How to Not Hate Editing Your Writing

(This post originally ran, pre-pandemic, on the Writers in the Storm blog.)

Author Liz Fenton—half of the writing team, with Lisa Steinke, behind bestselling novels like The Good Widow—recently told me about her fitness regimen at Orange Theory.

“I hate working out!” she said. She dreads it every time she goes, and doesn’t enjoy it while she’s there. “But I love the way my shoulders look, and my arms. That’s what editing is like.”

Liz and Lisa’s latest book, Girls Night Out was released earlier this year after a more than usually grueling edit process. Despite their author’s note in the book that the revisions for this one nearly broke them, “It’s a much better book,” Liz says simply—just the way she loves her body as a result of the workouts she hates.

Genius may not be quite “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” as Edison famously said—but it’s at least a solid fifty-fifty, and after the thrill of creating your manuscript (especially in the breakneck rush of NaNo), much of the “perspiration” part comes in the editing process.

Editing is where the magic of a story really comes to life—but it’s often a lot of work—and not in the immediately satisfying way of first-drafting.

I liken it to sculpting: A first draft is when the figure is roughed out, and form begins to emerge from a meaningless chunk of stone. This is the exhilarating, godlike process of creation in its purest form, when the artist’s imagination literally creates something from nothing, and it can be intoxicating, seductive, even deliciously reckless as the artist follows the Muse wherever she dances.

But then the detail work begins—the amorphous shape of a face must be chiseled and polished again and again and again in ever finer adjustments to create and define precise features, details, proportions. Pull up a picture of Michelangelo’s David and imagine the dedication, work, and patience that went into creating such a detailed, luminous work of art. Roughing out the initial form is merely the first step; the real work of sculpting—or of writing—often happens in the endless, minute, painstaking fine-tuning.

That’s not the romantic vision of being a writer that may have first lit the fire in us (although that glowing illusion is probably a long way in your rearview mirror if you’ve been at this for any time at all). It’s more the quotidian reality of a master craftsman. If you want to be a concert violinist, an opera singer, a ballerina, a brilliant actor, you practice over and over and over—often on the same piece of work. You are exploring, honing, fleshing out, developing your craft along with this particular piece of art.

What separates artists from hobbyists is the willingness to do that work, to persist in a project past the immediately gratifying part of inspiration and creation. It’s easy to head to the gym right after your New Year’s resolution, or at the beginning of your weight-loss program, or starting a fitness regimen with a group of friends. But the people who grow strong and healthy and fit are those who show up—day after day, lap after lap, lift after lift, till their muscles tremble and ache. They may hate working out—but they love the effects of having worked out.

I do think there’s joy in editing — and even a great deal of that same creative fire that draws most writers into the craft in the first place. I work with a number of authors who tell me that they are “editing” or “process” writers—the first draft is almost a glorified outline for them; the revision process is where they dive deep and immerse themselves in the story, and much of the delight they take in their craft comes from that in-depth exploration and figuring out all the options, like the thrill of those locked-room games where participants have to use their imaginations, determination, and resourcefulness to find the way out. (These may be the literary equivalent of those “feel the burn,” endorphin-high crazy people who actually love working out.)

But if you’re not one of those folks—if editing (or working out…) feels like the specter of Death before you, how can you find the positives in the necessary editing and revision process?

· Try to enjoy the process: I recently started doing yoga again, and even when I am holding a pose that’s making one group of muscles scream in agony, I like the mindfulness part of practice that also lets me notice the pleasure of a gorgeous stretch across others; or enjoy the newfound ease of a posture that was impossible for me to sustain when I started; or even relish the effort I’m putting into holding a side plank and the way it works underemployed muscles (and the ache the next day that makes me feel like a workout badass). Even in the midst of a hard revision, there’s pleasure to be found in working parts of your craft and your mind that you may not use in first-drafting.

· Find the “workout” that works for you: A few weeks ago I accompanied my husband to his gym on a guest pass, and realized why I joined a yoga studio—I’m not comfortable in a gym atmosphere; it makes me feel inadequate, self-judgy, and overwhelmed in a way yoga never does. Gyms are not for me—but I’ve found a way to achieve my fitness goals that does work for me. There are lots of approaches to editing—find the one that resonates with you.

· Use the pain: Liz Fenton also told me that the worst of the edit process for Girls Night Out, when she lost faith in her own ability to get her story where it needed to go, wound up informing and deepening the main characters’ struggles, bringing them more fully to life in a way readers and reviewers have called out as among the most impactful and authentic parts of the book.

· Explore the unexpected: Despite the lack of coordination that’s been a hallmark of my six-foot-tall existence, it turns out I love balancing poses. I would never have thought, but I’ve found that tree pose or eagle or warrior three sharpen my focus and make me feel more centered, and lately I notice I am developing an equilibrium and grace I never thought I’d lay claim to. I’ve worked with countless authors who discover unexpected storylines, character arcs, and plot developments in editing that wind up forming the heart of their story.

