1. undertheradar
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    undertheradar Member

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    When does editing stop being useful?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by undertheradar, Jul 25, 2013.

    So following the helpful advice I received elsewhere, I went away, found the theme for this week's short story competition, and wrote a piece for it. Then I left it for a day or so, and then started editing it, mostly using tips I'd gained from the reviews and critiques in the workshop section.

    So far so good.

    Except when does editing become tinkering and stop adding value? I've discovered that if I leave 24 hours between writing and then looking at it again, I can view it with more critical eyes, but now I'm worried I am destroying it and that some of the errors which people (including me!) have picked up on in other people's work, have elevated themselves to being more important than they should be when trying to be critical of my own work. After all, something which makes one piece feel stilted can really set the tone in another - how do I know which it is?!

    What do other people think?
     
  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    After you are published, otherwise, never. :p
     
  3. undertheradar
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    undertheradar Member

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    Ha, yes, I can see that. :D

    Let me clarify then - at what point do you need to stop trying to edit your own work and provide it for others to see, even if you then go back and incorporate their suggestions?
     
  4. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I would say when you go back and look at your last edit and realize it really didn't improve the writing. Alternatively, before you make a change, you should be able to define how the change improves the piece, and isn't just change for its own sake.
     
  5. undertheradar
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    undertheradar Member

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    I have the dawning realisation that saving different versions (which I do for all my technical reports for clients as standard), might have been smart.

    I like the defining how it improves it idea - I do a lot of peer review and my pet hate is people who change my reports for the sake of showing they deserve their job. It drives me nuts. So I won't change someone else's work unless I can add a comment as to why the change improves the report. Unless it's a typo. Or in the case of one talented graduate I had who didn't have English as their first language, to teach them to use more joining words (and, the, it, because etc - their reports were brilliant but impossible to read in the same measure!). I didn't think the latter two types of change needed explanatory comments!

    I think that's actually really helpful on a number of levels, it has given me a focus through which I can edit - does the change improve it and could I explain to someone else how it improves it.

    Funnily enough I always try and add those explanations when I edit other people's work (which I do a reasonable amount of), but hadn't consciously applied it to self-editing, so thanks.
     
  6. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Kinda what EdFromNy said. If you find yourself un-doing each day what you did the day before ...stop. Put the thing away. For a LONG time, not just a week or so. A month or even more, unless you're working to a deadline set by outsiders. Go back to it with fresh eyes. Preferably start something new in the meantime. And get feedback from competent beta readers as well. They'll save you a lot of worry, and they'll pick out stuff you missed, too.

    However, I think most writers, even the bestselling ones, feel their stuff is never perfect. I forget which famous author said it, but when asked the question "How do you know when a book is finished?" he replied: "Whenever my publisher turns up and takes it away from me."
     
  7. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I read an interview with a famous author (I don't remember who) who said, "It's time to stop editing when the story stops getting better and starts getting worse." This is true, but it's also not very helpful, because many writers can't tell worse from better when they've been so close to the work for so long.

    I think we all just have to admit that our stories could ALWAYS be made better; that is, no matter how hard we work on them, we will never write a perfect version. After a certain point, therefore, we can't really use quality as a standard. We have to release the story - and release ourselves from the story - when we feel we have nothing more to contribute to it. This may mean, for some of us, that we release the story when we're bored sick of it, when we hate it, when we hate even thinking about it. That's when it's time to move on to something else. Take your story, call it good, send it out for publication. If it garners nothing but rejections, either it was no good to begin with, or you weren't good enough to write it well. Either case proves it was time to move on, anyway.

    Learning when to stop writing is part of learning to write. We have to know when to let go.
     
  8. undertheradar
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    undertheradar Member

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    Yes, I guess it's knowing when to release it to beta-readers I struggle with. Interesting, as the non-fiction stuff I do I simply write, re-read for typos etc, send to someone for comment, then publish. Done. And the feedback is overwhelmingly positive, and well known people in the field (though not writers themselves I hasten to add!) seem to happily disseminate links to it, so I know it isn't awful.

    Fiction, which is not my natural habitat, seems much harder to me. But then I suppose the non-fiction probably did when I started it, I just can't remember that far back!

    Maybe I just need to submit the first one here knowing it is likely to be considered pretty awful and then take the critiques and use them to make the next one better. Repeat until I'm even boring myself, and no-one responds to my posts any longer ;)
     
  9. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I have limited experience, I'm writing my first novel. I take a chapter every two weeks to my critique group. For my one and only novel, I poured out a two book story in a month and a half and then went back to make an actual novel out of it. I have been learning to write along with editing and now that I'm much better as a writer, a lot of the story grew with me, requiring a lot of editing and complete re-writing early on.

    Now I have a good portion of the first book I'm very happy with. When I go back over those sections, I edit very little. But I haven't done the major re-writing on the end of the first book yet so those chapters still need a lot of editing.

    It took me a few months before I was brave enough to let someone not in the writer's group see a chapter. I got a good response, more than just, "it's good", which would be difficult to interpret. My son made a couple of relevant suggestions that said to me, "not bad". The last chapter he read he said he liked it and it was, "a lot better than [something a local writer I respect wrote]."

