One of the plights of a novelist or writer is wanting to perfect your work so completely that you can‘t move forward. I’ve known numerous authors who’ve never completed a novel because they continue to rework the first three chapters until they literally take the life from it.
There can be too much of a good thing. Editing is necessary to create a story that moves forward with every page and every paragraph, but over-editing can be a killer, like over-eating or over-dieting. Weight control is a balance of healthy food and realistic portions. Editing is the same.
The author must balance adding more flourishes to create a rich scene that is often skimmed by the reader or pages of dialogue that becomes too much chitchat, or the opposite, cutting so much out of the novel that it becomes bare bones and loses reality, emotion, and depth. So what can you do? This is the question I was asked by a reader who follows my Writing Fiction blog.
Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed! I’ve written my beginning over and over again. I have even gotten to 15,000 words but keep getting frustrated. How do you move on without going back and constantly editing? I am a perfectionist, but that seems to be hindering me in my writing. Any tips?
Over-editing can hinder a writer’s progress and allow someone with talent to never finish a book. It’s a kind of discipline that you have to learn. A novelist’s voice is important. Readers know the tone and rhythm of your writing, and they connect with it. When you strip it to the bones or pile on unnecessary fat, you’ve changed your style and voice and can disconnect with readers.
Editing is to make the book the best it can be, but, sometimes you will reach a point where you lose judgment and do more damage than good to a novel. When you spend all your time tweaking the novel, you are not moving forward. You’ve become stagnant, and when standing still, you get nowhere.
Remember that all books need an editor, traditional or self-published. Think of your work as a first draft and know that if the book is to be published, an editor will help you polish your work with fresh eyes. Self-publishing means hiring an editor to work with your book, and traditional publishing means numerous editors—your senior, copy, and line editors—will go over your book with you at no cost.
Over-editing not only takes the life from the book, but it also steals energy and creativity from the novelist. The book becomes boring and loses its spark. Don’t let that happen. Learn ways to help you move forward.
Techniques to help you avoid over-editing
- Set a Deadline:
Traditional writers sell a novel and then are given a deadline which is part of the contract so authors make sure they meet their deadline. Even if the book isn’t sold, make a decision when you want the book to be written or when you want the proposal to be ready for the submission to a publisher. Deadlines help you move along. Assign yourself so many words a day. If you spend the time editing, you will have to continue to add words. Give yourself a penalty if you don’t meet the deadline. No chocolate the next day. No TV in the evening. When you lose something you enjoy for not making the deadline, you will think twice about over-editing.
- Read Work Aloud:
Aloud is the key. Listen to your novel either by reading aloud or by using a text to voice program. I use Natural Reader and find it very helpful in not only catching typos or the wrong word (meet instead of met, slide instead of slid) but also spotting overworked words, awkward sentences and redundancies. I highlight the area I want to look at when I finish listening or make note of the page and then look at only those sections later.
- Use a Critique Group:
While the group is only as good as its members, hearing other’s opinions of your novel can help you discover areas what needs clarifying, cutting or reworking in some way. What’s clear in your mind can be confusing in someone else’s. Ask them to view the action and dialogue with your character’s personality, values and beliefs in mind. Is it realistic and consistent. People change but only in time. Input on your work is important, but not from mothers, siblings or good friends. They aren’t always honest so as not to hurt your feelings. . .or their opinion is skewed because they love you. Critique groups are best when they are fellow authors. When those readers don’t find an error or problem in some of the scenes, don’t change them.
- Make a List of Common Problems:
When you’re working on a list of specific problems, you will not get stuck in a rut. As you discover areas of weakness, focus on those and once changed, let it be. Too much backstory, lack of description, overuse of dialogue tags, not enough white space on the page, or redundancy. For example, keep a list of words you overuse. As you listen to the novel or skim the pages, notice words that jump out at you because you’ve used them over and over. Use a thesaurus and find alternatives for the same idea and use them. Cut as many adverbs as possible. Adverbs are a weak way to make your character come alive. Avoid adverbs in dialogues tags. Make the sentences come alive with the words you select rather than telling the reader if the character is excited, suspicious or angry and don’t use too many adjectives in your descriptions, but don’t cut them bare-bones.
- Walk Away:
Give yourself a break from the novel. Put it aside for a few days and allow yourself to un-attach from the story. When you go back, you can look at it with new eyes. What looked bad might be fine. What seemed amazing might be so overworked making it lose its spark.
- My Editing Method:
I write without editing until I’m done for the day. Wheb I return to the novel, I go back to what I’d written and reread, making a few changes or highlighting a section I’m not sure about or one that needs some research. Then I continue to write, adding more to the story. When I stop, I go back and fix the things I highlighted early that needs work, or I wait and edit the next day. But each day I only edit what I’d written the day before. Once I have five or six chapters written, I edit again, and then move forward with the novel. I always leave a note to myself where I will start when I finish writing for the day or if I’m taking a break. Writers must learn to turn their internal editor on and off as needed. Sadly, too many writers work so hard perfecting the first chapter they never get anywhere, and what they’ve written becomes overworked and loses it’s spark. Part of creativity is spontaneity.
What techniques do you use to avoid over-editing? Let us know in the comments below.
© Gail Gaymer Martin 2014
Multi-award-winning novelist, Gail Gaymer Martin is the author of contemporary romance, romantic suspense, and women’s fiction with 55 published novels and nearly 4 million books in print. Her novel’s have received many national awards, such as: the ACFW Carol Award, Booksellers Best and RT Reviewer’s Choice Award. CBS local news listed Gail as one of the four best writers in the Detroit area. She is a cofounder of American Christian Fiction Writers and serves on their Executive Board. Gail is a member of Advanced Speakers and Writers as well as Christian Authors Network and is a keynote speaker at women’s organization events as well as a workshop presenter at conferences across the US. Gail lives in Michigan with her husband.