Killing Your Darlings Vs. Making Them Pretty

Everyone has a different process for editing a manuscript.  Some people edit as they write, taking hours for each paragraph, trying to get it perfect before they move on.  Other people prefer to simply write and leave everything for later.  However, one thing they can all agree on is the necessity of separating micro-edits from macro-edits.

Micro-editing is important.  It focuses on the words, the sentences, the paragraphs as individuals— examining things like flow, emotion, description, and such.  It makes sure the narrative is smooth so the reader doesn’t get held up by a weird turn of phrase.  When you micro-edit, you’re polishing the manuscript for a good reading experience.  It doesn’t matter what’s happening in the story— it just needs to sound good.

Macro-editing is also important.  Macro-edits focus on plot, characters, and making the right impact with whatever you’re trying to do.  The words don’t matter.  At this point, you’re just figuring out what you want to say, not how to say it.

For that reason, macro-editing should come first.  Style is just as important as story, but why spend time polishing up a scene or a character that you’re just going to cut?  Macro-editing allows you to cut everything you need to cut— and add everything you need to add— before you move on to the micro aspect of things.

But it’s difficult, isn’t it?  Knowing the difference between macro and micro edits, and when to apply each, is tricky.

With all editing, you need to figure out what bugs you and see what you can do to fix it.  You find the problem, then think about it until you find the solution.  It’s easier said than done.  If you’ve already thought about this story too much, you might skip over the solution several times before you see it.  Not only that, but if you’re in the mindset to notice everything that bugs you about this manuscript, you’re going to end up both macro- and micro-editing at once.

Therefore, in order to macro-edit successfully, you must completely ignore your instincts about correcting typos, rearranging words, making things make sense.  Again, why polish something that’s just going to die anyway?  It’s like making food look pretty, or dressing up for a blood sacrifice.  That which must die has a purpose— but its purpose is not to look nice.

When you’re micro-editing, then, you have to ignore the macro.  Of course, if you do the larger edit first, you probably won’t have many problems with large things like scene placement or character arcs, but it can still happen.  If you’re dead set on micro-editing ‘til you can’t micro-edit no more, you’ll have to ignore some of the larger stuff that you can’t change with a highlighter.

So when you’re macro-editing, or when you’re micro-editing, you have to make sure you’re spending your energy in the right way.  Micro-editing is not for questioning the wisdom of this particular plot twist, nor is macro-editing for deciding whether purple or violet is the right word to describe that kangaroo.  Tune out the other influences so you can focus completely on what you’re trying to do.

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36 thoughts on “Killing Your Darlings Vs. Making Them Pretty

  1. I’ve always wondered why some people insist that food should look pretty when you’re just going to eat it…

    This post, as always, seems to come at perfect timing for me. I find myself struggling with this as well. All the problems I’m seeing in my stories are for micro-edits, but I really need to finish my macro-edits first…

    1. It’s extremely difficult to see past typos, as I said– when something doesn’t seem to be described right, it’s hard to ignore it and work on the setting itself. But it’s always necessary.

  2. Editing is really, really hard and something I wish I’d known more about when I was your age! I micro-edit as I go and I think I probably always will, it’s just how I write. One thing it has done is make me write well crafted sentences much quicker than I used to – it’s made my writing better, but it does make cutting things more painful!

    1. Good for you! I’m glad well-constructed sentences come more easily with practice, because it’s something I feared I would never learn. It sounds like it’s worked for you, though.

  3. Oh man, making myself not edit as I go is very hard, especially during NaNoWriMo. I ended up making my font white so I couldn’t see all my mistakes and just keep writing. XD It worked, but it was a HUGE job to clean up after. To be honest, most of the bad stuff is still there from last NaNo. :/

    When I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, I do micro-edit as I write. I just can’t help it. But I think I have kind of trained myself not to macro-edit at the same time. I use the very handy little note making tool so I don’t forget stuff. It works very well for me. 🙂

    1. I know the feeling. I’m not an obsessive micro-editor, but even I tend to go back and rephrase stuff, just to avoid being redundant. Making the font white sounds like a perfect solution for that, but I imagine there would be a lot of typing mistakes.

  4. This is a good lesson. I’m at the killing stage of editing. It’s a little painful, but I just remember that what I’m replacing the axed material with is better.

    I’m pretty sure you’re the only person in my acquaintance who would put food appearance and blood sacrifices in the same sentence.

      1. Are blood sacrifices usually eaten? I thought they were just burned. But then I’m not particularly knowledgeable about blood sacrifices. Rocks and fossils, perhaps. But sacrifices to deities? Not so much.

      2. They are supposed to be eaten by the deities, though whether the deities in question like the taste is questionable, because they usually just leave the poor blokes to fall into volcanoes or something.

  5. Absolutely spot on! Yes, and ALL of it is needed. In my own books, I do polish as I go and might spend hours getting something right, but at various stages through the work and most definitely at the end, I get into what I call the nuts and bolts of the thing – the macro and the micro edits, also following single threads (out of many) one at a time, doing the same.

    At the end, what I try to do is shelve the work for at least a month (two is better) because that makes the process for the final time much, much easier. You see it then with fresh eyes and a clear mind, any mistakes or need for polishing still lingering – macro and micro – will pop right up and are easy to deal with.

    Greg post.

    Cheers! 🙂

      1. I got the message all the same– you seemed to enjoy it. If you want, I can edit your original comment.

        You’re absolutely right. It’s wonderful when you can really get the editing process together and do it well because that’s when it all comes together.

      2. No problem either way – we all make mistakes, which is the whole point, of course. 🙂

        Yes, I love the editing process. Crawling around inside the nuts and bolts of your own masterpiece, tightening this bolt, testing the tension in that wire, putting a bit more polish over there. When you do it well, then step back and see what you’ve got – wow, now there’s a moment that makes it all worth while.

        I love it when I surprise myself.

        Cheers to you!

      3. I confess, I have a little trouble with the editing process. I’m a discovery writer, so once the first draft is finished, it seems like all the fun has gone out of it. Also, I’ve never really forced myself to edit something until it’s wonderful before. I need to work on that.

      4. Well, it’s never fun when you’re staring at an issue and have no clue how to go about fixing it, and I’ve faced that plenty of times. I think for me, once I had pushed through the first time and ended up with something I could be (and am) proud of, it showed me what to aim for. I think that’s when I changed my view about editing and began to enjoy it, especially seeing the development after tweaking this or that.

        So, I admit, I do have screaming moments, but overall I look to the end result. Knowing I will love that helps me to love the steps in between.

      5. I excel at figuring out what’s wrong and how to fix it, but I do badly at actually doing the fixing. I know the process, but I’m faltering on the follow-through. I’ll finish something eventually and that’ll teach me something.

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