Unleash Your Inner Editor (and Kill Your Darlings)

15:00 EST - Jan 24, 2024

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S J Watson

S J Watson is the bestselling author of BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, which became a phenomenal international success and was turned into a film starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong. He has since published two further psychological thrillers, SECOND LIFE and FINAL CUT, and has recently set up THE WRITERS’ LODGE, which aims to help and support writers at every stage of their creative writing journey. S J Watson is about to embark on a public novel writing project called THE EXPERIMENT, which will see him write and publish his own draft zero of a novel on Substack.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

For me and most of my writer friends, books are made in the edit. Some people will write their first draft very quickly, and then they will end up with a fairly rough first draft. That's what I do, and it's what I would tend to recommend to people who are not quite sure which way to go. But there are people out there who write their first draft very slowly, essentially editing as they go.

Using a Real-Life Example

Just as an illustration before we dive into how important I think editing is, for Before I Go to Sleep, my first book, if you were to consider the first draft of Before I Go to Sleep and compare it to the finished final book that you can order online or buy off the shelf, I think probably only 40 percent roughly of the first draft is unchanged.

And by unchanged, I mean, I've probably moved sentences around. I've obviously corrected typos and chosen better words, but essentially the material is more or less the same for about 40 percent of the book.

For the remainder, I think 30 percent of it was substantially changed. Around a third of the first draft I completely rewrote. The scene may be the same, but I've changed the setting, perhaps, or I've changed the feel of it, or it's substantially rewritten.

And if my maths is correct… 30 percent of the finished book wasn't in the first draft, so it's brand new material.

So, 60 percent of the book essentially was created or recreated in the editing stage. Hopefully, that gives you an idea of how important the edit is.

Identifying Your Inner Gladiator

If you're fortunate enough to get to the point where your book is with an editor or your book is with an agent, they will generally help you do the edit. But of course, our task is to get the book to the point where it's good enough to be considered for publication or to be considered by an agent.

So, that's essentially what we're talking about now: the edit that we do before we really show it to anybody within the publishing industry or send it to be self-published, if that's the route we've chosen.

I chose the title “Unleash the Inner Editor” because I find it quite useful to think of your inner editor as a gladiator. This is the part of you, of your creative self, that's going to come in and really fix things.

That can feel quite exhilarating. I find editing quite an exhilarating part of the book-writing process. It can be quite scary for reasons that are probably fairly obvious, but… you've essentially got to go in and really move things around.

And I think there's always a sense of fear that you might be trying to fix something that isn't broken and making things worse. But the inner editor is your gladiator fighting in your corner, and that's a good way of thinking about it. 

Stage One: Leaving Your Writing Alone

A hugely important part of the process, weirdly, is the easiest, because I think it's essential to leave the book alone.

After you've written your first draft, leave it alone for as long as you can. Jane Austen famously — well, this is what I've read anyway — she used to lock her first draft in a bottom drawer and give the key to a friend with the instructions not to release the key for a year.

So, Austen used to leave her first draft alone and untouched for a whole year. I think that's a bit of a tall order — I've never managed to do that, especially with deadlines and things like that. But I think it's a good idea to leave it for as long as you can, as long as you feel comfortable.

With Before I Go to Sleep, for example, I finished that draft in early August of 2009, and I managed to leave it until late October before I started. So, there's a whole of September and much of August and October, so nearly three months. And I think that's probably quite a good length of time.

The reason I recommend you do that is because when you go back into the editing process, you need to be approaching it as a reader would, and try to divorce yourself from the emotion of the writing. Because if you don’t, you're going to probably end up making some big changes to the book, and so it's very dangerous.

For example, if there's a scene that's not quite working, but you attempted to leave it in because you remember it was a great writing day, and the birds were tweeting in the sky, and everything was going really well… you might find it very difficult to go, “But it doesn't fit the book, so it needs to come out,” which is a skill that you have to develop or something that you have to feel able to do.

So, I would recommend leaving it for as long as you can so that you can then go back to it as a reader rather than a writer. Go back to it as somebody prepared to do what it needs.

Stage Two: Tackling the Initial Read-Through

Say you leave your manuscript for three months. I think the next stage is reading your manuscript, ideally in as few sittings as possible.

If you can read it in one sitting, that's really good. But that's not always possible if you've got a 90,000-word manuscript or whatever. So, read it in as few sittings as you can.

