Red long-legged round fluffy monster with yellow googly eyes

3 Tips To Avoid the Editing Rut—Don’t Turn Your Manuscript Into an Ugly, Angry Attack Hamster!

Did you see the headlines recently about scientists manipulating hamster genes, expecting to make them super-sociable, but instead turning them into ugly, vicious attack monsters? Yeah, the editing and re-editing rut can leave your manuscript looking a LOT like that.

How, you ask?

red pen laying on a typed page with editing notes in red ink

Well. if you’re like me, every time you start working on a manuscript again, you find yourself editing what you’ve already written. Eventually, that first chapter shines in the dark. The rest of the chapters? Not so much. In fact, there may only be that first chapter.

At some point, you begin to second guess yourself with each edit, adding a little more here, weaving in a new plot point there, changing the character a bit. Pretty soon, that shining chapter starts to be a lot like those hamsters: a hot, angry mess.

Sound familiar?

I finally got so frustrated at being stuck in this recurring process, I researched how others have dealt with this inner editing demon—sure I couldn’t be alone. Turns out, I was right. There are lots of us stuck in this repetitive editing phase.  In fact, there are entire threads on Reddit, Stack Exchange, and Quora devoted to this specific issue.

If you’re stuck in a editing rut, read on to learn:

  • Why this behavior occurs and
  • Tips on how to get past it to finally finish that manuscript

Why This Behavior Occurs

  • Critical vs. Creative Brain: The creative and critical sides of our brain are constantly in conflict when reading our own work, like siblings that don’t get along well ( Every plot doubt, missed comma, or poor wording choice shouts at us, forcing our creative side to hide, while the critical side rolls up its sleeves to clean up the mess. Our perfectionist tendencies cry out to take control.
    • At best, this forces our creativity to retreat for a while. At worst, it keeps us from trusting our creativity and keeps us from moving on to the next scene.  
  • Fear: I may get some criticism for this, but, honestly, it’s much easier to keep editing that first chapter, than to move onto the unknown of the next one, where blank pages stare back at us ominously. But editing? Ah, that we can do. Again, and again. It’s safe. It shows progress (or seems to). Here are some tips on conquering fear as a writer.
  • Our process sets us up to fail: Many of us re-read the previous scene/chapter before starting to write. By doing this, we automatically give the critical brain an open door to strut through. Soon, we find ourselves an hour into editing, without any progress to the next scene.

Tips on How to Get Past the Editing Rut

Our behavior is the problem, so behavior change is the main solution.

Easy to say, but behavior change takes effort and time. Be prepared to be patient. I found that the first several months (yes, months) of focusing on these changes in my process were the hardest. It was like constantly reminding a child to finish a chore. But then, one day, I realized I had a new rhythm to writing. I finished the scenes I meant to, I moved forward with the manuscript, AND I had time for my chores and social media marketing.

Importantly, I realized that leaving those sentences to be edited another day did not actually end the world. More importantly, by not morphing my work with repetitive editing, I held closer to the intended story line, making the real editing phase easier.

If you want to get out of that editing rut, try these tips:

