The Importance of Thoughtful Editing (Or: Why I Tear Apart Manuscripts Like a Rabid Dog)

I don’t actually do this.

Throughout June, I edited the first draft of a novel for a friend of a friend. He was a first-time writer and I was the first person to read his 600+ page novel. Though I’d never edited a novel before, my creative writing classes and current position here at The Missouri Review convinced him I was up for the task. When we first met, the author asked me if I was a tough editor, and I told him yes.

“That’s good,” he said. “I don’t want you to go easy on me. I want you to be honest.”

“Okay,” I told him. “I’ll tear it apart.”

“Tearing apart” is the nickname I have for my editing style. To define tearing apart: when the constructive criticism for a piece of writing purposefully outweighs the praise. If I’m tearing apart a manuscript, I won’t return the document to the writer until I’ve filled all the margins with notes. Although I always make sure to highlight great moments in whatever I’m reading, I relentlessly search for weak moments. I nit-pick over word choice, circle unimpressive images, cross out irrelevant sentences, and engage the writer in my notes by asking questions about the story as I go. In general, I won’t stop editing until the manuscript is covered in colored ink.

Often, when I return a document and the writer sees my edits, they look like a truck just backed over their foot. Their gut instinct, always, is that my edits are solely negative and that I hated their writing. Once the writer reads my actual comments and realizes that I didn’t write “YOU SUCK” in the margins, they don’t seem quite so pained. In the case of the author whose novel I edited, when I met with him a week ago I gave him a three page outline addressing the main issues he needs to fix in his final draft, then discussed these issues at length for two hours. By the end, he said, “Honestly, I thought you were going to be meaner.” The fact that he felt this way, even after I suggested he cut entire chapters from the novel, illustrates the benefits of tearing apart a manuscript. Even though I recommended major cuts, I offered so many suggestions for revision that the author didn’t feel stunted. Most importantly, the amount of detail and attention I gave to each page proved that I cared about his writing. He trusted my opinion because he knew I cared.

Undoubtedly, there are professional editors, professors, and even fellow students, who edit the same way I do. This “tear it apart” idea is not unique to me, and probably carries many other snazzy names. However, during the three undergraduate writing workshops I’ve had, no one has ever torn one of my short stories apart. Yes, I received plenty of positive and negative feedback for each story. But no one ever handed me back a story covered in elaborate edits and said, “This is all right, but it’s not great yet. Let’s work on making it great.” This isn’t because I’m a talented writer. Rather, it’s because no one will look me in the eye and bluntly tell me what’s holding my story back from reaching its full potential.

While I’ve encountered many helpful fellow students in my past workshops, every workshop inevitably contains at least one person from the following two groups: the Cheerleaders and the Naysayers. The Cheerleaders focus on the positive aspects of a story either because a) they aren’t experienced enough to recognize the weak points in a story, or b) they don’t want to hurt the writer’s feelings with negative comments. The Naysayers, however, are writers who either a) can’t intelligently articulate their negative thoughts apart from saying, “I don’t know, this just fell flat,” or b) won’t offer thoughtful criticism because they think the story is simply a hopeless case. Whether it’s through overly positive or overly negative feedback, Cheerleaders and Naysayers produce the same result: vague, useless editing.

With my own work, historically, the Cheerleaders compliment the details or the overall tone of the piece. The Naysayers sometimes argue that the description is overwhelming. I’m quick to tune out the fluff and the snide remarks, and once the workshop ends I gather everyone’s notes in a pile and put them away with the draft. It’s not until months later, when I pull out the same story for a final edit and read with a more detached gaze, that I always notice the mistakes no one brought up during workshop: shaky plot points, wandering thematic elements, and too-neat dialogue. These are the kinds of mistakes that become more apparent during a second read-through or, arguably, a slow tear-it-apart first read. In these moments, I wonder if the Cheerleaders and Naysayers (as well as my uncategorized peers) actually felt my writing was great – or if they all suspected my story was a hopeless case, and were just too polite or lazy to tell me so.

This kind of bad attitude, this need to privately dismiss our peers’ imperfect first drafts, is what leads to poor editing in workshops, which eventually manifests itself into unexceptional writing. It’s true that only a handful of the writers in my past workshops will ever see their work published in a prestigious journal. It’s true that many of us will never finish writing a novel, much less see it in print. It’s true that most of us received an A for effort, regardless of whether our writing was flawed or flawless. But to dismiss any individual work as a hopeless case is nothing short of unfair. No piece of writing is a hopeless case. If an editor reads closely and analyzes the details, tears it apart page by page, he or she can always help lead the writer to a more fulfilling final draft. It’s not just about finding mistakes. It’s about investing the time and energy to show the writer that you believe in their work. Even if it means using a lot of ink.