Backwards Logic: Advice on Editing

Editing is hard. I feel like I don’t even need to elaborate here. I don’t envy an editor’s job, and they only have to edit other people’s work. Editing your own work is like an unusual form of torture. I’ve described it, jokingly, but with a sincere tear in my eye, as:

  • Several hours of saying, “What was I thinking?”
  • Staring at a document until you start to sweat or cry blood
  • Repeatedly calling yourself a hack
  • Redoing several months’ worth of work

So it’s understandable that you’ll get reluctant to keep editing. You’ll need things like NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month) or heaven knows what else just to get that boot up your backside to get you to spit-shine that awful first draft (or second draft. Or third draft. Or eighth draft).

For me, even when I feel I’m really on a role with my editing, and even (gasp) enjoying it, the same thing keeps happening with my drafts: the beginning is always better than the middle, and leaps and bounds better than the end. Obviously, this is a problem, as a really good book can be absolutely ruined by a mediocre ending. What I think happens is I simply run out of energy by the time I’ve reached the end of my manuscript, and I’ve had so many more ideas on how I’m going to fix it more in the next draft that I tend to rush so I can start it already.

So I’m trying to edit backwards. Not for every draft, just every few drafts or so, I’ll start by editing the final chapter, then the chapter before, and the chapter before, and so on until I’m back to chapter one.

There are many things I like about this method, but my favourite three are these:

A New Angle

If you’ve been working on something for a long time, you will eventually hit that wall where you can’t bear to even look at it. Well, you have to still look at it, whether you like it or not. So why not look at it from behind? Starting at the end and working backwards lets you see it all in a different light. You’ll also notice things you might not have, because you might know the plot so well by now that you’re skimming parts. It’s much more difficult to skim backwards.

Foreshadowing

If you’re anything like me, you get too excited during drafts and, when you get an idea around the point you’re editing, you will just add it in, without warning. So, you have this new development, scene, or character, that wasn’t in any earlier draft. Fine, the next draft you can add some foreshadowing and put some work in to make sure it fits and doesn’t look like you just pulled it out of the air. Working backwards from the ending makes this process much easier; foreshadowing is life-changingly simple when you’ve rewritten the important scene already, and then work backwards through the buildup.

Stronger Ending

It also helps to edit the end again right after a front-to-back edit, because the ending is still fresh in your mind, so you will likely be all pumped up to work on it even more. Again, if you’re like me, you’ll find that you run out of steam towards the end of an edit, and the ending may suffer as a result. By starting at the end, you’re giving it more attention, and putting more energy in, and you’re probably more excited to get it done, too.

It’s such a simple idea; I’m actually a little disappointed in myself that I didn’t think of it sooner. So, if you’re struggling to edit your manuscript, why not try some backwards logic?

The Jane Eyre Test

I read a lot of books; this should come as no surprise. I also don’t always finish every book I start. Again, not a great shocker. As a writer, reading widely is something I find to be very important, but occasionally I’ll realise the book I’m reading has nothing to offer, even by way of the popular “what not to do”, but at the same time I like to give the author a fighting chance. So, I use what I call the Jane Eyre test, so called because the way everyone sold Jane Eyre to me was, “it’s a bit slow to start, but after about 100 pages it really gets going.” So that’s my test. 100 pages, and if I’m not gripped by then, and I can find no other reason to keep reading, I put it down and move on to the next one.

Most writing advice books, blogs, interviews, what have you, will advise new writers to begin with something gripping and exciting. Fast pace and the inciting incident within the first three chapters are encouraged. But a lot of older novels didn’t do this; Frankenstein begins with a series of letters from Walton to his sister, Dracula begins with Jonathan travelling for a reason so inconsequential I can’t remember what it was, and Jane Eyre begins with (gasp) a 10-chapter recount of her childhood, which she even acknowledges is a bit lengthy. Some of these older, slower-paced novels may not even pass the Jane Eyre test.

