Thursday, May 15, 2014

10 Ways to Keep Your Focus While You Edit

Editing is one of those things that will either feel like swimming with dolphins through a rainbow sea or trudging with Artax through the Swamp of Sadness. It can be horribly demoralizing watching your baby sink to the depths of what looks like depravity. You're editing and suddenly you think, "This is awful. Why am I bothering?" or "What was I thinking?" or "This is driving me crazy, and I wrote it! What will a reader think?"

With every negative thought, your project looks like it's sinking deeper and deeper into that pile of mud. But you've got to remember (spoiler alert): At the end of the movie, Atreyu is riding happily across a meadow on the back of his beloved Artax. You know why? Because he didn't give up. To that end, I've compiled a happy little list of ways to keep you from giving up when it feels like you just can't go any further with this $%*#@ editing process.

1. Find a happy place. I mean this quite literally. Where are you sitting while you edit? Is your creative space encouraging or soul-crushing? Is there cheerful art around you? I don't mean things that will distract you, but if you're in a gray office with no light coming through the black curtains, the experience isn't going to be pleasant. Make your space pleasant.

2. Pace yourself. I know it feels like if you can just work one day from dawn until dusk without stopping thenyoullfinishthisdamnthingnoneverstop-, it's not. I've been there. It will always take longer than you think. Knowing that, pace yourself. How long can you work before you start losing focus? Work for about 2/3 that amount of time, then give yourself a break. I work 2-3 hours before I allow myself a half hour break. I might watch a sitcom, read a magazine, look on Pinterest (with a timer in place or THERE GOES MY DAY), or something that does not take brain power. Once my break is over, I'll do another stint. Maybe you can go longer; maybe you need 20-minute work sprints with 5-minute breaks. Find what keeps you productive and stick to it.

3. Give yourself rewards. What do you enjoy doing that has nothing whatsoever to do with writing? Place those rewards in your break time. It helps SO MUCH. Goals are important; set them and reward their completion. Did you finish the three chapters you wanted to? Eat a cookie. Look up pictures of puppies at the beach. Crank up some Fun. and have a dance party. Whatever you need to do to get some dopamine going.

4. Make sure you actually do set goals. Remember that editing is a layering process. Have specific goals for each layer. Make a to-do list. It will be much easier to pace yourself if you can look at your list and think, "Okay, I'm gonna get #1 crossed off today." Even if it's 1 out of 25, that's still significant progress. And for heaven's sake, don't downplay these goals. "Well, I edited for five hours but only finished one chapter. I'm a failure." Um, but you edited for FIVE HOURS. That is some serious work. Who cares how far you got? Obviously that chapter needed five hours of work, and you put in those five hours.

5. Read your piece out loud. This is especially helpful in the final stages of editing, when you want to make sure the language and sentence structure are working. It's also handy for spotting typos and grammatical errors. This is tough for longer pieces (novels, anyone?) but it's an absolute must for blogs, articles, or poems. Read it out loud. Then have someone you trust read it out loud. If they trip up while reading a sentence because of the way it's worded, chances are other people will trip up, too.

6. Have your favorite drink on hand. I'm sorry, but this totally works for me. It might seem silly for you--that's fine. To each his own. But if I know that I get to drink coffee while I'm editing, I'm suddenly much more eager to get started. If I'm editing after 5 pm, a nice glass of red wine takes over. Mmmm. Now I feel like a romantic figure from an adventure novel, tucked away in their study with their wine, furiously perfecting their manuscript. I feel like a character from Downton Abbey. Yes, I'm fully aware this is completely a Pavlov's dog kind of response, but it gets my butt in the chair. And it tricks me into enjoying it.

7. Don't be too hard on yourself. This tip goes out especially to newer writers. Once you've been writing a while it's easier to be able to gauge your work with less bias (okay, in theory, and not always--we writers are a finicky bunch), but new writers seem to constantly have this mean, invisible parrot sitting on their shoulder, assuring them that they are not a writer and therefore this writing is crap and therefore NO YOU ARE NOT DONE EDITING THIS SENTENCE IS STILL CRAP and that goes on for waaaaaayyy too long. I can't tell you how many times a client has sent me a draft for a blog post to edit with all kinds of disclaimers--they know it's terrible, they hope I can work with it, cut out whatever I want, etc, etc. And it turns out to be amazing; I barely have to touch it before I click "publish." So chill out, okay? You've got to be done sometime.

8. Then again, be a little harder on yourself. You can ignore this tip if you relate to the evil little parrot situation in #7. But there are many writers out there who are just a little too cocky for their own good. Who don't think they even need to edit. If you catch yourself talking about your work more than you're actually working on your work, then you might be one of these. Are you a magical unicorn who produces award-winning, best-selling manuscripts simply by fluttering your eyelashes? No? Then trust me, you need to edit. We all do. J.K. Rowling does, for pete's sake. Practice some introspection and decide how hard you actually need to be on yourself. If you're like many artists, including myself, you may daily fluctuate between the demeaning parrot from #7 to the crazy god-of-writing everyone-else-is-wrong perspective. That's okay. Just check in and realize that there's a 99.9% chance you're actually somewhere in the middle.

9. Have editing friends! This is how you know where in the middle you actually stand. Editing friends are the people who will shoo the mean parrot off your shoulder. They'll bring you down to earth when you're floating off into your dreams of grandeur. They know you. They know your work. They can tell you honestly what needs to improve and what really is frickin' incredible. They'll read out loud with you; they'll listen to you read out loud. They'll comment on your google docs and they'll point out their favorite scenes. Editing friends are pure gold. Pick people you trust, who have experience both with writing and with your genre. Pick people who will be honest but loving. Then give them lots of coffee and cookies (See #3).

10. Remember why you're doing this. Why do you need to write this novel? What's so important about having a blog, anyway? Do you know why you started writing in the first place? Whether your reasons are personal, spiritual, commercial, mental, physical--whatever--make sure you have them. Have reasons that inspire you. Know why you're doing this, and write it down somewhere prominent so you can frequently remind yourself. Write for something bigger, and let that fuel you as you trudge. Don't stop. Artax wouldn't want you to stop.

Keep writing. 


  1. I LOVED this article! (You had me at Artax.) I loved it for two reasons: one, because you're so fun and engaging, and two, because I could relate to all ten points in your article! I agree, a happy place is a MUST! Mine were: First writing, a cabin in Pine Cove, second, a Brazilian coffee shop with a couch and fireplace, the last one, at an isolated corner at a Starbucks) Treats? Oh yeah! Breaks? I wasn't so good at those, sometimes I would still be in my PJs and look up and it would be dark! I'm sharing your blog, you are awesome Heather!!