Stephanie’s Master’s Degree Adventures: Editing without Ruining

For the past two weeks I’ve been participating in my program’s second writing forum. Here, in a nutshell, are what these writing forums consist of: students are divided into groups in which they stay for the entire year, they post stories for feedback, and the students and supervising tutor give feedback on all the stories. The second week, as people are wrapping up their initial feedback, students ask/answer questions about the feedback and the tutor posts topics for general discussion. If they have finished their initial feedback, students can post general discussion topics as well.

This time I posed a question for my fellow writers: how do you change aspects of a story without ruining the parts that readers liked?

I have wrestled with this issue most of the academic year. The pressure has only gotten worse as the May 31st deadline for our portfolio inches closer. Well, “inches” takes the urgency from it. It’s more like how objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

Since the deadline has gotten so close, I’ve begun to edit and rewrite the stories that I plan to include in my portfolio. The most prominent problem at the moment is that two of my stories have a very distinct feel that the readers enjoy. In attempting to address the weaker points of the story, I’m afraid that I will shatter that which makes the readers enjoy the stories already. I liken this conundrum to playing Jenga: if you remove or alter one piece, the whole structure may come tumbling down.

I know I’m not the only writer struggling with this issue. That’s why I want to discuss the answers I received on the forum.

Their advice boils down to four simple points: trust your intuition, do what’s best for the story, step away, and save your revisions.

  1. Trust Your Intuition: If something in the story doesn’t feel right to you, there’s a reason. You know what you want for your work. External feedback points you to weak spots and helps put you on the right path but at the end of the day, it’s still your story. Did your readers suggest alterations to the dialogue that felt artificial when you put the advice into practice? Step away to give yourself some space and then take another look at it. Did your readers really like a scene in your story but you don’t feel that it fits with the newer version? You’ll have to decide which is better for the story, that scene or the entirety of the revision. Deep inside you sits your inner writer, the one that is connected with the essence of all your writing, and if he/she starts telling you that something isn’t right, you need to listen. It may conflict with feedback but it’ll be worth the risk. You can always start over again.
  2. Do What’s Best for the Story: This idea seems obvious but, in fact, it’s often forgotten. We end up worrying more about what the readers want than what will help our stories become what they should be. Readers and their opinions are important but, as I said in #1, you have to trust your intuition. You can’t make your gay character straight just because your target audience wants. You have to ask yourself, will it make the story better? Or worse? If a reader suggests adding exposition to the dialogue, you have to decide if it will weaken the integrity of the narrative. You won’t be able to please everybody. Your only real obligation is to the story and your inner writer.

    Quote retrieved from Goodreads
  3. Step Away: I’m going to give you this advice a lot. Might as well get used to that right now. In this case, I was given this advice by the published writer supervising my program’s forum. We read our own pieces to death. Our objectivity all but disappears and we risk missing weak points that objective readers see instantly. We skim over spelling errors, holes in continuity, and flat out bad writing. Almost more importantly, we become bored by our own work and so we don’t know when we’re bored with ourselves and when something will genuinely lose the reader. Robert Frost once said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
  4. Save Your Revisions: I made this point bold and red because I cannot stress it enough. Keep copies of all working drafts. Our tutor also recommended labeling them clearly and/or using track changes. Every time I make a change that isn’t very small or I make several small changes that add up to a significant change, I save it as a new file. I have five to seven copies of one story on my computer at any given time. Trust me, when you suddenly decide that you’re writing from the wrong character’s perspective and attempt to rewrite nine-tenths of the story, you’ll be happy to have those earlier drafts. Don’t think that it’s only with major changes like that for which you’ll need copies. You may decide that you liked how a sentence was worded the first time but you don’t remember it exactly. Maybe there’s a small gesture by a character that you removed, thinking it insignificant, only to realize that it was much more important than you first thought. You’ll hate yourself if you have that sort of epiphany but not the earlier draft to refer to.

Revisions and implementing feedback are rarely easy. (I’ll go more into revisions and feedback in future posts.) Despite what common sense may dictate, fewer or smaller edits do not necessarily mean the process is easier. Instead, you find yourself in the limbo of “I need to change this but changing this may ruin that.” There’s no clear-cut answer. However, the four points above are a good place to start.

If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: SAVE YOUR REVISIONS.

Have any ideas for making small edits without destroying your stories big time? As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

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