From Z to A

Issue 62

From Z to A: Editing Backwards


Giacomo Giammatteo

Copyright © 2011, Giacomo Giammatteo, All Rights Reserved


Ask ten authors what they hate most about writing…and you might get ten different answers. But I feel certain that more than a few of them would say editing. I admit I'm one of them. I hate editing.

I don't often use the word 'hate' but I do make exceptions. Editing falls into that category. I hate editing. I despise it. I loathe it. I hate it like I hate the cold and the rain. Editing takes all the fun from writing. From the euphoria that I experience when I finish a novel or a story or any writing project. I'm done! And yet, I'm not. I finished writing, but I'm far from being done. It makes it difficult to celebrate. At least for me it does.

Nonetheless, I put the book away and work on something else—until that dreaded day when I pull out the manuscript and start over again.

Still, I had developed a system to deal with this nightmare and over the course of time it had grown less and less tedious. My system was simple. Separate the editing into big-picture editing and line-item editing. Here's how I did it.

I let the manuscript sit for at least a few weeks while beta-readers courageously suffered through the first draft. After their reports of plot holes, inconsistencies, and character flaws, I was motivated enough to tackle the big-picture editing. First though, I read through it start to finish, armed with this new insight and a pen and paper. I took notes as I went and looked for the things the beta-readers pointed out. When I finished with that, I went back and made changes. Rewrote where necessary. Cut scenes. Added scenes. Deleted chapters. Whatever was required. Then I let it sit again.

Two weeks later I dug in to do the line-editing to tighten things up. This is what I hated. It started out okay. The first few chapters shined. Soon, though, I was caught up in my own story and I was no longer looking at it with an objective eye. I grew tired of analyzing each sentence, mostly because the story was dragging me along with it. Four weeks later, I was finished. I managed to cut almost 3,000 words from a 112,000 word mystery novel. Finally, cause for celebration. Just to be safe, I read it through one more time. Made a few mundane changes, then sealed it up. It was ready to go.

I polished my query, sent it off to several carefully selected agents, and waited. And waited. And waited. Two months and six rejections later, I finally got a request for a full. To my surprise, the agent got back to me within two weeks. It was a rejection, but with encouragement. And she said one thing that really struck me. She said, “I liked the book. The writing was good. But it seemed as if you got tired of editing. The middle and end could be tightened. I think you can get this down to 100, 000 words, which is where it needs to be.” Then she went on to say, “If you don't mind a suggestion, try editing it from the back to front next time. And when you feel it is perfect, send it back to me.”

Back to front? What the hell is she thinking? I soon realized it didn't matter what she was thinking. The bottom line was I had an agent willing to looking at my manuscript again. I would have done anything, so back-to-front editing seemed an easy enough task.

I let it sit for a week, then tackled the manuscript using this new process. Don't get me wrong I didn't do it backwards word-by-word. I did it chapter-by-chapter. At first I struggled, but soon, I found a few phrases I replaced with a strong verb or noun, then I cut a phrase or two. Some description that wasn't necessary reared its ugly head—cut that. Then a few needless sentences. Soon, I was excited. Working backwards allowed me to focus on the words and not the story. As I moved backwards, I was not distracted by the story and never once lost sight of the objective—cut the fat. My goal was to cut, cut, cut. To get it down to 100,000 words without losing anything.

Two weeks later, I arrived, and when I breathed that sigh of relief this time, I also opened a bottle of wine. My mystery novel had shrunk from 109,230 words, to 98,455. Not only had I exceeded the goal, I realized that doing it this way let me see the characters and plot in a different light, forcing me to make a few changes there as well.

I have since edited a second book using this method, one I thought I was done with, and got similar results. I don't think I'll go back to the other way. This one works for me. All I can do now is hope this helps someone else if they are willing to give it a try. And, of course, await news from that agent who asked to see it again.