· Revel in your progress: I’ve been at this yoga thing now for about six months—time enough to notice that I have much greater flexibility and strength, more energy and balance, and I love the way I look. I also know that it’s a process: I’ll continue to reap these benefits—but only if I stick with my practice. Mastering edits and revisions for one manuscript doesn’t necessarily guarantee the next ones will spring from your mind fully formed and beautifully polished. You will likely always have to plow through edits and revisions, but like working out, the more you do it the stronger you become—and the easier it gets. And just like working out, with each edit you push yourself a little further, making yourself capable of more with every subsequent story you write.

You may never be one of those authors who honestly loves editing, but you’ll appreciate the benefits when you parade your strong and lean manuscript in front of agents, editors, and readers.

14 Comments. Leave new

  • Terri Pease Bentley
    February 11, 2021 2:19 pm

    This is perfectly timed for me. I’m not at work on my novel right now. But my nonfiction book has just come back from a first-round edit, and it’s now time for me to get to work. I do dread thinking about the amount of work needed to get this thing into a closer approximation of what I envision.

    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 11, 2021 2:27 pm

      I’m glad it’s good timing! I’m working on an editing checklist at the moment that I hope to have posted on the site soon, and that might also help. One thing that can be useful is to approach the edits as an opportunity to do more of what you loved about writing it: deepen and develop your ideas to make them as effective on the page as it is in your head. I always think of editing and revising as the process of building up, rather than tearing down–a creative process as fulfilling as drafting is for many authors. Hope it goes well!

      Reply
  • Suzanne Trauth
    February 11, 2021 3:02 pm

    Great blog post! I just finished your book Intuitive Editing and it lays out the process wonderfully. I still feel intimidated as I start the editing but I’m going to dive in thanks to your help. Maybe more like tiptoe in…

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 11, 2021 6:44 pm

      Oh, that’s wonderful to hear, Suzanne! One of my main intentions with the book was to make editing and revising feel manageable and doable. And dare I say fun. 🙂 Happy editing–I hope you enjoy bringing your vision even more fully to life!

      Reply
  • Oh the timing! What do they say about synchronicity? I’m in the trenches, deep into draft #5 and rounding the curve to 80% completion. I can see the finish line and it’s thrilling, but I know I’ve got at lease one more race before this thing is ready for the big leagues. It’s hard to stay motivated when you know you’re really not done yet. And there are those times when you feel you’re spinning your wheels. I get stuck in the snowbank sometimes, but I’m just gonna get out and shovel myself out.

    Thanks for this!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 11, 2021 6:46 pm

      I’m so happy it’s timely and helpful. I always think of editing and revising as the real work of writing–I genuinely think it is–and first-drafting as the slog I have to get through to get to the fun part. 🙂 I hope some of the joy of revising comes through for you–I’ve got some more resources coming soon that may help: an editing checklist and some posts about how to approach revisions. Good luck, meanwhile!

      Reply
  • I’m so excited to share this article with my students and clients. The associations of working out, yoga and stretching our minds is priceless! Thank you Tiffany!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 11, 2021 6:49 pm

      Thanks, Britta! I was going to update this post to my new workout regimen–I’ve worked with a personal trainer for about a year and a half now in strength training (virtually for the last year)–because I find it equally applicable to the post: I dread my workouts every time, curse them (and my trainer) while I’m doing it, and then feel amazing afterward. And I’m so much stronger and more fit! Just like editing and revising makes a manuscript. 😀

      Reply
  • “you practice over and over and over—often on the same piece of work. You are exploring, honing, fleshing out, developing your craft along with this particular piece of art.”— Love this. It fits my journey perfectly. Editing is hell, but it has developed my understanding of craft and rooted that understanding inside me. I’ve learned more during this year’s edit than from all the craft books I’ve read or the workshops/conferences I’ve attended. Thank-you, Tiffany.

    Reply
  • Fliss Zakaszewska
    February 12, 2021 10:28 pm

    For the first time EVER, I’ve had a proper insight into 3rd person POV and I love the analogy of Ant-man. There are still a couple of weird things my editors have said to me during my work with them that have made me say “Wha…?” but this is not the time or place to raise those. The POV blog really helped. Thanks Tiffany.

    Reply
  • Like other commenters, this found me at the right time. I bought your book just a couple of weeks ago. With a highlighter in hand and my draft opened in Scrivener, I am following your advice page by page. I don’t LOVE editing. In fact, I have procrastinated for too long to get this process started. But, I do find it satisfying each day that I make progress. Writing the first draft was like being at recess in heaven! Editing is more like working through the math assignments in class. Thanks for your help! Your teaching is making me a better writer.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 18, 2021 9:04 pm

      Ha! Well, I’m really happy the book is helping–and I’ll be extra delighted if just maybe enjoying the process sneaks up on you. 🙂 Editing is my favorite part, where the magic happens. Thanks, Jerry.

      Reply

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