The Hell of Defensive Editing

For the first 98 percent of writing a story, it is generally fun. At that stage, anything goes. Possibilities abound. Words are magical. Writing feels like the ultimate freedom. I am the master of my world.

However, the last two percent of editing can become a mangled knotty, tooth grinding torture if I let it. This is because during the final stages, I try to view my work through eyes other than my own. I try to see my work as an imaginary reader might. I try to figure out how someone coming to my story for the first time will perceive it.

This is not necessarily a bad idea. I want to make sure my writing is clear not just to me but to others. I need to be able to see any plot holes, inconsistencies, or flaws in logic that could take readers out of my story. As I edit or revise, I am on the lookout for fuzzy language, missing transitions, faulty pacing, implausibility, or lags in interest that could ruin the narrative flow for a reader.

However, this process becomes torture when my imaginary reader becomes a troll, as often happens right after I have read critical reviews of anything online.

Thus, I begin to edit defensively, making frantic changes based on what my imaginary future critic might think. In this mindset, every scathing Amazon review I have ever read rises to the surface of my memory – and at an emotional level, they are all now directed laser-like toward me. I feel like I am editing at gunpoint.

As my panic peaks, I make frenzied changes, sometimes random ones just to see if they work better. I begin to revise “by feel” and too often everything I used to love now feels wrong, wrong, wrong. I become so obsessed at fixing problems, I fail to notice what I have done right. I am too frantic to even notice that my mood is gradually tanking.

My approach becomes scattershot. I rearrange words, cutting some, adding others, and cutting some more. My agony is only slightly ameliorated by a vaguely righteous feeling at how much work I am doing.

I feel like I am being productive when in reality I am killing my original spontaneity and doing unnecessary work when I could be working on a new story.

When I edit defensively, my role changes from being a creator to a slave of my own compulsive insecurities. I become an over-zealous robot programmed to identify and obliterate errors whether any exist or not. Or, to use a different analogy, I am pulling up weeds and killing flowers in the process because I have lost the ability to tell the difference.

The cost in time and energy squandered by defensive editing is immense. Many times I have spent over ten hours revising a piece only to realize that what I had at the beginning was fresher and more interesting. Obviously, I want to avoid this situation.

That is why I need to be sensitive not only to what I am editing, but how. I know I am revising defensively when I find myself trying to delete anything that anyone anywhere could possibly ever object to. Gone, then, is any vision of greatness; I lose my sense of what I was originally trying to do, what I dreamed of building, what I wanted to be born.

The goal becomes weeding out anything “unsafe,” any passage that is potentially offensive or objectionable, which is usually the most interesting and powerful part.

Non-defensive editing is different. I am likely to do it well when I calmly seek to bring my original ideas into the light with greater vividness and clarity. I judge my work solely on whether it accomplishes the creative purpose I have assigned to if, whether it is to show that adolescence is torture or to describe a place I love.

In contrast, defensive revision feels out-of-control, a hair-pulling, jaw-grinding panic-filled attempt to eradicate anything and everything that might cause a strong reaction in a reader. Despite my painful defensive efforts and all the energy I lose, nothing important really gets done.

Defensive editing makes me feel like I am trying to plug tiny holes in a dam with cotton balls but every time I plug one, a gaping new hole emerges, letting through violent sprays that send me reeling.

Fortunately, I have learned a lot over the years about how to nullify defensive editing. First, I need to consciously recognize what is happening. I label my editing as “defensive” if I am experiencing a frantic loss of control over my writing along with a desire to please nonexistent people.

Next, I step away for a time to clear my head. I need a way to “reset” my process, so I take a break in the hope that when I return to my writing, I will return with a fresh perspective.

I remind myself that nothing I ever write will be beyond reproach and that I am still ultimately the master of my own creative work – not editors, critics, or readers, whether real or imaginary. What I like still trumps all. The problem is that sometimes I get so caught up in what the readers might think, I lose the ability to know what I think.

When this happens, I turn to an exercise which has never failed me. It lets me revise or edit effectively while focusing on what is right rather than what is wrong.

First I make a copy of my text on my computer. Then I set my original version in bold lettering. I read through the bold text and select my favorite parts, the ones that ring with passion or resonate with truth.

After I am done, I delete all the bold lettering, and I am left only with the parts I love. The remaining text is usually a disorganized mess. It will need new transitions and probably some rewriting to make it cohesive again, but it is much more rewarding to work with even fragmented text I love than with integrated parts I dislike. I have written many of my stories this way, including passages of novels.

Of course, this is a process designed for deep revisions; it may not be appropriate at the polish stage of editing. However, in terms of resetting my perspective, I can benefit from simply going through my work and highlighting my favorite parts. It changes my perspective, so I am no longer looking through the eyes of an imaginary future troll; I am focused once again on writing what I like.

Defensive editing shatters creativity and concentration. It is more concerned with the subjective responses of individual readers than my original purpose in creating my story.  It makes me imagine wrinkled noses, sardonic remarks, and eye rolls.

Non-defensive revision is about re-envisioning. It is about building, not tearing down. I take pleasure in the changes I make because I see the reward of immediate improvement: a tighter sentence, a more vivid metaphor, or a musical rhythm that perfectly highlights the drama of a scene.

For editing to work as it should, it must be done in a focused and decisive way – not frantically or haphazardly. It must also be based on reality, not paranoia.

Editing defensively is an energy drain with little or no reward. Avoiding it means trusting my own judgment. It means having the courage to be myself.


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6 thoughts on “The Hell of Defensive Editing

  1. It’s so true, isn’t it? As always, the perfect is the natural enemy of the good & maybe even the beautiful. Japanese artists always leave a deliberate, tiny flaw in their work, in part to avoid the hubris associated with aspiring to perfection, but also (I like to think) because the tiny flaw calls attention to the perfections right next door…

    • I love the Japanese idea of deliberately leaving a tiny flaw! Thanks for sharing that fascinating information Dirk! It will be a helpful thing to remember if I ever become caught up in compulsive perfectionism, as I sometimes do. It is one thing to strive for high quality in art, but perfectionism is something else entirely since it is mainly driven by anxiety, and not the desire to create something beautiful. 🙂

  2. I love this post.

    I totally relate to this post.

    And I write the following remark with dead-seriousness:
    if I had the dough, I wish I had hired YOU to content/developmental edit my book!

    Dammit – hindsight realllllllyyyyyyyyy pisses me off sometimes.

    You would be a GREAT, no, make that EXQUISITE editor! Yet I know that editing is not your first passion, even when you edit your own work, as fulfilling as that is when it’s done non-defensively –
    you NEED to write!

    You ARE a writer of the highest degree of authenticity. The true, devoted writer in you ooozes (in a good way!) out of every word you post in this blog. 😉 That’s pretty cool in my book. (Pun intended, of course!)

    • Thanks Dyane for the wonderfully kind compliments!!! Once again, you have totally made my day!

      I am so honored that you think I would have made a good editor for your book! I know your book will be awesome in any case, and I can’t wait until October to read it!!!!

      I’ve returned do doing my final, final edits for “The Ghosts of Chimera,” so editing has been on my mind a lot lately! It can be a tricky balance to make changes without overworking it, so I am consciously trying to stay sane. Writing blog posts helps!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!! Thanks for being such an awesome friend!!! XOXO

  3. “I label my editing as ‘defensive’ if I am experiencing a frantic loss of control over my writing along with a desire to please nonexistent people.”—I love this! I’m going to keep it in mind when I’m doing my own edits. Might help redirect me if I’m getting too out of sorts with the process.

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