Making Survival First: Part 5 - Self Editing
Editing, as many experienced authors would tell me, is the most grueling and tedious part of writing a book. As promised, it took much longer than expected, but it would also be one of the most exciting steps of making the book.
I'm going to split book editing into two parts. In this first post I'll explain how I self-edited my manuscript. In the next I'll describe the process once I got professionals involved.
Writing a book is like putting together a giant puzzle. Only you don't know what the outcome is supposed to look like, and the box of puzzle pieces is empty. Writing is like building each puzzle piece from scratch. Editing is putting all of those pieces together into something that aligns with whatever you were trying to create in the first place.
Like I described in the book coaching section, I had a strong outline that barely changed. This was critical as I always had a solid foundation to work with. I can't imagine what would have happened if I tried tinkering with the book's foundation deep into the game.
My job was to bring the manuscript to the point where I didn't know how to make it better. This meant passing through it over and over and over again looking for improvements.
If I had to oversimplify editing, I would say it has three guiding filters - relevance, clarity, and style.
Relevance is about making sure everything written matters to the book. Everything that isn’t relevant has to be made relevant, or cut.
This is why a lot of writers use the phrase “kill your darlings” when describing editing. Lot’s of things may be great prose, but irrelevant to the reader.
I had no problem with this. I had a lot of great stuff (Zoey vs Zoë, for example) that was fun, but took readers too far off the path.
When it came to “killing my darlings” I became an axe murderer. I had no problem cutting sentences, paragraphs and entire chapter segments. I think what helped me become so ruthless was giving myself space from the work.
Chopping stuff something I had just written was hard. I was too close to it. Taking time away would give me the space to see things from the reader's perspective. If I felt something wasn't relevant, or too much of a distraction I would ruthlessly cut.
Next is clarity. This is was a different lens. Survival First is an entire ecosystem of original thought patterns built from scratch. Breaking down old words to build new frames took a lot of time. So much of the time it took to write the book came from the fact that I hadn't reached full clarity on many of the ideas I was fleshing out.
This part of editing was like untangling a large network of knots. Every time I came across an idea-knot I would need to untangle it and form something clear and concise. If I got stuck it would show up as garbled nonsense in the manuscript. These were signs I had thinking to do.
Rather than trying to solve every idea-knot right then and there I would file it in my background brain and move on to something simpler to solve. Often, time away from the idea would give space for my background brain to solve it. This happened quicker for some ideas, but others took well over a year to untangle.
Next is style. Once something is relevant and clear to me I have to make it clear to the reader. This "style editing" comes from answering the question "how would I actually say this to the reader in real life?". Style is a much deeper discussion that I will write another section for, but for now I'll skim over the basic approach.
After coming back from my six-month book hiatus I realized my manuscript’s style was totally off. It was riddled with complex jargon and written in a way totally alien to how I actually communicate. I began solving this problem when I started chunking the book into bite-sized blog posts designed to be read. This forced me to trim down the jargon, simplify the complex, and even have more fun.
But how would I know if something was good? Writing, like any creative work, isn't about finding the "right" answer. There's always a million different ways to approach anything. I can't logically explain it, but I learned to trust my senses.
When something was good it felt like the feeling of locking something perfectly in place or like the tasting something that had acquired the perfect level of salt. It was always a "yup, that's it" feeling.
This feeling is what turned editing from something people said would be a grueling slog into a beautiful experience. With each passthrough I was seeing my creation transform from a messy collection of abstract ideas into a cohesive document containing a profound journey.
Eventually I hit a wall. I knew the manuscript wasn't "done", but I wasn't sure how to make it better. I had taken it as far as I could. This was my sign it was time to bring in the professionals.
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