Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
You’ve probably heard the advice about writing hot and editing cold*—write freely without censor, trying any- and everything that might work, that could lead to a wonderfully creative, dramatic, or satisfying line or passage or scene, but only edit after giving yourself some distance from the text.
The writing hot part isn’t usually too difficult, though many times we do cool ourselves down, analyzing as we write, editing as we write, rather than simply allowing wild and wonderful and hotly passionate ideas to shoot off our fingers.
But rather than giving you suggestions for writing without a censor, an inner critic, or an editing witch perched on your shoulder—which I’ve covered before—I want to focus this article on the edit cool part of the advice.
Note: As for writing hot, I’m not saying you don’t have to write, don’t have to push through, when you’re not feeling it, when words are a struggle. I am saying that if you allow yourself to simply write, even force yourself to write—good stuff, bad stuff, or horrendous stuff—that you can usually get a momentum going and will produce something usable. Or at least something that will lead to something usable.
So while writing hot is important and a worthy topic, it’s not the focus of this article.
Again and again I have writers approach me with a manuscript’s first draft. And before I even see it, I advise the writer that it’s probably not ready for an edit.
If you’ve been around The Editor’s Blog a while, you know that I constantly remind writers that a first draft is not a finished manuscript. It can’t be one. There is simply too much in a novel—too much that has to be linked and foreshadowed and layered and finessed—for a first draft to be sufficient.
Story threads and subplots can’t be tightened on a first draft when you’re just writing a few of the threads at the end of that first draft. You have to go back and make or strengthen connections that you’d not included or only hinted at when you wrote earlier sections of the story.
Even if you are a plotter with detailed outlines, once the actual story words are written, you still need to make adjustments, playing up some elements while reducing the emphasis on or eliminating others. Maybe you need to hone mood or tone or word choices.
Changes might be as wide-reaching as cutting out a subplot or character, giving a main character a different motivation, changing the setting. Or you might decide a high proportion of a character’s thoughts should become dialogue. Or changes might be as subtle as changing the words a character uses to refer to another character or to an important event from his past.
Changes might need to be made at the chapter level or the word level or, more likely, at both and everywhere in between as well.
You may find you have too many characters or too few. You may have to play with pace and syntax and tone and subtext. You may have to rearrange events or scenes, cut back story, add or adjust dialogue or description, give characters quirks, even change a character’s goals.
These are just a few of the issues you’d change with subsequent drafts—take my word when I say that a first draft isn’t a final draft and that every manuscript may see, may require, a half dozen or more drafts.
Now that we’ve confirmed that a novel manuscript needs multiple drafts and rewrites and edits, let’s look at the real topic of this article—editing or evaluating your story with a cool editor’s eye.
To evaluate a story, or some part of it, objectively, you’ve got to be able to step away from the intimate ties you have with your story and read it as any other reader would.
You’ve spent months or years creating characters, a fictional world and story events, and you’ve done everything you know how to do to make those characters, events, and that world seem real. Those people and places and events are no doubt real to you.
You know the characters, their motivations and histories, better than you know many of the 3-D people you interact with each day. You know what your characters have done, what’s been done to them, and you know their emotional triggers. You know what people in your fictional worlds do and what they want and the lengths they’ll go to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their secrets.
You understand your characters’ emotions and motivations, their strengths and weaknesses. You feel the rhythms of your story world and the cadences of your characters’ speech.
You feel the atmosphere of your fictional setting, maybe even hear the bells or the rush of cars on rain-slicked streets or the background murmur of waves hitting the shore.
But what you need to be able to do when you’re ready to edit—or when you need to evaluate a section of the story—is to read that text cold, to evaluate it based on what’s on the page, not what’s in your head and heart.
And to be able to evaluate in this manner, you need distance—head and heart distance—from your characters and story events.
I’ve offered this same advice to a handful of writers who approached me, just this week, about a possible edit—
Once you finish the first draft, put the manuscript aside for at least a month (maybe only a few weeks for a novella or a few days for a short story). Find something else to do—start a new writing project, get back into a hobby, have fun with the family. Whatever you do, don’t touch the manuscript you just finished. Don’t peek at it, don’t read through the good parts, don’t check just that one little thing that’s now bugging you.
Make notes if you absolutely have to remember something—without looking at the manuscript—and then put those aside. Get out of the mode you were in while you wrote and occupy your brain with other pursuits.
This is hard; I know it is. But once you actually stop thinking about the story for a few days, it becomes easier to do.
Why do we do this, step away and create distance between our minds and emotions and our stories? Because distance allows us to see errors and weak places in the text. Distance enhances our insight; we can see problems that had earlier been lost in a haze of enchantment over our story.
When we love, we overlook flaws and weaknesses; we quite literally don’t see them anymore or we make adjustments to deal with them. We do it with the people we love, and we do it with our creations.
But with novels, we have to take a dispassionate look and eliminate the bad, change the weaknesses to strengths. Readers won’t love our stories the way we do, not with the faults that keep readers from appreciating them. And not only might they not love them, critics might actively savage your stories, creating an additional handicap to be overcome when you release the next book.
Readers deserve your best. That best requires that you take a cool, dispassionate look at your manuscripts and make the changes that create a better story.
