worked so hard to create. Today, do a pass with the story and look for places where you’re over-explaining the meaning of the story. We all do it; it comes from a simultaneous burst of braggadocio and insecurity. On one level, we want our readers to appreciate how smart we are. See that metaphor over there? See what I did with that parallel between the father and his son? Yeah, I know, it’s pretty great. Here, let me show you my brilliance. And at the same time, it’s the insecurity: I don’t know if you can tell what I’m trying to do here. Maybe I was too subtle. Here, let me help you.

As a general rule of thumb, readers are smarter than we give them credit for. We need to remember that they can pick up on clues, and more importantly, they want to draw their own conclusions from the story.

So today, take that pass and again look for moments where you are over-explaining. Take a breath. Have a little faith that your ideas are there, and they’re good.

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.

Editing Challenge Day 21: Read Your Favorite Sentences

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This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It’s Sunday again, editors, which means it’s time for a little bit of rest on the editing quest. But not complete rest! Sunday is a wonderful day to immerse yourself in the pleasure of reading and of words and sentences, so you’ll return to your work on Monday refreshed and inspired. Today, my assignment is for you to look at your bookshelf, open a few old favorites and re-visit some of your favorite sentences.

Some writers do this almost as a way of casting a spell, or perhaps marinating in the rhythms and music of others. I know some writers who began their own journeys by diligently copying down the sentences of their favorite authors, hoping the habit of writing great sentences would sink in this way. So today, take a look at some beautiful sentences, and simply enjoy them. To get you started, here are a few lists of beautiful sentences in the English language:

51 of the Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature

The 50 Best First Sentences in Fiction

Ready to take your writing to the next level? Consider my professional manuscript consulting.