What is editing paralysis, you ask?
Let’s talk about it a little.
It is a condition that happens to some writers.
They finish the book. Leave it for some time, usually a couple of weeks. Then go back to it with the intention of editing, polishing it to a high gloss, to then send to beta readers or maybe even editors. And they can’t change a single word. Not one.
They sit in front of the finished work and start reading.
Yes, that might need some tweaking. I’ll get back to it. Hum… that turn of phrase doesn’t really work… I’ll revise it later. Ugh! That didn’t come out well, doesn’t even make any sense. I have to change it. Oh, dear, I think the eyes were blue before, I have to go back and make sure later. Hum… Mayor? Major? I have to make sure which spelling is the right one here. That was a three-paragraph infodump, what was I thinking? I have to either remove all of it or find another way to introduce that info. I have to go back over this later.
And so it goes. From the first page to the last. Our writer friend went through the whole book and didn’t take a single note or change a single thing.
OK, now I know what I’m up against. I’ll just correct the main problems, at least I’ll make the character descriptions consistent, yes, that’s what I’ll do. But, the eyes… green is really good here, in the context you get the feeling of envy and jealousy, so green eyes are a great subliminal nod to Shakespeare, but over here blue goes well with the setting, the sea, and the waves, makes sense that they should be blue. So, I could have the character use contact lenses. Wait, no, that doesn’t make sense, this character is rugged and does not care about superficial appearance, so… OK, I’ll get back to it. Yes, I’ll change it later.
And now our writer friend has gone over the manuscript twice and still hasn’t written down a single note or changed a thing. Yes, deep in the grip of editing paralysis.
So, why does this happen? How do we get out of it?
There are as many reasons for editing paralysis as there are for writer’s block. And, just as for the block, there are a few strategies you can use to get out of it.
Always save your original work.
If our writer friend has a document to work on, and the original, mistake plagued as it may be, is safe and sound somewhere, our friend will feel a lot better about making changes to it. Even radical changes. The writer may decide to do away with a character completely. Even may decide to get rid of a full chapter. Our friend may decide one of the characters really has to be two characters for the story to move along smoothly. And so on. Having that original safely tucked away allows for a lot of freedom. There is a root, a base, a foundation, that will always be there as a point of comparison. Our writer friend will feel free, because there is always the opportunity of comparing both versions, side by side if necessary, to determine which is best.
Always set goals so you can go back to them.
What? It’s OK, I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense now, but hear me out. In order to edit successfully, writers have to go over the work more than once. With each revision, it is necessary to write down the impressions and set goals for future edits. That is to say, if there is a lot of passive voice, it is important to make a note and make it a point to go back and rephrase or change the paragraph in question. If the plot is not advancing adequately, but the scene has some information vital for the story later, a goal for a future revision is to adjust it so that it doesn’t drag. The point here, and the way to avoid editing paralysis, is to take action. The writer does the high-level pass, or the detailed pass, depending on the stage of the work in progress, and makes a point of going back and attending each of the goals set up before. If there is a To-Do list the writer can check off, there is a relatively simple way of measuring progress and that will help to get our friend moving forward.
Every so often… take a break.
Editing is exhausting work. Editing requires the writer to read their own work over, and over, and over, and over again. It’s easy to get so tired that clear and glaring areas that need editing seem Good Enough and get glossed over.
If our writer friend starts to say Good Enough a lot, it’s time for a break.
Yes, many times a paragraph, a sentence, even a chapter can only get up to Good Enough, without outside help. Sometimes Good Enough is really simply Good, but writers are a demanding bunch, and sometimes don’t see the forest for the trees. That’s why betas and editors are so important.
How long should that break be? Depends on where in the editing process this comes to pass. If it’s right in the middle of the book, it will require a short break, ten, maybe fifteen minutes. If it’s after a full cover to cover developmental edit, heading into a line edit, it might be wise to take a day or two.
There are many tools available to writers to help with this. If writing on a computer, tablet, or another electronic device, it helps a lot to use a different font for each editing round. Start with, for example, Times New Roman. Then, for developmental, change the whole document to Calibry. For the next round, go to Century Gothic. And so on. The different font will help the brain look at the information as new input, and that’ll make it easier, and less tiring, to go over and spot areas in need of work.
Make sure everything works.
The story, the characters, the dialogue, everything has to work. Sometimes writers fall in love with a character. Carefully crafted, the descriptions are perfect, the personality shines through, it’s exactly what the writer wants and exactly what the writer was shooting for. But. The character does not work. Either does not fit with the other characters, does not help the plot, it simply has to go. If it does not fit, it has to go. “But it’s PERFECT”. Does it fit? No. Can you change the story to make it fit? And, before answering that question is important to answer this one too: Is it worth it to change the whole thing so we can fit this character in?
A plot twist, a subplot, a catchphrase, a dialogue, writers fall in love with the weirdest things. If they don’t work in the book, then there is a problem, and sometimes that problem ends up in editing paralysis because the writer does not want to get rid of that particular darling. You know what I’m going to write next. Kill it. Kill your darling. No matter how well crafted that character is, how clever that plot twist turned out, how snappy that dialogue is. Kill it. Quickly, so the pain is endurable. Your pain, the pain the writer feels. The character, plot twist, etc. will not feel any pain because they’ll be back. In a different book, in the future sometime, but, believe me, if they are that good, they’ll be back.
Read it as a beta.
Sometimes the editing paralysis is really intense. It simply stops all corrections. Fear, dread, nervousness. The writer starts to doubt everything there on the page. Is this good? Is that good? Is it all bad? Should I start again?
Stop. Simply stop. Forget editing. Stop.
Let a week more go by, “more” because there should be at least a week or two pause between finishing the draft and the editing.
OK, now a week has gone by. Pick the manuscript up on a day off, or whenever you have time enough to read at the very least a few chapters straight.
Now, pick the book up as a beta reader. Sure, the writer knows the story. Pick it up as if it was from a friend that was asking for a comment.
Read it for enjoyment. What stands out? What doesn’t work? Any glaring spelling mistakes? Any boring, long paragraphs?
Suddenly the writer is experiencing (as much as possible, it is NOT easy, I know) the work as a reader, and that opens up a new and very different view. This is usually enough to prompt the writer to start taking notes and making observations. And that is enough to get the editing paralysis to go away.
So… what about you? Have you ever experienced editing paralysis? How did you deal with it? Let me know, I’d love to hear about it.
Thanks for reading. Have a great day.