How to make the editing process cumulative

Look familiar?

So I’m betting a big percentage of us spent at least some time building a Lego construct with some small human under the age of five over the holidays. Right? Yeah, me too.

I’ve got two nephews, each two years old, who are quite enthusiastic about such projects. And boy did they get Legos this year. Lincoln Logs, too, come to think of it. Spiky pieces, big and small, littering the floor, dumped onto tables. Everywhere.

But, despite their enthusiasm, these kids, being a bit inexperienced, often don’t set the right foundation for these mega-structures. Or they tack on pieces in the wrong places. As a result, these “buildings” of theirs tend to the toppling stage when they get too big, when too much is added in without taking a moment to stop and think about the overall structure.

This, believe it or not, is a lot like editing a novel.

I was reading an interview with Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain and A Sudden Light, in this month’s print edition of Writers Digest and I really appreciated a comment he made about finishing a novel:

“We’re building mountains, not molehills, and it takes a long time to do it, and I find that most writers – when I teach a writing workshop – think their book is done and it’s just not. You’ve got to get it [written], and then have smart people give you feedback, and then spend another year or so working on it, and then you’ve gotta do that again. And again. And it’s just not done yet. But we want it to be done so badly, we convince ourselves it must be.”

– Garth Stein, Garth Stein Illuminated, from Writer’s Digest February 2015 Print Edition

If you’re anything like me, you get a ton of feedback from smart people, as Mr. Stein suggests. I’m in a big critique group. I’m in a smaller critique group. I’ve sought out beta readers whenever I’ve been able to. I’ve even hired a professional editor. And I have an agent who’s an expert editor herself.

The result of all this feedback is a lot of Lego-shaped pieces that have to be connected to each other into a structure that doesn’t topple over. It has to have a solid foundation. The new pieces have to be tacked on with an experienced eye for the stability of the overall structure.

Not to be done by your average two year old.

To make this even harder, sometimes, when you get feedback from lots of different sources, the comments can seem to contradict each other. If you’re not careful, you can add something in in response to one person and then take it back out in response to the comments from another.

“I’m exhausted. I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.”

– Oscar Wilde

So how to you handle this? How do you make the editing process cumulative rather than contradictory? How do you build something that won’t topple over and will stand the tests of both time and scrutiny?

Maybe the answer by now is obvious. It’s at least simple, in my mind.

You need to make sure you distill each comment, each element of feedback, down to its essence.

Then you need to keep careful track of these essences.

I prefer an Excel spreadsheet for this, but the tools are not as important as the purpose. What you want to do is make sure you understand why your critique partner thinks your character shouldn’t get into the fight in that bar at that moment. It’s something about the character’s motivation or being true to the character, not so much the particular plot point.

And that’s usually the key. If you only look at the surface of a comment, you’ll usually hone in on the plot part of it. Go deeper. Find the essence. If you can’t find it, haul your critique partner into a coffee shop or pay for dinner, shine a hot light onto her forehead and grill her like a bad cop until you get it out of her.

When you start aligning feedback with character instead of plot, you’ve probably found the essence of the comment.

Once you have these essences, it’s much easier to make the process cumulative. Because if one person says, “John shouldn’t get into that fight right then” and the other says “What happened to that fight? It was my favorite part,” these seem contradictory. But when you understand that the first person is saying she didn’t understand why John would fight his old friend Bill at that point because they seemed like friends and that the second person is saying that she liked what John’s willingness to fight Bill told her about his feelings for Karen, you realize you can have John do something that shows his feelings for Karen without betraying his character by fighting an old friend when he probably wouldn’t do that. Cumulative, not contradictory.

You can only do that with essences, people. You need those essences. Gotta have the essences.

So make sure to get them when you work with those smart people giving you feedback.

And build that Lego tower strong, tall and proud.




  1. Reply

    YES…exactly. My favorite quote on writing/revising comes from Neil Gaiman. “When people tell you something’s wrong and doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” Fits in perfectly with your point, don’t you think?

    1. Reply

      Yes, absolutely! I just think it’s important to distill each comment down because once you go through so many rounds of feedback, you can start to forget why you made certain changes if you’re not careful to keep close track.

  2. Reply

    Well said! I often find myself changing something in a story in response to feedback, even though it doesn’t feel right to me, without really understanding why. Then it becomes unstable (like a Lego tower) because it doesn’t have my full support. I like your point about boiling the feedback down to its essence and going from there.

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