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How to Apply Editing Principles to Life

Holley Morgan is a graduate student at SNHU and currently works as a college essay tutor.


Editing is Fun

It occurred to me while I was finding the perfect spot for my DVD collection (it makes me feel old to say that) in the house I share with my husband: I like for life to be tidy.

It felt satisfying to unpack my things and wipe off the thick layers of dust that had settled in my old house. Placing things in locations that make sense, sometimes even alphabetically, or according to some private logic I establish with myself, is an art form.

I like simple things. I like knowing all my things are in one place and organized so that I can find anything easily. I like to cook simple meals and have all the spices and ingredients in their designated locations in the kitchen. The list goes on...

Simplifying and organizing are big parts of editing. The writer has to take out the "fluff" when she revises her piece.

As I am taking an editing course this term, I was thinking about how some of the ways I am learning to edit writing could also apply to life. None of them are especially easy to do in life or in writing, but I hoped framing them in this way might at least make them a little more fun to think about and eventually do. I hope my writer friends can find inspiration in this.

Word Economy and Organization

A book can only have so many pages. Yes, authors like J.K. Rowling or Diana Gabaldon can get away with several hundred pages and keep readers engrossed all the way through. For the rest of us, we have to figure out how to keep our plots, backstories, and characters tight so they fit into 50,000 words. This means that any "fat" - self-indulgent scenes, dialogue that isn't necessary, excessive backstory or flashbacks, adjectives, adverbs and the lot never survive beyond the rough draft.

Similarly, to have a satisfying life, one must cut the fat from it. Unfortunately, we only get one draft. Past chapters cannot be changed, but we can take the lessons from them as we move forward.

My past chapters have taught me that I need to simplify.

Simplifying might mean cutting out adjectives that either no longer fit or distract from the masterpiece. We all have certain things we try to live up to. People want to be successful, outgoing, balanced, physically fit, attractive, educated, wealthy, etc. Maybe we are trying too hard to chase something we think we should be, or maybe we are trying to do too much at once.

When it comes to writing, using double or even triple adjectives is terrible. "She was a balanced, successful, beautiful woman." Our brains slow down while reading to process all those adjectives together to visualize what kind of woman she is. Similarly, we can only handle so much with the number of hours in a day. If you're trying to save the whales, go to school, be in your friend's wedding party, and move house all at the same time, life gets too complicated.

By all means, please save the whales and all the above. Just don't try to do it all at the same time. Part of writing a good story is spacing out the plot events so that they make sense and don't overwhelm the reader.


I remember an article I wrote on the power of words. It was when I was trying to pick up jobs as a ghostwriter. My article, for one reason or another (I don't remember why), didn't fit my potential client's standards, and it was rejected. My words about the power of words didn't make the cut.

Our words can make or break our opportunities in life. They can draw in or push away certain people. They can even make a difference in the type of day we are having.

I find that I am not usually inclined to say a lot of words to anyone, while others are more verbose. There is no right or wrong way to be, as long as the words we speak align with our character. Then we can attract the right kinds of opportunities and people.

Generally, long stretches of dialogue in a work come off as unrealistic and need to be clipped. If we're giving someone a monologue in real life, it is probably during a tense, awkward, or one-sided conversation (perhaps all three).

Dialogue is used in a story to either move the plot forward or reveal character. It has to have a point. Much of our real-life speech might not seem to have a point. We have to make small talk with the cashier at the grocery store or at a party. We have to make pleasantries with coworkers in the break room or otherwise seem weird and silent. But these things do have a point - to make us come off a certain way or establish comfort with other people. It might seem fake at times, but it is done with good intentions.

Dialogue that is self-indulgent or leans toward negative subjects tends to drive away, while dialogue with questions or the intention to relate to someone creates relationships.

Don't believe in the power of editing? Try to turn your habit of complaining about the weather or the news to appreciating something in the room or area you're in, and watch how the conversation dynamics change.

Kill Your Darlings

Please don't take this point literally. I do not condone murder, unless it is the fictional kind in an Agatha Christie or Dianne Freeman novel.

Who are your darlings, in this sense, and why am I suggesting that you figuratively kill them? In writing, darlings are anything that you put effort into and enjoyed writing but don't fit the overall story. These could be characters that you feel are really cool, words that you like, or plot elements that you feel attached to as a creator. An editor or beta reader might point out that they aren't necessary in the grand scheme of things. Maybe that cool character with telekinetic powers does not move the story along, or you use the word "mesmerize" four pages in a row.

Applying this idea to life, then, darlings would be people who cause one unnecessary or excessive emotion without contributing to the story. Perhaps this is a parasocial relationship with one's favorite celebrity or YouTuber, or maybe it's a person from the past who takes up too much real estate in one's thoughts.

In the parasocial relationship example, then, killing your darling might look like only checking that person's Twitter page once every couple of days as opposed to three times per day. It might look like not commenting on that YouTuber's videos as much and instead spending your time on a hobby that you enjoy. If someone takes up too much mental and emotional real estate, maybe you start making a conscious effort to like yourself more, forgive yourself for any past regrets, and welcome new friends who can support and appreciate you in a healthy way.

Sometimes we hate to take out a character and cannot find a logical way to recycle them in another story. Such is the life of a writer. But there will still be characters that shine and add substance and meaning to your story. Some might be more fleshed out than others; every story needs its fair share of round and flat characters. Which ones you flesh out depend upon your theme and what you ultimately intend with your story.

© 2021 Heidi Hendricks

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