The Three Essential Rules of Successful, Effective Editing!

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I’ve learned one really important thing when it comes to writing, which is entirely different than editing. This trick makes a world of difference whether you’re writing a screenplay or a TV pilot or a novel or memoir or blog or ad copy. If you’re writing, you need to be doing this one thing.

In fact, you might already be doing it.

I call it the “fuck it” draft. Other people have different names like “scratch,” or “ideas draft” or something else, but I like the irreverence of swearing, so it’s “fuck it.”

It’s a draft that’s even rougher than your rough draft, and it definitely bears no resemblance to what your final draft will look like (that’s why we edit). Rather than trying to get a decent draft on the page, you just say, “fuck it!” and have a grand old time. If you’re anything like me, you flit between writing normally to bullet points to doodles that just sort of getting the idea of what you’re going for. No details, no rules.

Having a “fuck it” draft is a great way to get your words and world out of your head and onto the page. There is no necessity for perfection, and in fact, perfection is deeply discouraged. A lot of the “fuck it” mentality is to channel what you want to say about your world, and to have fun with it! That’s the point of writing, right? It’s supposed to be fun!

Now, that said; writing is the fun part, editing is the hell part.

Editing is obviously an extremely important part of the writing process, but that’s the place where so many projects end. If you can’t get through your editing you won’t have a novel or a screenplay. Your career will die on the vine.

But it sucks! It’s hard and lame, and you get lost in the sauce of details and punctuation and enjoy none of the fun parts of making new worlds and plot lines.

But it must be done. Here are my three main tenants of rewriting and editing. These are not concrete steps, but rather bigger, more abstract ideas to get you through the process. Again, editing is hard, but you can handle it! I promise!

1. If you’ve written it once, you can write it better.

Promotional picture for Inside Out, featuring the five main emotion characters.
Inside Out, Pixar. 2015

I’ve mentioned this on this blog before, but something that astounds me to this day is knowing that Pixar ended up rewriting ‘Inside Out’ around seventeen times. It was incredibly different from the start of conception to the finished product. Initially, they wanted Joy and Fear to be together outside of the main brain console. Wild right?

Rewrites are vital to any story. If you’re anything like me, there’s a part of you that just screams, “No! It’s fine the way I wrote it the first time!” anytime the concept of rewrites is presented. It’s hard to let go of your babies. Sometimes scenes flow out so easily it feels like fate. You have to keep scenes like that in, right?

The truth of the matter is that if you take a scene you wrote and just open a new document and rewrite it blind, you’ll discover something you missed the first round. Our subconscious is a magnificent beast, and we know more about the story we’re telling than even we can comprehend. It’s wild and great.

If a scene is not working, just try a blind rewrite. If a scene is working, try a blind rewrite anyway. The results may surprise you.

2. Editing is time consuming!

Image of a clock.

This one gets me a lot. When I finish something and need to start edits, my brain almost short circuits at how much stuff there is to go through. 120 page screenplay? 70K word novel rough draft? It’s almost as bad as starting at the beginning of a project from scratch, without the bursts of inspiration or the joy of world-building.

Editing is HARD. Full stop. Editing is harder than writing. Sometimes it may not take as much time as writing, but there’s a fair amount of work that goes into it. Specifically, work that does not mirror the flow of writing a scene at all.

So take your time. It’s a completely different beast than writing. And even worse, it’s disheartening. You finished a draft! That’s a big accomplishment, so going back and doing mountains of editing can really take the wind out of your sails. Don’t let it. Celebrate a finished draft, then pace yourself through the editing and celebrate a finished edit. You’ve got this!

3. Editing is not being afraid to throw something out!

Image of a stylized person throwing trash in a trashcan.

‘Kill your babies’ is a common phrase in the writing world. It means that even if you love a scene, you may have to get rid of it. Professional writers are able to just throw out a beloved scene in a heartbeat but average folks like you and me? Sometimes it hurts to drag and drop a scene document into the trash on your computer.

But this also harkens back to the first tenant of editing; you can always write it better. Never forget that.

If it helps, you can keep a folder for the things you’re throwing away as a reference or just in case you decide you want the scene back. I do this still occasionally, though not as often as when I was first starting out. The fact is that once you let go of a scene and put something in that fits with the story better, you’re probably not ever going to look back at the old scene. If you need some Marie Kondo relief, thank the scene you’re trashing before it goes. It helped you reach your goals even if it isn’t there with you to cross the finish line. Or something cute and metaphorical like that.

That’s it. That’s editing.

Successful editing is just these three main things. Rewrite, pace yourself, throw things away. In many ways, it is the opposite of writing, but just as vital to producing a finished story or screenplay. When you edit make sure to remember that you are not writing, you’re doing something entirely new: you’re taking your creation and molding it into something even better.

A lot of writers can get hung up editing as they go, but I would discourage that. If something is sticking out weirdly, just make a note and move on. 

And like I said above, (over and over again), editing is hard. But for a lot of people writing is hard as well, but we still do it. If you learn to love the process it goes easier, but you can also learn to love the aftermath instead. If editing is truly a challenge for you, think of it as a hard workout. Doing pushups and burpees suck so hard, but the endorphin rush when it’s over almost makes it worth it.

I promise the rush of endorphins and dopamine when you finish your edits is even better.

And if nothing else, remember the words of Hemingway, “Write drunk, edit sober!”

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Good luck!

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