Editing feels a lot like undoing the work you just did. First draft is about belief — in the story (if you’re writing fiction), in the argument (if you’re writing nonfiction), in your existence as a writer. Editing feels like doubt: now you have to question what you just did. It’s the shadow side of writing, the part that doesn’t sound glamorous at all.
You break a sweat editing, but it’s creative work too.
Editing is a lot like composing music. You set up these themes that play out through the story. As I edit, I’m aware that these stories are polyphonic. there’s more than one song being played, and they play against each other. Read through and make note of the things that pop up over and over again — minor characters, props, settings, phrases, bits of atmosphere.
It’s a real shift in view, to look at a work as a whole. The bigger the work, the bigger the challenge. Poems, short stories, single scenes, those are easy to see at a glance. Novels and long essays: architectural.
Look for what’s too much, what’s just in the wrong place, what’s missing. Read it aloud and find the places where you trip, where it’s too long, where there’s a gap or an unexplained shift in tone or subject matter. In particular, look for things where you summarize what should play out as a scene, and vice versa.
Make sure you can see what the pieces are, so you can move them around. I’m using the Scrivener editing software, where a project is secretly a folder full of files and subfolders. You can build a text file for each scene, look at the scenes as a list or a cork board full of notecards, and shift the scenes around. Before I bought this nifty tool, I used to do something equivalent: set up a folder and have files in it, one per scene, and a sequence document that kept track of where they went.