Editing: Just saying ‘no’

Kerouac scroll

Even Jack Kerouac -- who purportedly wrote On the Road in three weeks on a scroll of taped-together paper -- still took time to edit his work.

It’s never easy to tell yourself “no.”

We live in a world where we we are programmed to eat large portions, fill our wish lists with the latest gadgets and toys, and give in to every impulse buy imaginable. So it’s difficult to show restraint and say no. Especially in one’s own writing.

As a writer, it’s necessary to explore ideas. Every character, every line of dialogue, every situation has the potential to be something great. Many writers (I’m looking at you, poets!) think every word is essential and each description is pure gold. In the end, some are good, others… well, not so much.

But I’m not only a writer. I’m also an editor. I have to edit my work, and the editor in me is much less likely to put up with the falderal that the writer in me indulges.

As much as it pains me, sometimes things in my writing don’t work. When that happens, I have to decide if it’s worthwhile to fix it, or whether I should just cut it and move on. The key to avoiding wasted time is to develop the story before I even begin to write.

Case in point: A couple of years ago, I started writing a new novel without an outline. I had a germ of an idea about what would happen, and how my character would get involved, but not much beyond that. After a month (and over 15,000 words), the editor in me declared that enough was enough. The character was interesting, as was the premise of the story, but there wasn’t enough there to be a novel. More importantly, I discovered that the “hook” for my world wasn’t going to work in the long run. The manuscript remains unfinished, but I learned a valuable lesson about planning ahead.

Last year, I started a new manuscript. Unlike my previous attempt, I plotted out this story in advance. I had a great main character and set up several story lines that I hoped would make a compelling narrative. As I wrote it though, I discovered myself hitting a wall every time I tried to write one particular scene. I finally finished the scene, but it changed the direction and tone of my story.

I put the book away for a month to give me time to mentally chew on it. I wasn’t giving up, but I needed to understand what was going wrong. I finally realized it was that one scene. In making the scene bigger than intended, it complicated my narrative, added a side story I wasn’t happy with, and kept me from writing the section I was excited to get to. The entire scene will need to be re-written, and a third of the manuscript will probably be scrapped.

This time, even with a good outline, I needed someone to say “no.” Luckily, the editor in me recognized a problem before it became unmanageable. By telling myself “no” while writing my manuscript, I’ve given myself a chance to fix it. Sure, there will be a lot of editing, but at least I’m still writing.

I’m going to push on and finish the manuscript as originally intended. The writer in me is itching to get back to work. The editor in me will have plenty of time to tinker with rewrites after I’m done.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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