And I would recommend at this point taking yourself away somewhere… for example, if you have the luxury of being able to take it on holiday or to book a bed and breakfast or an apartment somewhere and get out of town. Take yourself physically to a new space.

Not everyone can do that, but even if you just end up taking it to a coffee shop, just somewhere you didn't write it, I think that can really help to create this sense that it's not a book that you've written, if that makes sense.

That's almost what we're trying to achieve, is this feeling that it's something that's got nothing to do with us. We need to try and get as close to it as we can.

In this initial read-through, what you're basically trying to do is getting a feel for the shape of the book. How is it working? Have you written the book that you thought you had? Do any parts drag? Are any parts not making sense? Is anything feeling rushed?

I would really recommend that you try not to make notes at this stage. Now, I'm hesitant saying that because I never manage. I always start this process with my red pen nowhere near me, thinking I'll just read and not make any notes, but I end up making notes.

It's something that's kind of inevitable. If you cannot distract yourself from making physical notes, try to look at the overall picture that you've created, the overall book, in preparation. It's like standing back from the painting and seeing whether it is what we thought it was. 

So, you're not, at this stage, going to dive in and do anything. And I think it's worth saying as well, there are two things that you might get. You might read sections and think, What on earth was I thinking when I wrote that? Because if you're anything like me, I have good days and I have bad days.

Sometimes, the writing is going really well and it feels like the prose is effortless. But other days, I can look back and go, “What on earth was that? This is dreadful.”

I think that “This is quite good” and “This is dreadful” are both things to be wary of because if we’re at this stage and we get too attached to the words on the page, it can make it more difficult to change those words if we need to, or to remove those words if they need to be removed.

Just be wary of anything that feels really good and anything that feels really bad. You can always fix bad prose. In some ways, it's more dangerous if we read it through and go, “Gosh, I'm a genius.” Which rarely happens, but that can be more of a problem. 

I also think at this stage that it's probably helpful to try and not read on the computer screen. I find it helpful to print out a manuscript or to create it as a PDF, maybe read it on an iPad or similar device.

With my first book, I actually used a company called Lulu. That was over 10 years ago, but I got them to print my manuscript. They would do runs of one copy of a book, so I got a bound draft, and my manuscript looked and felt like a book. And that was really helpful, again, to convince you to trick yourself into thinking it's not something that you created.

Stage Two: Getting Your Red Pen

Once you've done that read-through on whatever format, whether it's hard copy or on the screen, it's time to get your red pen out. I would do this on printed pages. I wouldn't edit it using a computer or tablet at this stage.

Now, we're making the changes we've started to get a feel for, so I would read through the manuscript again, more slowly this time. Less emphasis on getting through it in as few sittings as possible, and just make more notes. 

Start with the big picture. Does the book make sense? Are the scenes in the right order? Does anything feel like it's out of place or doesn't quite fit with the rest of the book?

We're looking at the structure of the book. Does it hold up? The beginning, the middle, and the end, are any of those sections too short or too long? Does anything seem to come out of nowhere and therefore needs foreshadowing or whatever?

There's no point, at this stage, in worrying too much about things like typos, adverbs, and adjectives, and if our writing is clumsy, if we've chosen a sentence that needs rewording or a paragraph that needs shifting around.

We're really looking at: Does this scene belong here? Does it belong in the book? Should it be later in the book? Should it be earlier in the book? Should it be in the book at all? 

So, I would make notes at this point on the big changes and the big-ish changes that we need to make. And then, I make those changes.

Stage Three: Starting to Edit

I find it really helpful at this point to have two windows open on my screen. I use an app called Scrivener, which probably many of you have heard of and many of you use.

You can equally have two Word documents open, or whatever software you use. And then for the old draft, I change the font, or I change the ink color on the screen, so I have it in blue or red or green, it doesn't really matter, it’s just to show that this is the older draft and I'm now creating a new draft.

And I just make those changes. Obviously, it takes a long time. The first time you're going through, you're making the pass of the book, move the scenes around, move the chapters around.

At this point, I will often create placeholders. If I'm aware that a new scene needs to happen, you know, if something needs to happen between Scene 6 and Scene 7, I might create 6A and then literally just write in note form what needs to happen in that scene.

