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Nine Roadblocks to Editing Your Writing (and What to Do About Them)

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Anyone who writes knows the challenges of editing. You’ve gotten your ideas down in that “shitty first draft.” Now you must look at your work with fresh eyes, fixing messy sentences and filling in plot holes. It’s useful to get help from others, whether they’re peers or professionals, but ultimately we have to edit our own work too. Some of us love polishing our writing, but for others, it’s an uphill slog. Our personalities stall our progress and throw roadblocks in our path. Here are nine that you might encounter during the editing process, along with tricks for dealing with them when they arise.

1. Perfectionism: If you’re a meticulous type of person, editing might come naturally to you. You enjoy reworking problem areas and finding the right word for the job. You might find, however, that your perfectionism sometimes leads to paralysis. The temptation to fix what you’ve written, again and again, makes it hard to know when your piece is done. Set yourself a “no more editing” deadline, or seek out encouraging others who will help you get your work out there and call it a day.

2. Focusing on Others: As much care as you put into your writing, you also devote a lot of attention to the people in your life. If this sounds like you, you might find editing to be a challenge. It seems selfish and daunting to block out time to improve your work. All of a sudden you need to help Grandma wash her car, or put in extra hours at the office. You get wrapped up in doing stuff for others while your draft sits there. Try getting others involved in the editing process, using their feedback as fuel.     

3. Goal Orientation: You have big ideas about what you want your writing to do. You envision an impact bigger than the day-to-day grind of editing, which can make it hard to sit down at your desk with your red pen (or its digital equivalent). Maybe you’ve written with a market in mind, or dream of shortcuts to take your project where you want it to go. But quality takes time and authenticity. As you edit, look beyond results to the truths you want to convey. What do you have to say, and what’s the realest way to say it?   

4. Introspection: The more introspective among us use emotions to fuel their writing, but those same feelings can get in the way of the editing process. You look over your draft and see only flaws. You wonder if your writing is any good, and if it’s worth putting in the time to edit. These thoughts are discouraging. Seek out reality checks about your work’s pros and cons, and work steadily, a little at a time, to polish it.  

5. Intellectualizing: If your writing has an intellectual foundation, you may find yourself focusing on the ideas as you sit down to edit. The resulting work may be well thought out, or it may get bogged down in analysis. Look beyond intellectual concepts at other vital aspects of your writing. It might be helpful to have a list of criteria about clarity, structure, reader interest, and other elements important to your genre.

6. Committee Mentality: Some of us have a hard time seeking the necessary feedback to improve our work, but if you tend toward the opposite, asking all your friends and mentors for their opinion, you’ll find yourself listening to a lot of competing voices. Resources about writing and editing can also be expert opinions that confuse with their disagreement. Filter others’ ideas through your own goals: are they right for your work or not?

7. Distractibility: It was so much fun to write your first draft that you want to start something new again! Why spend time on a boring editing process? Or maybe you should change what you wrote so it’s completely different, make it much more interesting… Without focus, it’s hard to polish your work to its potential. Keep in mind how exciting it will be to have your project finished, and inject novelty into the editing process. Instead of working on new writing, edit in a new location, or intersperse editing time with other activities.

8. Impatience: This writing has been so much work that you just want to be done with it. Isn’t it good enough already? You’ve said what you had to say. Sometimes a light touch is wisest, but there are generally areas to improve that you’ll find with a further read-through. That in no way diminishes the impact or power of your work. If you’re fed up with it for the time being, set it aside, but give yourself a deadline to come back to it.   

9. Inertia: You find it hard to summon the energy for editing. It’s hard work, it’s not pleasant, and it’s not part of your daily routine. You might intend to edit, but find that hours have passed and you’ve spent them puttering around the garage, or checking Facebook. An Internet-blocking program might help if digital inertia is an issue for you, and a new environment might give you fresh energy. If it’s novelty, build editing into your routine, so your inertia will work for your editing process rather than against it.    

There are many roadblocks you might run into while editing, some of which are related to your specific project, rather than the personality-based ones I described above. If you’re looking for coaching through the editing process, or help from an outside editor, I offer both services and often provide them together. Feel free to reach out to set up a Skype call, or offer your own ideas in the comments. Happy editing!   

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