Author Liz Fenton—half of the writing team, with Lisa Steinke, behind bestselling novels like The Good Widow—recently told me about her fitness regimen at Orange Theory.
“I hate working out!” she said. She dreads it every time she goes, and doesn’t enjoy it while she’s there. “But I love the way my shoulders look, and my arms. That’s what editing is like.”
Liz and Lisa’s latest book, Girls Night Out was released earlier this year after a more than usually grueling edit process. Despite their author’s note in the book that the revisions for this one nearly broke them, “It’s a much better book,” Liz says simply—just the way she loves her body as a result of the workouts she hates.
Genius may not be quite "one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” as Edison famously said—but it’s at least a solid fifty-fifty, and after the thrill of creating your manuscript (especially in the breakneck rush of NaNo), much of the “perspiration” part comes in the editing process.
Editing is where the magic of a story really comes to life—but it’s often a lot of work—and not in the immediately satisfying way of first-drafting.
I liken it to sculpting: A first draft is when the figure is roughed out, and form begins to emerge from a meaningless chunk of stone. This is the thrilling, godlike process of creation in its purest form, when the artist’s imagination literally creates something from nothing, and it can be intoxicating, seductive, even deliciously reckless as the artist follows the Muse wherever she dances.
But then the detail work begins—the amorphous shape of a face must be chiseled and polished again and again and again in ever finer adjustments to create and define precise features, details, proportions. Pull up a picture of Michelangelo’s David and imagine the dedication, work, and patience that went into creating such a detailed, luminous work of art. Roughing out the initial form is merely the first step; the real work of sculpting—or of writing—often happens in the endless, minute, painstaking fine-tuning.
That’s not the romantic vision of being a writer that may have first lit the fire in us (although that glowing illusion is probably a long way in your rearview mirror if you’ve been at this for any time at all). It’s more the quotidian reality of a master craftsman. If you want to be a concert violinist, an opera singer, a ballerina, a brilliant actor, you practice over and over and over—often on the same piece of work. You are exploring, honing, fleshing out, developing your craft along with this particular piece of art.
What separates artists from hobbyists is the willingness to do that work, to persist in a project past the immediately gratifying part of inspiration and creation. It’s easy to head to the gym right after your New Year’s resolution, or at the beginning of your weight-loss program, or starting a fitness regimen with a group of friends. But the people who grow strong and healthy and fit are those who show up—day after day, lap after lap, lift after lift, till their muscles tremble and ache. They may hate working out—but they love the effects of having worked out.
I do think there’s joy in editing—and even a great deal of that same creative fire that draws most writers into the craft in the first place. I work with a number of authors who tell me that they are “editing” or “process” writers—the first draft is almost a glorified outline for them; the revision process is where they dive deep and immerse themselves in the story, and much of the delight they take in their craft comes from that in-depth exploration and figuring out all the options, like the thrill of those locked-room games where participants have to use their imaginations, determination, and resourcefulness to find the way out. (These may be the literary equivalent of those “feel the burn,” endorphin-high crazy people who actually love working out.)
But if you’re not one of those folks—if editing (or working out…) feels like the specter of Death before you, how can you find the positives in the necessary editing and revision process?
- Try to enjoy the process: I recently started doing yoga again, and even when I am holding a pose that’s making one group of muscles scream in agony, I like the mindfulness part of practice that also lets me notice the pleasure of a gorgeous stretch across others; or enjoy the newfound ease of a posture that was impossible for me to sustain when I started; or even relish the effort I’m putting forth into holding a side plank and the way it works underemployed muscles (and the ache the next day that makes me feel like a workout badass). Even in the midst of a hard revision, there’s pleasure to be found in working parts of your craft and your mind that you may not use in first-drafting.
- Find the “workout” that works for you: A few weeks ago I accompanied my husband to his gym on a guest pass, and realized why I joined a yoga studio—I’m not comfortable in a gym atmosphere; it makes me feel inadequate, self-judgy, and overwhelmed in a way yoga never does. Gyms are not for me—but I’ve found a way to achieve my fitness goals that does work for me. There are lots of approaches to editing—find the one that resonates with you.
- Use the pain: Liz Fenton also told me that the worst of the edit process for Girls Night Out, when she lost faith in her own ability to get her story where it needed to go, wound up informing and deepening the main characters’ struggles, bringing them more fully to life in a way readers and reviewers have called out as among the most impactful and authentic parts of the book.
- Explore the unexpected: Despite the lack of coordination that’s been a hallmark of my six-foot-tall existence, it turns out I love balancing poses. I would never have thought, but I’ve found that tree pose or eagle or warrior three sharpen my focus and make me feel more centered, and lately I notice I am developing an equilibrium and grace I never thought I’d lay claim to. I’ve worked with countless authors who discover unexpected storylines, character arcs, and plot developments in editing that wind up forming the heart of their story.
- Revel in your progress: I’ve been at this yoga thing now for about six months—time enough to notice that I have much greater flexibility and strength, more energy and balance, and I love the way I look. I also know that it’s a process: I’ll continue to reap these benefits—but only if I stick with my practice. Mastering edits and revisions for one manuscript doesn’t necessarily guarantee the next ones will spring from your mind fully formed and beautifully polished. You will likely always have to plow through edits and revisions—but like working out, the more you do it the stronger you become—and the easier it gets. And just like working out, with each edit you push yourself a little further, making yourself capable of more with every subsequent story you write.
You may never be one of those authors who honestly loves editing—but you’ll appreciate the benefits when you parade your tight, lean, hot-body manuscript in front of agents, editors, and readers.
What is your favorite part of the editing process? Your least favorite?
Tiffany Yates Martin is privileged to help authors tell their stories as effectively, compellingly, and truthfully as possible. In more than 25 years in the publishing industry she’s worked both with major publishing houses and directly with authors (through her company FoxPrint Editorial), on titles by New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestsellers. She presents editing and writing workshops for writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences and writes for numerous writers’ sites and publications.