Editing to death: unresurrectable darlings

I’m all about killing your darlings. There’s a certain glee to pulling your work apart and putting it back together and finally being able to say “no, no, all wrong!” after having gotten through a whole first draft trying not to criticise what you’re creating. There’s joy in not only being able to see where things can be improved, but also knowing that what you’re working with isn’t the final form of the work. It’s not going to be in terrible first draft form forever! You can see where the problems are and you can fix them. Even if it’s that whole scene you loved writing, or that subplot, or that character, or that clever clue that doesn’t work anymore. There’s power in cutting things out and being able to improve on them.

However, I think it’s possible to go too far. In fact, I know it is!

I recently edited a piece to death. To. Death. By the time I was done I had scraped away so much of the story it may as well have been a particularly detailed summary. I’d removed all the personality,  voice and movement from it. It was dead from my overzealous red pen use.

But where did it all go wrong? I think it came down to a few factors:

1) I lost sight of what I was trying to achieve. The original edit I had planned for this story was to cut about five hundred words out of it to fit a word limit for a new market I was aiming it at. I took it to my writing group and they were fantastically ruthless. They killed my darling so good. I took their advice on board and managed to pull out those words easily. More importantly the story was still alive after I’d done it! However, I started trying to “clean it up” more. Over and over. I managed to remove another eight hundred words! I think I got so focused on the process of cutting that I lost sight of why I was trying to cut them out. I was editing without purpose.

On that note:

2) I didn’t know where to stop. It’s always possible to tighten a piece more. Remove more adverbs and versions of “to be” and cutting scenes that are important and add depth but that maybe don’t have to be there. That’s the slippery slope. I think there’s an art in knowing when it’s as good as it’s going to get and letting it go. It’s a fine balance between being ruthless and forgiving. I tipped too far to one side on this one.

3) I paid too much attention to external dictates about how I should be writing, or how to write “correctly” and too little attention to how I wanted my story to be. Towards the end I tried using infographics and checklists of how to really proofread and polish your work. Here’s some examples. Now, these are great tools! They got me to think about looking for things that I might not have checked for ordinarily, however, I was following those rules too strictly. I wasn’t considering whether it was a good move for my story. You know that thing about knowing the rules so you can break them? In this case I was “fixing” rules that it may well have been fine for me to leave broken. I lost my balance between the creative and the structured. Rules are important. They stop you head hopping and abusing commas and spelling so badly people can’t understand what you’re trying to communicate. Writing is still creative, though, and I think I forgot to allow for that. I listened to how “everyone should” write and lost touch with how I write as a result.

Even knowing what probably led to my downfall I still don’t know where the “line” is for me yet. Where do I put the piece down and say “this is as good as this one’s going to be, it’s time to start something new”?

Luckily I’ve got a previous version of the story backed up. I can go back and start again and only remove the bits that really need to be and hold back my enthusiasm. I probably will – I really like that story!

I’m considering making a writing exercise out of it, where I go through editing passes and save a version of each, making notes about what I was looking for and trying to fix. I’d probably even try to deliberately kill the story again! That way I can go back through the versions and try to see what broke. It might take a few example pieces. I have no idea if the same thing will break a story over and over again for me or if this is just a can of worms topic and what breaks one story is necessary in another. It’ll be an experiment!

It’s still progress, despite being a giant failure. I didn’t know such a thing as “too much editing” existed before this! You don’t get better without pushing the limits of what works. I’ve found my edge – time to explore it!

7 Comments for “Editing to death: unresurrectable darlings”

says:

Whenever I finish a draft, I always make a duplicate copy as a backup. That way, if something does go wrong, I will still have the original writing. 🙂 I am so bad at editing, though. I need to get better at it. I have a completed novel on my hard drive and another in progress and they’re both going to need to be edited soon.

Chapters in Flux

says:

I definitely need to start doing something like that! I have a few previous versions of this particular story, but that was luck. I need to start a much more vigorous draft saving/overall backup system. Do you have a folder system or something that works for you?

And don’t worry – I’m pretty bad at editing, too! As seen here I still haven’t got my editing “groove” down pat.

says:

Okay, here’s what I do with my folder system. Each novel has its own folder. There, I have all the drafts, outlines, random notes, etc. Each of the novel folders is contained within a larger folder called Fiction. When I make the copy of the finished draft, I name it “draft 1” or whichever number I’m on so I can easily see the progression.

Ugh I am so bad at editing. I’m fine at line editing, like fixing up sentences, grammar mistakes, etc here and there. But I am so bad at structural edits.

says:

I have a similar thing to that, but I don’t keep versions of drafts. I’ve got to start doing it for all of my writing. Too often I’ll have on “rolling” draft version that doesn’t allow me to backtrack to a previous version and fix something if I’ve gone too far. Being able to see the progression would be nice, too.

Structural editing in my experience is all about chunking “like things” together and making sure they flow logically on from one another. Have you tried playing with post-its or index cards? They can help you move scenes or chapters around to see where big moves need to happen in your structure 🙂

says:

I’ve heard about using post-its and am going to try that while editing my current novel. I bought four different colors (I have four POV characters—what a coincidence, right? Haha) and am going to stick them on my door, then rearrange them as I see fit. I’ll eventually post about it on my blog so you can see how it goes. (Shameless self-promotion here: if you’re not following my blog already, you totally should. 😉 )

says:

The post-it thing is really fun. I did it on index cards over Christmas and stuck them up with blu-tac, but the idea is sound. I really enjoyed being able to physically move the bits around to see how things should work and where the holes were.

Totally post your results on your blog – I’ve subscribed so I’ll see it as soon as it comes up 🙂

says:

Yes, I think being able to visually see things and move them around would help me immensely. That’s one thing I’ve always had trouble with when editing. I will definitely post about the results of trying this as soon as I’ve done it!

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