Monday, March 3, 2014

The Hard Knocks of Editing

by Charis Joy Jackson

There comes a time in every writer's life when we must edit our manuscripts. Beautiful prose & our favorite paragraphs are often the ones that end up on the cutting room floor.

If you're anything like me, you'll know how painful these edits can be.

Let me introduce you to The University of Hard Knocks by Ralph Parlette, a delightful little book I found recently at a book festival. Initially, I was attracted by its worn surface & romantic aroma of vanilla & dirty almonds held captive between the pages. It was published in 1928, which just furthered my delight. There's something about holding a book filled with words from a different time that makes my head giddy.

Imagine my delight when I opened this little treasure chest of wisdom to discover the whole thing was about choosing to walk into the "bumps" life gives us & let them be our teachers. I'm delving into the second draft of my first novel now & much as I love to write, it's still hard to cut things I cherish from the first draft, even though I know my story is becoming stronger.

The University of Hard Knocks is a great addition to my library at work, not only because it's old & looks cool on my desk, but I thought it would be funny to peg it at people who complain about their stories & tell them, "Welcome to the University of Hard Knocks. Now stop complaining & get back to work."

I'm not really that mean, but the idea made me smile.

I may not toss the book at people (it might get damaged) but I do encourage them to read the first page titled, The Books Are Bumps.

The University of Hard Knocks by Ralph Parlette                                        

I am being pulverized.

I work in a film office where we write new stories & edit them all the time. When someone is stubborn with their script, their story suffers. If they hold their story with an open hand & welcome the constructive criticism, their stories become stronger.

The first short film I wrote was very special to me. Every time I was given even the slightest of criticisms, I would hold my story even closer & say "My characters aren't like that." The closer I held it, the worse it became. In the end, I didn't have a story, because I refused to take the advice. Instead of being a project I am proud of, all I can see are the mistakes I thought were pearls.

Thankfully, I have learned my lesson. I hear a piece of constructive criticism & the person can barely finish when I'm already making the necessary changes.

How did I finally learn this lesson? When I realized the story was still my story. I always thought if I changed the story to the way it was suggested, it was no longer mine, but this is simply not true.

It's like makeup.

Applying makeup doesn't change me into a different person, it just enhances the beauty already there. Editing & constructive criticism are similar. They are meant to enhance and reveal what we have said & make it clearer.

When it comes to my novel, I've discovered I'm still in need of a few "bumps" to help me push forward. I tell myself, "Don't be afraid to cut lines you love most." or "It's all part of the University of Hard Knocks." It's true. In the long run it will only make our stories stronger, leaner & more easily enjoyed by the masses. Even if you have to make one of your favorite characters into a "bad guy".

So here's a challenge for us - hold our stories with open hands. Instead of getting disheartened or hurt by criticism, see it for the good it is, allow the bumps to teach us how to make our story stronger.

What do you think, wanna take the challenge with me?

Charis Joy Jackson is working as a missionary with Youth With a Mission (YWAM) a non-profit organization & is part of The Initiative Production Company. She loves creating stories & is currently writing a novel, which she hopes to create into a seven part series. 

Here's to a life lived in awe & wonder. 
Welcome to the adventure.


  1. Hi Charis - wow that book is as old as my Dad :) Some great advice to learn from the bumps and be prepared to take on constructive criticism. This is something I've learned to appreciate and indeed now regard it as a precious gift. It's exciting to hear that you are at second draft stage with your novel. All the best for the future.

  2. Great post Charis. It can be hard to let go of those little gems of prose, but if they don't move the story forward, they have to go. I'm still on the first draft of my novel, and I'm already thinking I have to cut a couple of chapters. But we can always keep those in a file somewhere. Who knows? They might become the basis of a short story later. Good luck with those edits and thanks for the reminder.

  3. Great post Charis. I have to admit that I LOVE editing. That's one of the most enjoyable parts of writing to me. Love refining my writing over and over again and seeing something good emerge out of some amazingly bad writing! :)

    But... I must also confess that other's critiques could well be different. I find it harder when others point fingers at my 'perfect writing'. So yes, it's a good challenge you've placed before me.

    After all - all of life needs refining - even our walk with God - something that needs constant refining until the day we die. I'm up for the challenge! And yes, that books sounds one worth reading. Thank you.

  4. Thanks, Charis. Yes, after six published novels and one memoir, I'm a lot better at letting those words go that the editors say aren't needed! I know I'm a very wordy writer and repeat myself a lot but often I'm blind to these things until some poor editor points it out to me.

  5. Here's to a life lived in awe and wonder... thanks for that reminder, Charis. I will try not to forget. Regarding the bumps, I still remember my first critique. It was just one sentence but it cut like a knife. Although I am getting better, I will rise to your challenge with the book I am currently working on. Also thanks for showing us the first page of your book. I had heard the expression 'school of hard knocks' before but never knew it was the title of an actual book :)

  6. Loved this post, Charis! I guess we all relate to having to"kill our darlings." And as for openly accepting a critique, that old film star Bette Davis said it well. "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride!"

  7. 'Hold our stories with open hands'.
    That phrase speaks a lot to me, not just about the editing process, but about the way we either graft ourselves to a project or allow it to be what it is without us.
    Thanks for challenging Aussie writers to think courageously about their work.

  8. That's a good way of looking at editing and criticism.