How I Edit

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Sujata Massey

The longer I spend as a writer, the more the profession teaches me. It’s only recently that I’ve figured out that the more important part of building my novels happens when I’m editing them.

That’s not to say I want rather be an editor, rather than a creative writer. No! That task is reserved for sainted, detail-oriented people with steel-trap memories. However, when writers go through the line-editing that’s part of a book’s pre-publishing cycle, they have to look at their work objectively and make changes. Some people might prefer to race through the process and only address the editor’s queries. I was like this a quarter century ago.

What I’ve learned about my process these days is that as a tremendous amount of story-building occurs for me in the fourth and fifth and sixth drafts of a book. This story-building takes time, meaning my edit of the editor’s edit usually takes three to four months. In that time, I create many extra pages—sometimes a new chapter, sometimes a collection of new scenes. At the same time, I go all out to recognize paragraphs or even sentences that are non-essential.

I think editing is more enjoyable than writing a first draft, but it’s a tense time for me. Knowing that the words I choose to let stand—or to alter—are actually going to be published makes me doubt them. Adding to the stress are my troubles with focus, a side effect of two conditions I have: Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome, and Rheumatoid Arthritis.

While these illnesses are well managed, I still am dealing with brain fog. In my personal experience, it means that I have difficulty staying focused on writing, especially if I have to make a literary fix that forces me to rely on my memory of events taking place in the manuscript. It could be as subtle as making sure I don’t introduce a character’s name several chapters after he’s appeared—yes, truly—or forgetting a character’s car or street address. Thank goodness for the ‘word search’ magnifying glass at the top of my computer screen. I also find myself leafing through earlier books in the series for facts about cars, streets, and eye color.

Some writers have series bibles where all these facts are kept handy. Those are the writers with good enough memories, and organization, to spend time on such a project. Will I do it someday? Hmm.

Another punishing aspect of editing is dealing with a manuscript in Track Changes format, which is par for the course in publishing these days. It’s vital that the first editing go-round is done with track changes on—but oh, the horror of red, green, blue and black words cluttering up the page and scrambling my brain’s ability to follow. But on a later editing pass, I find that turning off the track changes format helps me read with enjoyment and understanding and actually see where the real errors are.

Here are a few more favorite lessons that have come to me during a quarter century of editing my own work.

Seize the morning. When I briefly had a job in university public relations, I once phoned the late novelist and writing professor, John Barth, around ten in the morning. He answered the phone, but the first words out of his mouth were a grumpy, “I always write in the morning.” Since then, I’ve realized most of my writing colleagues, whether or not they have day jobs, write during the morning and do something physical in the afternoon. Our brain is supposed to be sharper in the mid- to late morning due to a rise in body temperature and high cortisol level ( but there are some advantages for early evening work, too).

Interestingly, I’m a pretty early riser—usually naturally awake between 5 and 6:30 a.m. However, I can’t bring myself to face my editing work until after my coffee, my breakfast, dog walking and tidying up my room. Throw in washing my face and doing a little yoga, and two hours have already passed. However, I now get that I was aiming to reach peak performance time, which starts for me around 9 a.m.

Intention setting, journaling, and prayer. There’s no one-size-fits-all remedy every morning. I’ve come to cherish spending time each morning with my journal—I’ve picked up the Morning Pages habit taught by Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist’s Way. In the journal, or in my daily planner, I also write down how I intend to feel when editing. I might aspire to approach my pages with curiosity, or to work with a light touch. I sometimes scribble: I am confident this book is going the right way. Sometimes I just think about bringing in noises, smells, the sights and other environmental details. It’s always different, because a book needs so many varying elements and qualities. At the end of this intention setting, I close my eyes and silently pray that I will be able to accomplish the small goal.

Chores are Toast! Seriously—there’s no need to make much more than toast when you are writing. Believe in your heart that most housework, gardening, get-togethers and errands are an option, rather than a duty. When I’m deep in an edit, I only do car errands, including groceries, once a week. I ask family members to do more of the things they might expect me to do, and if they don’t do it the way I would, no big deal. I don’t outsource everything—I still do feed myself, even if it’s leftovers or even potato chips.

Fact-check while you edit. My novels are set in 1920s India about a field that I never studied (law). This means that it’s essential that I run the details of history, law, and culture by different experts before signing off that a book is ready to go. I do most of this fact-checking during the line-edit. Why so late? My novel evolves so much during an edit, that I would rather have it close to what would be printed before troubling my experts—because I try only to trouble them once per book I don’t want to waste their time.

Remember, editing and travel don’t mix. These are fighting words for a blog post appearing at a site called Murder Is Everywhere. However, I’ve found that being in another place—especially if it’s beautiful—does not inspire a desire to hide myself way to write or edit. Morning is my happy mind time, and when I’m traveling, I want to spend these precious hours on walks or pool or breakfast. After feeling frustrated when away from home this summer, I’m now going to avoid making any travel commitments for dates that might occur before an edit’s finished. Of course, this is vastly inconvenient for your travel companions. But if they love you, they will already understand you march to the beat of a drummer in a totally weird time zone.

Set an End Time. I mean a daily ending time, because we can only manage what happens in a day—and still there are surprises.  If I start work at nine, I look at the clock and tell myself that I will be through with writing work by three—and yes, that will allow for lunch break, dog walking, and maybe another small activity. Of course, the timetable can be a lot shorter—as short as an hour, even. Everybody’s life has different demands. However, when I know I’ve fulfilled an obligation to work until a certain time, it gives me a feeling of completion—and confidence that the project is going well.

When There Are No Words. When absolutely no words are coming from brain to page, I have learned its OK to walk away, even if I’ve only been at it for 45 minutes. Very likely I’ll be back with more energy in a few hours.  Sometimes, the feeling of burnout from editing is so extreme that I have to take a full day, or even a weekend off. I consider these breaks the equivalent of respite care. At such times, I allow myself sleep, even in the daytime, and activities that are supremely relaxing. Because I don’t know what really will work to change my mindset, I pack my weekend with a variety of escape activities. For instance: one exercise walk, plus half an hour in the pool. A phone call to a friend, and then reading a good book from start to finish. I might bake a cake or put on a 90s funk playlist and dance for a while. The only stuff I stay away from are screens—phone screens, laptop screens, iPads, and TVs. The point is to detach from screens.

These insights  feel very fresh. Three days ago, I turned in the line-edit of my fourth Perveen Mistry novel. Although I’m very excited about this book, for most of the last four months it felt like a monster was living inside my laptop, taking the fun and freedom out of my life. I thought the book controlled me; but it turns out that by taking care of myself, I got back the control.

So what’s next? I’m using my high-cortisol morning hours in the garden, ripping through weeds and planting new perennials in the bare spots. In the afternoon, I have cold coffee over ice cream. I am thinking of watching a very cozy British gardening show and baking a cake, and of meeting two friends to see Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris followed by a ladylike restaurant dinner.

Above all, I won’t make myself feel pressured to do fiction work of any sort for a few days. I am steadfast about recognizing that finished a long task and don’t have it hanging over me anymore. I remind myself that the life of a professional writer is an endless circle of creating, editing, and dreaming. Each stage has its glories and terrors—and it will always pass.