Thursday, November 12, 2015

Killing your darlings: the art of editing


I’m not a professional editor. But as the first native English speaker in my family, I grew up editing everything my parents wrote. Letters, CV’s, technical articles, even recipes. Everything passed through my hands before going out into the world.
My dad was a particularly prolific writer. As a civil engineer, he produced technical reports, educational manuals, and press releases—all of which I edited. Every time one of his construction projects neared completion, I also edited his cover letters, resumes, and post-interview thank you notes. I got a lot of practice, since Dad changed jobs about as often as most people change oil filters.

This early experience proved a boon. I breezed through high school AP English. By college, I was writing papers like a pro. The summer of sophomore year, I did a stint as a teaching assistant in a writing program. My students nicknamed me “The Knife” for my ruthless use of the red pencil. I emulated Hemingway: no frills, just clean, streamlined text.

Several decades later, I started writing romance. I love creating imaginary worlds, new characters, happy endings. But my favorite part? The editing. That’s when I can really go to town.

Without A Net
Here are the top 6 things I’ve learned about editing over the years:
  1. Read, read, read. Nothing improves writing and editing skills as much as reading.
  2. Silence your inner critic while writing. Otherwise you may never reach the finish line. Once you have a “completed” manuscript, you can switch to edit mode.
  3. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings. William Faulkner (and later Stephen King) said that a good writer must recognize and eliminate whatever bits of writing don’t contribute to the overall work. Even if those are the bits you love the most—AKA, your darlings. You can always cut and paste them into a separate file. I have an “outtakes” file for every book I write, full of my cutting room floor darlings. If you must, you can always insert these snippets elsewhere. Into letters, for example. Remember those?
  4. Time and distance lend perspective. This is particularly true in writing. When you finish a manuscript, put it away in a drawer. Save it on a zip drive. Let it sit for a while. A week, a month, a year. Take it out, blow off the metaphorical dust, and read it with fresh eyes.
  5. Get help from qualified people. Even good writers can use a professional editor. Don’t rely on your spouse or mom or best friend—unless they are professional editors. And even then, think twice. In medicine, we’re taught not to treat family. Too close a relationship can cloud judgement, sometimes with catastrophic results.
  6. Know when to stop. After multiple rounds of editing, when your editor is satisfied, your beta readers are happy, your deadline was yesterday, and you’re still waffling between “a” and “the”—put down the red pencil. You’re done.


Jill Blake loves chocolate, leisurely walks where she doesn’t break a sweat, and books with a guaranteed happy ending. A native of Philadelphia, Jill now lives in Southern California with her husband and three children. During the day, she works as a physician in a busy medical practice. At night, she pens steamy romances, which are available on Amazon.


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