Does that mean they aren’t worth reading? Does it mean they aren’t good novels? I can’t answer that; I can only say that, by my standards as a child of the 90s-2000s, my higher demand for things to grab my attention early make such novels less appealing. Some authors trust their readers to stick with it because it’s going to get good later. Other authors don’t want to take that risk. And, while risk is less of an issue in novels than in the film, television, and video game industries, it is still a factor worth considering. There is a whole other discussion in risk-taking in writing, which we can save for another day.  I suppose it’s not too bold to claim that people have shorter attention spans and more things grabbing their attention these days, so slow beginnings in books perhaps aren’t the way to go anymore, lest your novel be deleted off the reader’s kindle in favour of something punchier.

Again, I can’t say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, only that it is a thing worth thinking about. In my opinion, I think slow moments always have their place, and that place is later in the book, once you’ve already roped your reader in. But what are your thoughts? Are you more fair than I am, and read further before giving up? Are you harsher than me, and put the book down after the first page? Do you find slower-paced books difficult to wade through, or do you find them more engaging than the faster-paced, attention-grabbing novels? Do you agree that it’s an old versus contemporary discussion, or do you reckon I’m over-simplifying?

Let’s discuss.

How to Sit

The thing about writing is that it requires a lot of sitting (unless you’re John Green and have a fancy treadmill desk), and sitting for a long time is very bad for you in very many ways, which I won’t go into because a) that’s a bit dark for a Saturday afternoon, and b) a quick Google search will feed your morbid curiosity.

Now at my day job I spend a lot of time sitting as well, to the point where the trust felt it necessary to send me on “DSE Training” which I nicknamed “How to Sit at a Desk” because that’s basically what it was. I was at first incredulous when I found that the training would last 90 minutes. I’ve been sitting for years, it isn’t exactly mentally taxing, and it requires minus effort to go from standing to sitting, so I went in reluctant to be taught anything, like most teenagers in school who weren’t me.

But some of the training was very useful for my role as an office clerk, and nearly all of it also applies to the permasitters known as writers, so I’ll share some of this information with the internet today, in the hopes that at least one other person will find it helpful (that’s basically why I write anything, to be honest).

So, without further preamble, here is Mel’s “How to Sit” training, condensed from a 90-minute seminar down to a 700-word blog post:

Keep Active

The woman running the seminar said, “the best position for your spine is the next position”. Any position, if held for too long, is bad for your back and other parts of your body, so sit back, sit up, stretch, roll your shoulders, point your toes, do things in your seat to keep you moving and try not to stay in exactly the same position for too long.

Both Feet on the Ground

Or, on the floor, as I’m sure few people have a garden office. Your feet should both be flat on the floor in front of you, not up on tippy-toes, not crossed, and not under your bum. If you’re short in the legs like me, you might need to get a foot rest. It’s not a huge investment (you can get one from Ikea for £10) and your body will thank you for it.

Find Excuses to Get Up

I know it might not be good for productivity, but you can do it for tiny things, like keeping a pen pot a bit further away so you need to get up and fetch it. Ideally though, just take five minutes every hour to stand up and do something else. My main go-to is to make a cup of tea: it takes about five minutes, I have to go down and up a flight of stairs, and the whole task is done while standing. I’ve got into the habit of pacing the kitchen while I wait for the tea to brew. Yes, it makes me look nervous, but it’s a short bit of exercise I can sneak into a three-minute window where I’d otherwise be standing still. A favourite for people who don’t drink caffeine is a glass of water. You have to keep getting up to refill it and, like tea, it makes you pee, which you also have to get up for. That’s also good for your kidneys.

Set Alarms

If you’re one of those writers who gets in the zone and completely tunes out the world while you’re writing, set an alarm about once an hour reminding you to stand up, grab a drink, or walk around your house. You can download programmes that will bring up a window to remind you to get away from your desk for five minutes if you have housemates or neighbours you don’t want to annoy with hourly alarm clocks.

So there are a few ways to hopefully save the spines of a few writers. They say you must suffer for your art, but in my world that means sacrificing time spent interacting with other humans, or enduring emotional hardships to inspire your next tear-jerker, not developing a hunch from sitting at your desk.