Hi Story Nurse,
I’ve completed a full draft of my romance novel with a political/dramatic twist (yay!) and i’m staring on the first round of editing (boo!). It’s my understanding that a lot of editing is about cutting, and I don’t deny there are a lot of sentences that could be shorter and a lot of stuff that is not required to be there. Usually, the cutting feels pretty good – especially when I catch hanging threads I meant to do something with, and dropped.
However, I do have some anxiety with cutting some of the longer threads of the story. When I wrote the story and read it in the earlier processes, I really like them. On this edit pass, they don’t seem that great – kind of awkward and not flowing as well as I remembered. However, the next day, they seem wonderful, and the story is really lacking something without them!
Anyway, the summary of the question is: How do you tell what to cut? Is cutting more better than less, or should you cut less the first time around so and come back and trim again, when you’re more sure?
Now I’m thinking that I should leave it in for now, because it will be hard to put it back if I change my mind. (Unless you have some amazing editor software that allows themes to be matched like Photoshop layers.)
Confused Editor (she/her)
Dear Confused Editor,
Congratulations on finishing your draft! I’m sorry revisions are stressing you out so much. I promise you and your manuscript will come through them just fine. Here are some straightforward suggestions to help you find your way out of your mental tangle.
1. Manage your stress. This is clearly a part of the process that causes you a fair amount of anxiety, and it’s good to mitigate that any way you can. Eat well (whatever that means for you and your body), sleep enough, keep hydrated, move around, take long baths, take your anxiolytics of choice, meditate, and otherwise do things that help you feel grounded and calm. My post on writing while depressed has lots of info on self-care, and there are many other great resources out there. Take a moment to make a self-care plan specifically around revising your manuscript: mental preparation, a calming environment while you work, and aftercare.
2. Back up your files. Make a copy of your manuscript and label it with the date. Do this after every revision session; storage is cheap and document files are small. This will help reduce your worries about making changes and regretting them later. You can always go back to an earlier draft whenever you need to. It’s not quite Photoshop layers, but it does help.
3. Let go of “should.” It sounds like you’re trying to follow some half-formed mental model of what revisions should look like. “It’s my understanding that a lot of editing is about cutting” and “Is cutting more better than less” are predicated on the idea that there’s only one way to revise, but revising is as individual as writing. There’s no wrong way to do it, and there are no hard and fast rules about how it goes. Revision is about making your book better. Depending on the writer and the work, that might mean cutting text, adding text, cutting and adding, making tiny word tweaks, switching up whole subplots… every work is different and so every work needs different things at the revision stage. When Daniel José Older was livetweeting his most recent round of revisions, he wrote, “chapter 1 just became chapter 2 cuz there’s a new chapter 1 and now the old chapter 1 is chapter 3 or half of it is omg whats happening aiii”—and if a bestselling author can feel baffled by revisions, so can you. This may be daunting but it’s also very freeing. Liberate yourself from “should” and focus on what’s best for the work.
4. Reacquaint yourself with the core elements of the work. How else can you know what’s best for it? Reread your book to remember what its goals are so you can work toward those goals. Read it like a reader so you can develop and expand the parts that make readers happy, and trim the ones that don’t. My post on rediscovering your story’s heart will walk you through that process.
5. Give it your best shot. Do one revision pass the best way you know how. It will be clumsy and awkward and may be the sort of learning experience that you laugh about through gritted teeth, but for now what matters is tackling it despite your anxiety. You’ve got those saved files as your safety net, so hack and slash and write and rewrite to your heart’s content. Do wild experimental things. Drop pianos on all your characters. Get through it by hook or by crook. Prove to yourself that you can do it.
6. Get some outside opinions. Every writer needs help and advice at some point (even if you’re an editor). Find a beta reader or hire a freelance editor or run your work past a critique group or a good friend. They’ll help you figure out what your particular book needs, and help you understand things about your work that you would have a much harder time figuring out on your own.
7. Move on. At some point you’ll be done with your revisions, or as done as you can manage to get. When that time comes, self-publish the book or send it out on submission or put it in a drawer, as you prefer, and then start a new project and don’t look back. Don’t let this book, or the notion of Doing Revisions Correctly, haunt you forever. Do your best with it and then continue down the path of writing, revising, and learning.
You’ve got this. I have faith in you.