On How Editing Is Like Making Witches' Potion

Double, double toil and trouble; 
    Fire burn, and caldron bubble. 
       Fillet of a fenny snake, 
    In the caldron boil and bake; 
    Eye of newt, and toe of frog, 
    Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, 
    Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, 
    Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,— 
    For a charm of powerful trouble, 
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

We'll walk past Macbeth's witches at their cauldron and leave them at their work, for a moment.  First, let's talk about what editing is NOT. Or, a tale of five manuscripts.

  1. A young writer's first completed manuscript. Yay! Rejoice! Read it over once and print it at Kinkos. Bind it with a pretty cover and present it to a patient boyfriend. All done!
  2. A second novel, this one more ambitious in scope. Yay, it's done! Rejoice! Read it over a few times. Fix the awkward phrasings. Correct some plot holes. Then the writer wonders why her aunt doesn't love it.
  3. A third novel manuscript. The drafting of this one actually involved an outline, so there's structure. Yay! Rejoice! This time the writer attends a writing conference, where an angel of epiphany appears in the form of renowned author B.A. Shapiro. She points out that editing has to look at layers of the manuscript: beginning to end, yes, but also within each chapter, and then each paragraph and each sentence. Does a chapter start on one note and end on another? Is the story always moving forward, with every chapter giving the reader a new development? Highlighters come out to flag bad dialogue and crutch words. So, Kinkos makes lots of money printing out the manuscript a few times.
  4. A fourth manuscript emerges, blinks at the harshness of the light glinting from the writer's editing knife, and slinks back into the drawer.
  5. A fifth manuscript slowly comes to life. It gathers plot and character like a snowball rolling down a hill. An editor comes along to streamline dialogue (Don't repeat things! Be efficient!) and focus character arc. An agent comes along and points out all the places the characters have gotten lost. The manuscript goes on a few diets, loses nearly half of its body weight, and gains it back again. It might not be healthy, but she sure looks good in the end.

Editing is hard, and I had no idea what it meant when I started. Like most ignorant folks, I thought I knew: sure, I write for my day job, I know how to edit. Iron out the purple prose, get rid of the passive voice. Good enough.

Nope. Editing is much, much more than that. It starts with taking a big step back from your work and seeing what the novel is about at the macro level.

  • What does the protagonist want, and how is she going to change herself and her life to get there?
  • How do the supporting characters reflect the different ways this conflict plays out?
  • Are you balancing digression (which gives a novel a sense of richness) with economy (which keeps the story focused and avoids bloat)?
  • Does the story start in the right place? Does the story start the day the protagonist's life changed?
  • Does it end in the right place? Is there enough of a sense of resolution to satisfy the reader?
  • Are you showing the right scenes? In other words, does each crisis in the rising action happen on stage? If not, should the reader see that crisis?
  • Are some scenes superfluous? Do they just convey information to the reader without developing the characters or advancing the plot?
  • Does character development happen via actions or via "telling"? Or, how much do we learn from watching the characters act as opposed to reading about background or thoughts in narration?
  • Does the climax force the protagonist to make a choice? Has she earned the final pay-off?

That's only a partial list, of course. And of course, there's no right answer to any of them (though there are many very useful conventions). Each novel will have a unique answer -- but they do need to be answered.

Which brings us back to those witches. They're tossing in ingredients one by one, stirring, tasting, testing. It's a deeply iterative process. If the potion doesn't work, they toss in another tongue of newt. If it still doesn't work? They might fish out that cat skeleton, or boil off some water. And if it's still a holy mess? They might pour a whole bunch out and start over, partially or completely.

It's an imperfect metaphor, yes. But hopefully you see what I'm saying. Editing is a lot more than twiddling at the edges or running spell check. Editing is digging out the guts of your manuscript with a spoon, and making sure all the pieces are in the right place.

Don't think I still don't struggle with this. There's always something I forget or can't see when I'm buried in my own stories. That's why I now always print out my manuscripts and go over them on paper. There's nothing like the physical form for seeing if your chapters balance (try laying them out on the floor to see how the compare), and if your words make sense (read out loud, or even better, get someone else to read it out loud). And everything else I listed above.

There's no right answer, just hard work. Good luck!