So, I won't necessarily write it at that point. If I'm feeling inspired, I might — particularly if it's a short, a short-ish scene, but I'll try and get the book so it's working structurally without having necessarily gone in and changed any of the words or any of the finer detail. 

And then it's a case of going over it again and again and again. So, making several different passes at the book. As we've started off at the structural level, as we go with each pass, we're getting to the more nitty-gritty, the fine-tuning.

Then, we'll start looking at chapters. Does this chapter work? Then it's: Does this scene within the chapter work? And then it could be: Is this scene nicely written or are there any changes I want to make to the actual words I've used? So, it's a while before we get down to the sentence level.

How many passes does it take? I think the only answer to that, unfortunately, is as many as it needs. It's a bit difficult sometimes to name something as either a new draft or just an edited version of the existing draft. It's fairly arbitrary.

What I do is number a draft, you know, 1.0, and then, when I just make slight changes, that becomes 1.1. But if I make significant changes so it feels like it's a new iteration of the book, I then would name that draft 2.

And just as an indication, the book I'm working on at the moment, I've nearly finished. I'm now on draft 4.1. So I've done four substantial changes to it. And I'm now doing an edit of draft 4, essentially.

Stage Four: Considering the Opening

We can get very bogged down with the first page, the first chapter, the first line, first sentence. And obviously, those things are very important.

But just be wary of doing that stuff too early. You can do that quite near the end, you know, go back to your opening page and getting it right. For example, Before I Go to Sleep originally didn't start where it starts currently. The original draft of that had a scene set the day before, I think it was.

So if I'd spent hours or even days on that scene, trying to get the opening to be brilliant, it would have been wasted because that scene ended up coming out. But when you do come to that stage, just remember the first line has to make you want to read the second. That's what it's there for.

And the second line has to make you want to read the third, and so on. And then the first paragraph has to make you want to read the next paragraph. The first page has to make you want to read the next page.

Just be aware when you're working on your opening of the book that you're far better off confusing the reader on the first page than you are boring them. So, you want to give them a sense of character, a sense of place, and something surprising or unusual, but you don't have to explain everything. I think if you spend a long time on your opening page explaining who everybody is and what's going on, it can leave the writing feeling dead and boring.

You're better off explaining less because that's going to make the reader read on to find out, you know, why is this person in the supermarket with no clothes on? Or whatever it might be. I don't know why my brain always reaches for nudity when I'm giving an example of something that might be captivating. Maybe that says a lot about me.

Stage Five: Reading Aloud and Identifying Crutches

Tips and pitfalls when you're doing your edit, when you're going through these successive passes of your book… it can really help to read your work aloud.

Once, I was asked to read a short story I'd written. When I edited it, at no point had I read it aloud, even though I was writing it with the intention of reading it out loud at an event I was doing.

The day of the event, when I came to practice, just to make sure I read the work out loud for the first time, I realized there were so many sentences which were incredibly clumsy in terms of word order, so reading out loud can really highlight clumsily worded sentences or clumsily written paragraphs.

It's perfectly possible to read an entire 90,000-word book out loud.

Also, be aware as you're editing of your stylistic tics and habits because we all have them.

For example, my characters turn an awful lot of the time, they turn to each other, they turn away from each other, they turn towards doors, they turn towards desks, they turn towards computers or TVs or whatever.

It's okay in the first draft, you're just trying to get the words on the page, you're trying to get the story told. But at this point, this is when you start to notice how many times people are turning to each other — or shrugging is another one of mine, or nodding.

And start to take that out, or mix them up a little bit, at least. I also have them reaching for cutlery quite a lot. In one of my editorial notes in one of my books, I can't remember which one, somebody pointed out that I had characters picking up cutlery so many times but never putting them down. So, they were continually picking up the knives and forks.

But anyway, just be aware of those crutches that we tend to reach for when we're writing.

Weirdly, I'm going to advise you to don't worry too much about typos because when you get to the point that a book is being edited professionally, whether it's by someone you've paid to do so, or someone at a publishing house, they'll sort out your typos.

Don't worry too much about that, but it is helpful to just look. Have a read-through looking for things like adverbs and adjectives and see if you can find a more exciting verb to use. Most adverbs can come out. Walk slowly, for example — the person can creep or they can slink or they can shuffle. There's usually a more exciting verb to use, especially with an adverb.

