Editing Cake

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

Is the sentence too short? Too long? How’s the rhythm? Is it smooth when said out loud? Did I pick the right words? Is the sentence needed at all? Can I cut it or combine it or work it in elsewhere? What if I put in too much information? What if I put in too little?

Nobody (except for crazy people) ever said editing was easy (unless they meant, “easily drives you crazy”).

Entire scenes have to be rewritten, whole chapters gutted and sewed into  new shape, and characters you thought you knew suddenly up and move to a different zip code of emotions without telling you why.

On top of THAT, you face the challenges of grammar, punctuation, rhythm, finding “your voice,” and the madness and danger of too-many-words.

It only makes sense to wonder if you’re getting it right.

Happily, I can give you one simple question to ask that makes editing easier. This tip will help you determine if that scene needs to stay, if that line is important, even if that character matters as much as you think.

[highlight]Ask yourself this question: will removing it change the story?[/highlight]

This is a bigger deal than you might guess.

Think of it like cooking. Let’s say you have an awesome recipe for cake. Butter, flour, milk, eggs, sugar, no substitutes. And yet in the middle of it all, you see instructions to go find your best friends, bring them over to your house, and have them each breathe into the uncooked batter. .

You wonder, oh, does this change something?

You look it up. You find that no, breathing into your cake will not change the cake. At all. No flavor difference, no texture difference. It’s an ingredient that is completely unnecessary.

Would you bother putting it in?

Yes, I know some of you would, just to be goofy, but really, now. It’s absurd.

The unnecessary ingredient gets in the way of cake-making. It takes time, distracts from the flow, and makes you look at the rest of the recipe like just maybe it was designed by a crazy person (possibly an editor.)

Stephen King put it best: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

He means that even those sentences and scenes you really love might not be appropriate for the story. How do you know if they’re good to keep? Ask what changes if you take them out. If the answer is “nothing,” then you really don’t need it.

Of course not everyone follows this rule. I know you have favorite writers (so do I) who knife this rule in the back, then dance on its grave.

But those authors already know what they’re doing. Also, they have professional editors to make that kind of call. For you and me, writing in our living rooms, we need to be aware of this rule.

It’s much easier to add needed bits later than to take them out.

No, removing them WON’T make your characters flat. No, it WON’T make your story too superficial or your world seem fake. Removing them WILL improve the pacing, WILL add more conflict, and WILL emphasize the characters you want emphasized.

So next time you edit, ask yourself The Question, and if the answer is “nothing changes,” cut that sucker out. You’ll feel a whole lot better when you do.

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