Once you’ve cleared the story and all the emotion-based connections from your mind—this may take longer for some stories than for others, depending on how long you’ve been living with the story and how deep you were in it to the exclusion of other activities—print a clean copy of the manuscript, take it to a quiet place, and read.
Now make your notes. If you’re reading from a first draft, you’ll probably have lots and lots of notes. You may have more notes and suggestions than you have regular text. And that’s okay. If you wrote hot, you’ll have all sorts of ideas that you didn’t use or that didn’t work or that need clarifying. Or you might have had a great idea for a character or subplot that didn’t come to you until three quarters of the way through the story and now you need to weave it into the manuscript in a handful of earlier scenes. Now is the time to analyze and make sense of what you have, determine what you want to develop further and what you want to drop, and see what is lacking completely.
And then, after you’ve read and made your decisions, it’s time to go back to the writing.
You may end up doing some variation of this hot/cold approach several times for the same manuscript, though you may only take a full month or a couple of weeks for cooling down period between the first draft and your first evaluation of it. That is, you might not need as much time to distance yourself from the feel of the story for successive drafts as you did for the first draft.
You might also need a couple of weeks of distance between a final draft and your last polishing edit. Or you could enlist someone unfamiliar with the story do that final pass.
Distance does bring clarity in this type of endeavor. Allow yourself the time to create that needed distance.
But, but, but . . .
Yes, I can already hear the exceptions heading my way—
But I’m on a deadline. I don’t have time to wait a month between one draft and another. You don’t understand contracts and the publisher’s demands.
But I told my fans I’d publish this weekend.
But I’ll lose interest if I wait that long.
But I didn’t budget time for some cooling-off period.
Yes, there are exceptions to this advice as there always are for any advice. But we’re looking at best practices here. And now that you know what kind of time you’ll need, you have no excuse not to budget for it.
Build in the time for a cooling off period between drafts. And if you’ve never before considered having to do it, build in time to rewrite as well. Until you understand the value of rewriting, understand that rewriting and editing is where a story truly takes shape, it’s likely that you’ll balk at such advice. But if you’re serious about a writing career, you need to take advantage of techniques that work. If you’re out to make a few bucks, don’t care about your reputation as a writer, feel free to ignore any advice. But if you want a long-term reputation as a competent writer, learn the ins and outs that will help you become one. If you want to write high-quality books, learn the methods that produce good books.
Writing a novel isn’t effortless, not for most of us. That doesn’t mean we can’t get better at it or that it doesn’t get easier as we write more and more. It also doesn’t mean that writing isn’t enjoyable and rewarding. It does mean that you have to work, especially on those fiction elements and writing skills at which you’re less than expert.
If your dialogue is weak—if it stinks—then you could go heavy on action and description as a fix. If you have no idea how to include setting details, you could ignore them. If you find foreshadowing difficult, you might forgo adding any. But these choices, this avoidance pattern, will no doubt create a much weaker story than what you should be producing.
If you instead discover your weaknesses and work to eliminate them, something that rewriting and self-editing will force you to do, then your stories will improve. You won’t have to hide weaknesses with your strengths; you’ll instead increase the number of strengths you bring to story.
But what if you are on a deadline?
If you’re writing to a deadline, this is probably not your first book, so it’s likely you have experience with stepping away from a manuscript and allowing your brain to grow cool with it; you already know the advantages to editing cool. But if the completion of a first draft is bumping up against your deadline, my suggestion is that you see if you can change the deadline. At this point in your career, you know a first draft isn’t going to cut it. And if this is something that always happens with you, change your work habits or request a longer time to write. Build in the time needed to edit cool.
Yes, some writers can churn out a decent story and rush it into print without a lot of time between edits and rewrites, but you don’t have to make a practice of doing that. And your story will be stronger with a cooling period between drafts or between drafts and editing. Do you want to produce only a decent story or a truly good one? If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you want to write good stories. You don’t want to merely get by.
Following tested and true techniques will help in your quest to craft solid and high-quality stories. And building in the time needed to improve your manuscript is wise. What’s the point in working on a first draft for 18 months only to skip over some of the most important steps in the creative process just so you can get the story up on Amazon two months earlier?
What I’m advising is that you not rush and not skimp on the practices and techniques that create strong stories. You wouldn’t skip one of the major fiction elements—character, dialogue, or setting—in your novels. Why skip a major and necessary step in their creation?
Write hot. Let your ideas and words spew creatively. Let imagination reign as you create. Let words flow unimpeded without censor or challenge. Write with passion.
But edit and analyze with a cooler head and heart. Figure out what works, what doesn’t, and the reasons for each. Use what you learn about writing one manuscript help you with subsequent stories.
Edit by looking for weaknesses—poke at those weaknesses to see where they break down. And then fix them. Rather than remain in awe of your stories, look at them objectively, as a stranger would. Examine them as a critic would. And then shore up the weak places or eliminate them altogether. Fix problem areas before your critics have a change to highlight and ridicule them.
In order to make your stories as good as you think they are, step back and analyze them with a cool mind and an unbiased, dispassionate heart.
Luke Sullivan offered the advice to write hot and edit cold (to ad writers) in his book Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This. Don’t know about Mr. Whipple or just want a trip down memory lane? One of the Charmin ads from 1970—