Stage Six: Looking Out for the Two C’s

I'm not trying to sell Scrivener to anybody, but Scrivener has a feature called Linguistic Focus, so you can ask it to highlight adjectives, adverbs, nouns, verbs, so on. That can be really helpful. It's worth having a read-through as well specifically looking for your clichés.

You know, hearts that boom, or pound, or break. It's almost impossible to have a heart doing anything, to be honest, without it being a cliché. Things that are cold as ice, teeth that are on edge, shivers down the spine.

Try and take all these out if you can, swap them for something better, something more original, something that's going to make the reader sit up and take notice.

Also, keep an eye open for coincidences. I think the two C's, cliché and coincidence, are things you've really got to look out for in your book.

You can't really get away with coincidences too much in novels, especially these days. For example, in the first draft of Before I Go to Sleep, my main character Christine, I knew that she had to meet another character called Claire, they hadn't met up to this point.

In the first draft, they bumped into each other in the shop, and I just realized that was unbelievable because they've been in this situation for 10-plus years. Why is it only now when I need it for the purposes of my plot that they're bumping into each other? That's all right in the first draft, but by the time you're coming to polish your work, you should really be looking for more satisfying or believable ways that these things can happen. 

Just be aware as well that you're not going to be standing at your reader's shoulder as they're reading the book. If you come across anything that you feel makes sense but needs explanation, the only explanation that the reader has is what's on the page. The text has to explain it.

Some ambiguity is obviously okay. You don't want to tie everything up in a neat bow. But just be aware of anything that you would, you know, imagine if you were in a writing group. If you need to explain this to your colleagues then it needs to change because you won't be there to explain it to your readers.

A lot of people, especially when you're first writing, tend to say things three times. You tend to announce what you're about to say, and then you say it, and then you remind the reader that you've said it.

Just be cautious of that. The reader will get it. Just say it once, it's fine. That's another habit that lots of people have to just be aware of. 

Stage Seven: Killing Your Darlings

For a few minutes now, let's just talk about how do we kill our darlings, which I think is one of the most tricky things when we're trying to edit because, as I've said already, we can have passages or chapters or even characters or scenes that we fall in love with and we don't want to take out of the book.

We have come up with a lovely metaphor, a lovely image, or some particularly poetic turn of phrase and we want to leave that in the book. This is really the point, I think, of the long wait, the three months or whatever, that we've given ourselves before we started this editing process.

Because we have to look at it coldly and pretend that we didn't write this book. I mean, that's obviously impossible to do. You can only read any book for the first time once, and especially one that you've written, you know the ins and outs of it, you know the twists if there are twists, you know the truth if there's a truth at the heart of the novel, but this is the point at which you have to just be ruthless, remembering that when you're killing your darlings, you are sacrificing the minor part of the book for the project as a whole.

And I think it's worth remembering that nobody is out there who is going to be interested in a book that might have flashes of brilliance, it might have a lovely turn of phrase every few pages or a lovely metaphor, it might be the odd flash of brilliant writing.

If the whole thing doesn't work, if the book as a whole isn't working, no one's going to publish it. No one is going to read it. No one is going to buy it. No one is going to review it. The book itself has to come first.

If you've written a wonderful character that you've fallen for but you realize they don't belong in the book, take them out. If you've written a wonderful chapter, take it out if it doesn't work. 

As I said, a lot of Before I Go to Sleep, there's a lot of that book that's ended in my trash file, 60 percent or something was stuff that I wrote and then took out.

Do you have to be ruthless? The book does come first. So, cut something out. When you're reading, do you find yourself impatient to get on with the story? Take that out or shorten it.

Often, I find if there's something I don't want to take out… it doesn't need taking out, it needs improving. But often, if I'm struggling to improve something, if I'm struggling to get it right, if it doesn't seem to be working, usually, in my experience, that's because it needs to come out, so I delete it.

Often, almost every time, in fact, I will find that by deleting a problematic passage or section or paragraph, it seems to free up the whole thing. And I may then go back in and write something completely different, but that passage that I was trying to improve was actually a block, was actually a sticking point.

So, just be prepared to take stuff out if you don't feel it's working.

I also think it's a good idea not to delete that stuff completely. Scrivener has a trash can which doesn't self-empty. So, keep a file or a trash can that doesn't self-empty so that stuff will remain.

