The Importance of Constructive Editing

Here’s a fun fact about me that some of you may not know: Every year I run a 10-lesson course over at the Abington Public Library (currently in the process of expanding to the Thomas Crane Library as well). This course, dubbed The South Shore Writing Initiative, gives me the opportunity to connect with and hopefully improve the lives of other local writers, published and aspiring. This year, our focus will be on constructive editing.

What’s constructive editing, you ask?

I define it as “the process of critiquing written work with the goal of identifying and improving writing technique.”Essentially, constructive editing is an advanced form of reviewing a written document with the sole purpose of making it better.

Now, you may ask: What makes this different from normal editing? After all, the point of all editing is to improve. I would say it all comes down to the layers.

Anyone can Edit

If you’ve ever read a book, watched a movie, or played a video game, odds are that you had an opinion about it. Believe it or not, this is the first step of editing. Before you’re ready to change anything, you must know how you feel about the original. Sometimes, the flaws are obvious, such as:

“Man, that story would have been great if every other word wasn’t a typo!” or “I was loving the film until the projector short-circuited and I couldn’t see the ending!”

These are easy problems to identify and most will spot them right away. So let’s go deeper. Here is another criticism that most people can do:

“I hated the character.”

This is actually a little bit deeper. It’s a very definite criticism that required some thought and understanding of the work in question. Here is where most people end, at least in their ability to really articulate what they think. We all feel our opinions but not all of us have the tools to really dissect what we saw and identify what was good/bad about it.

If you ask the average person why they hated said character, you may get a response like “he/she/they were so dumb” or “I thought they were lame.” There is nothing wrong with this response, it’s just vague. You’re no longer sure what the person really thought, you just know they didn’t like it.

For most people, this is enough. Not for writers.

Constructive editing in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
And please remember, art is subjective. This is why some people can love something while others hate it.

Writers Need Better Feedback

My least favorite form of criticism is “it was good!” Look at those three words. They are useless. While I guess I’m happy that the person liked it, it gives me little to go on. Again, this isn’t so bad for a finished product, but it is a nightmare when drafting.

Stories go through many stages and forms on their way to publication. This process is essential (for every form except self-publishing) as it often separates which ideas are finally put to paper from those that are shelved for reuse in later stories.

To be a writer, you only need to read and write. To be an author, you must know how to read, write, and edit. Writing is a wonderful, freeing process – I love every opportunity I get to do it. Editing is…less glamorous. While there is still freedom, it must be refined and logical. As someone once said, you write with your heart and edit with your head.

What many people may not realize is that editing is actually the more important part. Not even Stephen King publishes a first draft. No matter how brilliant your initial manuscript is, odds are there are mistakes – especially if you didn’t do much planning before you started writing.

Constructive editing is an advanced form of editing designed to help you identify the bigger problems. Anyone can spot a typo but not everyone is going to tell you that your protagonist has a weak character arc, the stakes are too low, and your rapid switching of perspectives is confusing. All are needed critiques when it comes to shaping a draft into a polished product.


How to Edit Constructively

There are a couple of guidelines to follow when you’re trying to edit constructively. First off – throw the personal stuff out the window, for both others and yourself. This is especially important when editing work from someone you don’t know very well. Never assume motivation as it can lead to problematic interpretations and unrealistic expectations.

When it comes to you, ascribing personal meaning to something may make you hesitant to cut it, even if it isn’t working. For instance, if one character symbolizes a lost loved one, you may consider it a personal insult if your editor says “they do nothing and aren’t interesting.”

It is no reflection of the dearly departed but rather an observation on the storytelling – this is what constructive editing is all about. When you strip a story down to its bones, certain issues become clear. You’re not asking if a character works as a metaphor for modern struggles with homosexuality – you’re just asking if the character works. If they do – great, ask the second part. If not, the latter becomes irrelevant.

Focus on the storytelling, be as negative or positive as you feel you have to be – but stick to what is on the page.

I have told my class that every editor should follow at least three criteria:

  1. Did I enjoy that?
  2. Could I understand it?
  3. Can I improve it?

These are the basic questions that begin the editing journey. Obviously, you can look at more complicated issues like character development, plot arcs, and consistent tone but #1 remains paramount. People rarely read what they don’t enjoy.

Check back in the following weeks for more of my thoughts on editing. I hope they can help you out!

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