By Gabrielle Pollack & Brianna Storm Hilvety
Editing is easy to overdo. You open your latest draft to restructure a scene, but as you reread your work to get your bearings, you can’t resist tinkering with a clunky paragraph in the previous chapter. Then you remember a worldbuilding element you need to research so you can use it to set the mood when your protagonist meets her love interest. And soon you’ve spent an hour brainstorming the perfect analogy for his blue eyes.
Maybe you agree that this is an unproductive approach to fine-tuning a manuscript. It lacks direction, right? But that’s not the true problem—or danger. When you obsess over a segment of prose, making change after change without moving on, you’ll lose perspective and kill the heart of your story. You’ll miss the line between too much editing and not enough.
How can you straddle that line, though? Grammar books won’t tell you how to hone your voice and style. They address black-and-white rules, not the kaleidoscope of creativity. How do you discern when you’ve gone overboard with the metaphors or a wacky description is confusing? How many details are excessive?
The answer to those questions is in your outlook. Do you understand the goal of stylistic editing? If you don’t, you’ll either become trapped in an endless editing cycle or put away your red pen prematurely. You need to be able to debunk the misconceptions writers often have when they start playing with words and sentences.
Lie #1: Stylistic Editing Is about the Author
I’ll bet that you don’t dream up stories so you can hoard copies in a cave like a book dragon. You write to be read, to engage, to impact. Thus, your audience needs to be at the forefront of your mind when you’re preparing your material for publication.
Professional editors live by the principle that the reader is the axis for their decisions. When they clash with authors, they don’t apologize or retreat—they plead the reader’s case. A convoluted sentence needs trimmed down, or an obscure term needs replaced with plainer language. Editors don’t suggest these changes to fulfill personal preferences but to remove obstructions to the reader’s enjoyment and understanding of the story. Stylistic editing is about bringing the text to a level of clarity that leaves little room for misinterpretation.
Focusing on readability will help you achieve balance. Instead of spending hours spiffing up a sentence that doesn’t contribute to your story’s meaning, you cut it. Instead of packing your story with a thousand details, you include only enough to color the moments that matter. Revising from the reader’s perspective reduces unnecessary deletions and additions.
Every reader is different, though. How can you predict what they want? To avoid attempting to please everyone, edit for your ideal reader. If she favors literary stories, keep crafting those flowery descriptions. But if you’re targeting fans of mysteries and thrillers, concentrate on tight pacing and worry less about “show, don’t tell.” Your audience determines your style.
Lie #2: Stylistic Editing Is about Prose
Stylistic editing concerns all the tiny pieces that make a paragraph both beautiful and functional. So how can it not be about prose?
Strong writing is transparent, like a windowpane readers press their noses to and forget about because they’re awed by the view. Each phrase should turn into a mental picture. If you try too hard to sound eloquent, your prose—the window into your story world—will become ornate like stained glass. Have you ever looked through a stained glass window? You couldn’t see much, could you? Overly decorative prose has a similar effect on readers, distancing them from the story so they can’t experience the emotions and discoveries it has in store for them.
Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t ever be artistic with your wording like Daeus talks about in his article inspired by The Book Thief. Poetic prose can enhance a story’s emotional impact and surprise readers with delightful imagery. But, to circle back to point number one, your goal should be to communicate (emphasis on the reader) rather than to impress (emphasis on you). This involves being specific and distinguishing when to go into depth versus give a summary. If a unique simile conveys your intent better than a nondescript statement, then use it. Just don’t disregard the power of simplicity either. And always consider what’s appropriate for your genre.
Lie #3: Stylistic Editing Is about Perfection
Perfectionism can drive you to polish your manuscript to death. No matter how thorough you are, you still might overlook a typo or a patch of prose that slows the plot. You can’t shield yourself from criticism, and years after publishing a story you may wish you’d executed your ideas differently. If you hope to satisfy every person who comes into contact with your writing, you’ll end up frustrated.
The saddest consequence of letting fear control you is that you’ll never reach any readers. You’ll chain yourself to your desk chair, believing that your stories must be faultless to be valuable, and waste time and energy striving to meet an impossible standard. Again, this issue stems from focusing too much on yourself over others.
When you edit to connect with and relate to readers instead, letting go becomes less of a struggle. Not every reader will praise your story. But those who are meant to be touched by it will appreciate your hard work.
Your Mindset Determines Your Aim, Not Your Effort
After digesting all this advice about editing with restraint, you might be starting to form a new misconception. But let’s knock it flat: your ideal reader is never an excuse for sloppiness. Instead, thinking and praying about that person should motivate you to edit with care. Whether you’re writing for children or adults, lovers of fantasy or historical fiction, you need to pay attention to the nuances of grammar, plot, and character. The benefit of a reader-focused mindset is that it helps you separate yourself from your work so you can freely edit chaotic drafts into compelling masterpieces.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and to create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood. You can hang out with her on Facebook and Instagram.
Brianna Storm Hilvety is passionate about helping writers achieve their aspirations to captivate and change the world through fiction. At Story Embers, she juggles multiple roles—founding board member, managing editor, and graphics director. In addition to her ongoing work at SE, she’s served a variety of authors, publishers, and writers organizations, such as Gilead Publishing, Castle Gate Press, and Kingdom Pen. Her professional affiliations include gold membership at The Christian PEN, editing certifications from The PEN Institute, and copyediting and proofreading expertise at the Christian Editor Connection.