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Writing tip: polishing your story

Lilly Birdsong By Lilly Birdsong Published on November 2, 2015

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Everyone handles editing in different ways.  One of the most critical things about being a writer is being able to self-edit, and not get too emotionally attached to the way you first wrote something.

First Read-Through

Before doing any editing, I give it a first read-through. Sometimes even a second.

Then I put the book away. I might flag a few chapters while I’m reading, but I don’t edit them right away.

The reason is, you can get too caught up in the details before the structure is sound.

I like to think of it like this. If you’re going to build a building, what’s the first thing that needs to be done? You built the foundation when you wrote your plot. But what you need to do now, is go through and make sure all the support beams are sound. You’re not going to go in and start painting the walls, or adding furniture, because you’d spend a lot of time and money doing that, for a building that’s just going to collapse if it can’t hold up under the strain.

So I give it a read-through, and sort through my initial impressions.

  • Did I like the book?
  • Was it engaging, fun to read?
  • Or did it feel forced?
  • Did I feel bored at parts?
  • Was it a page-turner?

Some people become too attached to the things they write, and they don’t want to cut anything out. But I think the challenge a lot of us face, and I still struggle with this, is how to let go. Do you really need that extra scene? Does it give us insights into the character, the environment, and/or the plot? Did it add to the general enjoyment, and fun, of the reading?

One of my favourite teachers, Reid Winfrey, has some great words of wisdom that I’ll never forget: If what you’re doing isn’t working, do something else.

Don’t be afraid to scrap something. Throw it out. Start from scratch. You can try and try to make it work, but will it end up being forced?

If you’re a fan of Project Runway, then you’ve heard Tim Gunn’s famous words, Make It Work. I do subscribe to this to a certain degree - one shouldn’t always throw something out if it’s not working - maybe it just needs a tweak there, a touch here. But if you’re trying to shove a square peg into a round hole, then you may end up with some pretty bizarre results. In the case of Project Runway, and Apollo 13, they don’t have the choice to go back and start from scratch, because they’re under a time limit.

By this point, you’ve written your book. You’ve achieved your goal. You’ve got some breathing room. Make the time.

It’s worth it.

The last thing you want to do is put frosting on a cake made of mud.

It might look good from the outside, and you might get a lot of people downloading your book, but if they all review your book and say It tasted bad! … Then, you haven’t succeeded.

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First Edit

This is what I like to think of as the hack-and-slash. Major additions, major cuts. You’re getting the structure right.

Based on your initial impressions from the read-through, how can you make your story more engaging? Fun? How can you make your readers feel the story more?

Ideally, the story should flow in such a way that the words themselves disappear from the page when you read it, and you just experience the story like you’re living through it.

Details, Details

When the structure is sound, then you can go back and look at the details. This requires a slow read.

  • You may want to look at it chapter-by-chapter. I look for a few things at this stage:
  • Continuity mistakes (Did you contradict something that you wrote earlier in the story?)
  • Secondary characters (Did they disappear for too long? What are they up to?)
  • Feels (Do you succeed in bringing life to that scene?)
  • Environment (Can you really picture where this scene is taking place?)

You may want to print your story out, so that you can scribble all over it, make notes, or even compare chapters side-by-side.

I’ve worked out a way to do this now digitally (I’m generally against wasting too much paper) using Scrivener. Whatever tools you use, make them work for you. But with Scrivener, I can have two chapters showing up at the same time in different panes and compare them - while writing notes to myself in the side. Nifty.

Third Read-Through

Now that you think you’ve got it all worked out, do another read-through. I often like to try to leave some time between the detailed edit and the next read-through. I like to take my time on this read-through as well. I try to read it at the same pace as a normal reader will read it.

Now I go back and re-examine just like at the first read-through.

  • Did I like the book?
  • Was it engaging, fun to read?
  • Or did it feel forced?
  • Did I feel bored at parts?
  • Was it a page-turner?

If the answers to these questions, and any others that may arise, still leave you feeling unsatisfied, then you rinse and repeat until you get it right. Don’t be afraid to make major changes at this point if it’s necessary.

However, at some point you need to stop. Those of us who work in production always like to say, It’s never finished, it’s just done for now. You can spend a lifetime working and re-working, and you’ll never be satisfied. You need to let go.

I am a Sci-Fi writer. I love drinking whiskey, hanging out with my 2 cats, and kickboxing. Check out Children of RIVA if you're interested in my work. Oh, and in my spare time I work ... Show More

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