On Writing II: Editing, Editors and Killing Your Darlings

Hi guys! I took a little break while I went to Miami with some great friends–post to come, probably–but I’m BACK, and it’s time to talk about words again!



Today we’re going to talk about editing and editors, two things I know a lot about.

People laugh when I tell them that being a writer is really only 1/3 about writing, but it’s true. It’s also 1/3 hustle, and 1/3 getting along with others. And the most important Others you’ll be getting along with are your editors.

Marci and AMG at xoVain are two of the very best editors I’ve ever gotten to work with. It’s really rare that you fall in with a crowd of people who are totally on the same page as you are, who value your contributions, and who you like on a personal as well as a professional level. It’s taken me a long-ass time to get here, and I’m so glad that I finally have.

Not everyone has always been so awesome, but even when editors are strange, neglectful or tempestuous, they have something to teach you. Only once, when I was about 22, did I have to learn the lesson that sometimes editors don’t actually EDIT–they just hit “publish,” grammatical mistakes and all. The pedantic nerd in me never forgot that, so I dedicated myself to becoming my OWN editor, and making sure my writing was as good and clean as it could be. Now that I’m an editor myself and my standards are much higher, this has been very useful.

Usually my writing and editing process goes a little something like this:

  • Walk the dog. Write article in my head while walking, because my brain works best when my feet are moving. I’m like the dinosaurs in Dinotopia that way.
  • Write everything down. Seriously. EVERYTHING.
  • Take a break. Do some pilates or watch Bob’s Burgers or something.
  • Come back. Focus on the main “threads” of the article. Does it all connect? Does it flow from paragraph to paragraph? Delete anything that seems forced or shoved in.
  • How are the descriptions? Are they useful or superfluous? Cut them out altogether if the latter.
  • Are the jokes well-deployed? If there are too many, you come off looking like a hacky stand-up comic. Cut about half of them out.
  • Is the beginning powerful? Would you read the start of this article and want to KEEP reading? If not, delete it.
  • How is your ending? Ideally this should tie back in to the beginning somehow. End on a strong note.
  • Will this start conversation with readers? How can you make it so that it does?
  • Go back and read the whole thing again. Do the pictures make sense where you have them marked to go? Cut them out if not. You can’t possibly take 74 photos for a single article; that’s insane.
  • Final read-through. Watch for wordy language; likewise for language that’s too slangy. Write for the publication, but always keep your own voice in there.
  • File.
  • Notes, if applicable, from on high.
  • THE END.

By the time I reach THE END, my story is about half as long as it was initially. That’s a lot of darlings to kill, but it’s always worth it–condensing a story or an article down into its purest form is a beautiful thing. It’s like an art. It’s easy to think that you’ve written a masterpiece on the first try, and maybe you have, but everything can be better with a little polish.

Learning to edit–to look at something and see what’s good and what needs work–is a skill that comes with time. I used to edit people’s papers in high school and college, and I used to do a TONNE of copyediting back in the day, so my eye has been sharpened through years of use. Basic rules: Never use ten words if three will do. Explain everything simply. Use powerful, rather than flowery words. Make sure every story has a point. If you’re going to be clever, be REALLY clever–don’t go halfway. Stick to the subject at hand. Back up your points with research, and cite everything.

But most importantly, you need to see what your piece is going to BE when it’s done. Have a vision. Have scope. Killing your darlings is great, but make sure they’re the RIGHT darlings.

Sometimes I hear writers say that they don’t have to self-edit, because that’s what editors are for. NO. That is an entitled, nonsensey thing to say. You never want to give someone else more work because you’re too lazy to turn five sentences into two. Needing help is fine. Saying “I can’t be bothered” is not, and it’s the kind of attitude that torpedos careers. Editors have heaps of other stuff to think about and do. They can’t possibly do work that you should have been doing also.

Speaking of attitude stuff: be open to changes. Your editors seriously want to help make your story the best that it can be, so if they have a lot of notes, take those on board. Don’t take your ball and go home because they suggest your writing wasn’t perfect the first time. Criticism can be good. It’s how you grow!

However, if you’re stuck working with someone who isn’t seeing the same vision as you–who wants to chop and change your story past recognition, or take it in a direction you’re not happy with–know when to speak up. At the end of the day, this is YOUR byline. It’s going to follow you forever. Make sure you’re proud of every aspect of it.

Editing can be hard, especially when you have to cut out something you were really proud of. That can physically hurt! Just know that just because the passage/description/whatever doesn’t work in one place, it doesn’t mean that it won’t work in ANY place. I’ve got short stories that started as throwaway lines in articles! What is dead never dies (she said, Greyjoy-ly).

So by all means, kill your darlings. Be merciless in each edit. You don’t get a gorgeous sparkly diamond without cutting some bits away to show the hidden beauty within; that’s how you need to look at everything you write. Like you’re revealing something hidden, not taking something away.

Once you can do that, your work is going to be all the better, and editors are going to WANT to work with you. And that, as I’ll explain next week, is something incredibly valuable.


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