  1. Format your writing sessions:
    • Never start a writing session by re-reading what you previously wrote
      • Don’t give the critical side of your mind a chance to derail your day
    • Write scene by scene:
      • Each writing session, plan to start and finish one scene. Do NOT under any circumstances go back and reread the scene after you write it. Put it aside. If time allows, start another scene, but ONLY if you can finish the whole thing. I keep a list of scenes I need, picking whichever I feel most inspired to work on. A writerly friend of mine calls this “story quilting,” by writing scenes (in any order), rather than ploughing through a manuscript in story order.
    • Margin notes:
      • As you write, if you see anything that bothers you add a notation in the margin (such as an asterisk, a circled word, a scribbled note) to come back to during the actual editing phase. This can appease the critical side of the brain—letting it know you will remember to address this issue later. It allows the critical mind to step back, so the creative side can continue the story.
    • Focused Time Chunks:
      • I utterly abhor the words “time management”—mostly because I’m often bad at it. I prefer to think of it as “Focused Time Chunks”. Not fancy sounding, but it works for me. I’ve had success using a process where I use:
        • 30-minute time chunks to do one task, then
        • Take a 5-minute (or at most 10-mminute) brain break
        • After several of these cycles, I take a bit longer break (15-20 minutes) to really clear and refresh my mind
      • Turns out this is very similar to a process known as the Pomodoro Technique popularized by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s.
      • By focusing the time chunks (and by this I mean keeping yourself honest about your focused writing time), you will:
        • Gain productivity:
          • Focusing on a specific topic for short burses helps you complete your task list, with less time for your mind to be distracted.
        • Improve creativity:
          • Giving your mind periodic breaks keep the creative side of your brain fresh. Forcing yourself to grind through a couple of hours of writing, until your brain wants to abandon you altogether, can really destroy the enjoyment of writing. 30 minutes is a tangible amount of time- it doesn’t feel grueling. It’s approachable mentally.
  2. One task/one timer:
    • Each time chunk should have ONE task to work on (and hopefully complete). This means I need to have a list ready of the important tasks to get done.

A sample list for me on a given day might be:

Blog draft
Scenes 4,5,6
Tweets/Facebook/Comments on other blogs
red tomato shaped timer with a green sprig, and demarcated with minute marks with the timer arrow pointing to the number 25
  • Timer: Set a timer for 25-30 minutes. When it goes off, stop the task down whatever and take a 5 (or 10) minute break, such as a walk outside, stretch, listen to music—whatever is mentally refreshing and NOT a chore. At the end of the break, start the next session.
  • Importantly: Do not read what you wrote earlier. At the MOST, read the last sentence to get back into the swing of things.  

A scene in 30 minutes? It’s possible, but only with an outline. (Yes, I am a plotter). I didn’t used to plot. I suffered because of it, with a year’s worth of editing a manuscript filled with plot holes and dropped threads. With an outline, I know where the scene is headed, I know the character arc during the scene, I know the demons he’s fighting. This is also how I can skip around and write scenes out of order, based on my creative needs for the day.

A longer scene may need 2 sessions to write. When this happens, the absolutely hardest thing to do after a break is to not re-read the entire scene. Those old habits die hard!

One solution that finally worked for me to avoid having the full scene in front of me after the break. If it isn’t there, the critical brain can’t take over. Before the break, I recommend making a copy of the last sentence written. Copy it to a blank page. After the break, that’s the only sentence your critical side gets to see.

It’s a hard change to trust this process at first, but if you keep with it, I’m guessing you will notice a lot of progress, also.

3. Reward Yourself:

We are human, after all. We can’t be “all work and no play”. Grinding through the work of writing can eventually sour your appetite for the craft, killing your creativity, and turning what was supposed to be a joyous time into just another chore.

the chemical structure of dopamine with 2 hydroxy groups and one amino group on a ring structure.

So, reward yourself. It doesn’t have to be a lot, or expensive, or fancy. Just something to tell yourself you did a good job. If you do this, you’re actually playing with body chemistry (in a good way). Our brain reacts to rewards as a conditioning moment—it sends out a chemical called dopamine, making our brains feel happier. Repeated enough times, your new behavior will be so positively reinforced that time management (ugh!) becomes second nature.

For more information about the dopamine cycle and using it to improve your mental health AND your writing creativity, click here. And here is a downloadable brief workbook for helping with that dopamine cycle. It should only take you about 15 minutes to do.

On a final note, it’s important to give yourself time. Time to change your behavior, time to fail at it, time to try again. Stick with it and you may find yourself writing “The End” before you know it. Then, you CAN let that critical mind take over and edit.

Do you have any tips for avoiding the editing rut?

Happy Writing!


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