I have to say though, in my experience, I find this a psychological thing as much as anything. I don't think I can think of a single example of when I've actually gone back into my trash and retrieved something that I thought I'd deleted to use somewhere else. Because usually by deleting something, it improves the book and then the book takes off in a different direction, or the stuff that you've taken out, you've taken out for good, with good reason.

But I think it's important to have that psychological crutch of knowing that you may have spent hours, days even, on a scene just to delete it. You haven't deleted it, you've put it in your discard file. It's still there, it still exists.

Stage Eight: Reframing Your Mindset

I also think it's really helpful and important to remind yourself that no work that you do, no writing that you do, is ever wasted.

Even if it comes out of the book, it's still flexing the muscle, it's still developing your writing skills, it's still teaching you what the book doesn't need, it's still you getting to know your characters, so none of the writing that you do on any stage of it is wasted unless you end up ruining the book by being too reluctant to take anything out.

Every word, every sentence, every character, every scene, every chapter has to earn its place. And you have to really be prepared to examine that quite closely just to make sure that everything that's in there deserves to be in there and take out anything that doesn't.

With Before I Go to Sleep, there was a fairly long scene that involved a brand new character who I actually quite liked in the first draft of that book. I think that scene and that character probably remained in the second and even third draft, but at some point, I read it and I just thought, This is slowing it down. This scene, love it though I do, is just slowing the book down. And it came out and was replaced by a phone call that took place that I took a paragraph to write.

Did it hurt removing it? A little bit, yeah. Am I glad I did? Also very much so, yeah. The book is better for that scene not being in it and that character not being in it.

Final Thoughts

And just before we move on to questions, how do we know when it's done? I've said that we do as many passes as a book needs, but how many is that? How do we know when it's done?

It can be tempting to continually tinker. You can always improve things, but the further you get into an edit, the smaller the differences you're making — it's kind of an inverse exponential of the changes that you're making.

I was given some good advice once, which is: You know a book's done when it doesn't rattle. 

My understanding of that is, you always have a feeling for a section that doesn't work. You're always thinking, Oh yeah, I think the book is more or less there, but I'm pretty sure that Chapter 3 isn't quite there yet.

Although you might be reluctant to admit it to yourself, I think you can always tell, deep down, you always know if there's a bit that needs a bit more, that isn't quite working yet. So, if none of it rattles, if you find yourself tinkering around the edges and not making any substantial changes, it's probably done. 

And at that point, I would recommend to try and show the book to someone, let someone read it. Somebody that you trust, someone who's a reader, but more importantly than those things, someone who isn't afraid of hurting your feelings. If you have a partner or a loved one who can be brutally honest with you and risk that then go for it.

But usually, it's somebody who's a little bit more distant, who is respectful and doesn't want to hurt your feelings. You know, is respectful of your feelings but is prepared to say, “Yeah, I didn't really like Chapter 3,” or “I didn't really like this character,” or “I didn't really get why X happened and then Z.”

I think writing groups can be very helpful, but be wary with writing groups. Almost every writing group I've been a member of has ended up being a group of friends who happen to critique each other's work. And of course, once you become too friendly with your colleagues, you end up back in the position of not wanting to hurt anybody's feelings.

But listen to what writing groups say. Is everyone agreeing that one thing is wrong? I think if everyone agrees that this particular thing is wrong, then it's probably wrong. Change it.

But if everyone is pointing to a different thing and saying, “I'm not quite sure about this,” you're probably down to the point where everyone is just expressing their own personal taste. So, probably, the book is fine.

You can pay an editor to take a look at the book, so that has the advantage of their experience, and they have no personal connection to you, so their feedback, their report, is going to be quite helpful and shared in a more analytical way than somebody who is perhaps a friend or a colleague. So, it can be helpful to just pay an editor to take a look and give you their opinion.

And finally, a question I'm asked quite a lot actually, is: So when do you know it's good enough to show to an agent or an editor, or that an agent or editor is probably going to work on the book with you and do an edit with you? When do you show it to them? When are you at that point?

I think it's when it's as good as you can get it. When the book is as good as you, by yourself, can get it. That's the point at which you take it out there and you invite agents and editors to take a look at it.

So that's the run-through of what I wanted to say in terms of how to unleash your editor.

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