    I think you have to have a certain level of confidence to let someone not in a writer's critique group read your stuff. And you need the right critique group depending on your skill level.

    I started with no skill other than decent grammar and the ability to write good term papers and policies. One critique group I tried out felt snobby, they didn't have time for me. Then I found a group that offered very useful feedback. I've gotten better by leaps and bounds. And a third group I tried had a mix of writer's skills but no consistently good critiquers.

    One thing I've observed is how much I've used what I've learned from the group and how much some people don't. That doesn't mean I find everything people have to say to be valid. When someone starts telling me how they would change my story, I smile and drift off. But when they say this or that emotion isn't strong enough, or, "there's not enough scene here, I can't see the place," it's so helpful and I work on the scene accordingly.

    Last night we all gave feedback to an older gent that tends to be boringly opinionated. He said he'd keep what we said in mind for the next chapter, but not change the one we critiqued. There were some big things that needed fixing. My thought was, oh well, we tried. And one younger fellow in the group has some interesting ideas, but his writing needed lots of work. Despite the critiques he comes back time and time again with the next chapter and all the same problems.

    I look at those writers and see how different my work is from a year ago. You need some feedback to know, are you there yet or not? You have to look for the feedback that helps, weed out the chaff, and learn from it. If you are not satisfied with your work, find a critiquer to give you feedback. If you are satisfied let someone read it, preferably someone who knows what they are looking at and will be honest.



    I have a dump file for anything I remove in whole sections. So far I haven't put any of it back in or used it elsewhere yet.
     
  10. undertheradar
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    I think that's really good advice GingerCoffee - thankyou.

    I don't really know how I find that group of people you describe - for various tedious life/hobby/work reasons I can't make time right now to join a group which requires input from me on a regular basis, hence me finding this internet forum. I guess I was hoping I could write a few pieces alongside the 'main' one which sparked off my foray into fiction, get some feedback on here and at least find out what my major recurring errors/gaps in knowledge are to help me edit the main work before I set it free and let other people see it.
     
  11. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Here is good. There are some good critiquers here.
     
  12. undertheradar
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    undertheradar Member

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    I think I meant saving drafts would have been smart because I could then have at least looked at the evolution and decided if I'd been making useful choices/changes as my ability to self-edit improves. Not because I think I might put stuff back. Generally, if I hated it enough to take it out, it probably isn't good enough to be put back!
     
  13. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it just comes from practice, and critiquing others' work. Mainly, you start learning the difference between just changing things and actually making them better.
     
  14. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    I think I've ruined my story by over-editing.
     
  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If you've saved your earlier drafts, just resurrect the last one you thought was good and send it out. Keep your over-edited draft so that you can learn from it where you went wrong.

    :)
     
  16. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Oh I have. I'm heavily into saving the older versions just in case I screw up or want to revive something. I have 137 generations now. Yes. That's right. 137! Over-edit much?

    But some things, especially plot wise, have really improved. It's just the language and some of the writing that has been over-edited. 'Over-perfected'. When I read older drafts I think 'that reads better. It's more engaging.'

    Urgh. This project will be the death of me.
     
  17. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I don't want to see how bad my old stuff was. :p
     
  18. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I use a dump file too, and I have to say that occasionally I HAVE retrieved something from it and used it again, usually in a different place in the story. These are usually scenes or exchanges of dialogue that didn't quite fit where I originally put them. I don't keep word choice changes, though—at least not very often.

    I think the main thing about a 'dump file' is it gives you the confidence to cut whole scenes, even chapters. It's not the same as ripping them up and putting them in the garbage. You know that stuff is always 'there' if you want it back.

    Look at it this way. People have good days and bad days—and you might be having a bad editing day. Nice to be able to correct ALL your mistakes, including the ones you make while editing.
     
  19. GingerCoffee
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    That is exactly how I use my dump file. Haven't put anything back yet, but it's a worry free removal.

    And it is when the section or action no longer works. I don't save old versions of revised sentences.
     
  20. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    when you notice you are no longer correcting errors and improving thngs that really needed improvement and are just fiddling...
     
  21. undertheradar
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    undertheradar Member

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    That implies a good deal of self-awareness in the editing process though - not sure I know enough to know what's improving and, well, what isn't....
     
  22. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Read it aloud.

    Seriously.
     
  23. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    that implies a good deal of competence and discernment in the reading process... not sure how many aspiring writers are good enough readers to notice what's good enough writing and what isn't...

    seriously... :(
     
  24. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I stick by my original suggestion to give yourself distance on it, so it feels almost as if somebody else wrote it.

    Of course you won't catch everything by just waiting, but I'm pretty sure you'll be more likely to see things that need improving, and furthermore you'll see ways to make those improvements. You won't necessarily make it perfect without some outside feedback too, but at least you'll be more confident in your own ability to spot 'mistakes' and awkward bits.
     
  25. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Well, if one is not a good enough reader, then it is unlikely the person will be a good enough writer, in which case the whole exercise is meaningless.
     

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