[SWP: Behind the Book] How I Learned Merciless Editing
Written by
Carol Merchasin
November 2014
Written by
Carol Merchasin
November 2014

One day at the start of my first ever writing workshop, someone asked me how long I had been a writer.

I looked at my watch.

“About 6 minutes,” I said. 

Which wasn’t exactly true. I had been an attorney, which seemed like an entirely different profession from writing, but in my actual day-to-day work, I saw very little of the drama of the courtroom, and a lot of the drama of writing. For the job of a lawyer is to tell the client’s story, and 90% of it is done in the writing of legal briefs. 

This is where I learned the practice of merciless editing. Because legal briefs have a page limit with fixed, unwavering margins—no fudging by moving the margins just a smidgen, trust me—words in a legal brief are weighed like gold. Put it on the scale. Does this word pay for itself? Or is it better deleted? Does this line of thinking take me where I want to go or should I take it out?

Every brief I wrote was subject to dozens of rounds of editing by me, then by a mid-level lawyer, before going on to the most senior partner where the process began again. Sometimes I wondered if the document that finally went to the court had a single one of my own words in it.   Maybe “the”—I think I put that in.  It could have been tedious—in fact, it was—but it was also strangely satisfying.  It meant that discipline and effort, controllable commodities, were key ingredients.

So when I moved to Mexico and I began to write essays about the joys and sorrows of being an expatriate in San Miguel de Allende, I discovered that my training in  merciless editing served me well as I wrote my collection of essays titled This is Mexico:  Tales of Culture and Other Complications (March, 2015, SheWrites Press).

Here is how I learned to edit both as a lawyer and essayist:

1. Start with big blocks. First, I edit for structure. I learned from Laura Fraser, author of An Italian Affair, that a good way to see if the structure makes sense is to look at each paragraph and write in the margin the answer to the question: “What is this paragraph about?” 

When I am finished, I read my margin notes from top to bottom, page by page and a magical thing happens! I can actually see that certain paragraphs are out of order! They do not track! They do not say what I thought they said! And where the heck are the transitions?! Sometimes, I write the summaries of each paragraph on individual index cards and play musical chairs with them until the narrative arc seems right. Sometimes, I cut out the paragraphs and tape them back together in a different order. It is hands-on work.

2. Attack smaller blocks of text. Here, I work with dialogue, scenes and descriptions. I use a checklist from Eva Hunter, author of A Little Mormon Girl, The Council of Women and editor of Sol: English Writing in Mexico (Follow me on Facebook, Author Carol Merchasin—I will post it for you there). I audit for sights, sounds, color, touch, smells, lights and darks, gestures, dialogue and metaphors to name just a few stops along the editing path.

3.  Move on to words. I search and destroy the “ly” adverbs that tend to multiply like wire coat hangers, root out the passive voice when the voice shouldn’t be passive, turn prepositional phrases into adjectives, and I check the consistency of verb tenses, my own personal downfall. And I read out loud. Sometimes, things are right but they don’t sound right. 

I know I should be addressing punctuation at this point. I have tried to learn the difference between a dash and a semi-colon, but somehow even with the Chicago Manual of Style at my fingertips in hard copy and online, the whole thing eludes me. I believe in full employment for copyeditors.

4. Polish. Once, my supervising lawyer read me something from someone else’s brief. She gazed at it lovingly as she commented on the amount of time it had taken an army of lawyers to create it. 

“This,” she said, “is a $10,000 sentence.” 

Even though I am not being paid, I try to get a few $10,000 sentences. I look to see if there is a stronger visual image, a weak word that has to be yanked and replaced by a stronger one. I keep notebooks of words and expressions and when I am at this stage of merciless editing, I sit down with a cup of coffee and my index cards and I read all the notebooks. Sometimes, I see words or expressions that appeal to me so I jot them down and go back to the essay and see if I can work them in.  

Here is an example. I wrote this sentence, “Religion reverberates with firecrackers, magic, contradictions, and a past that cannot be washed away.” After sitting with my notebooks, I noticed the word “tattoo.” I like that word — the alliterative “t’s” and the visual image associated with it. So I captured it on an index card and eventually changed the sentence to this: “Religion reverberates with firecrackers, magic and contradictions, the past as indelible as a tattoo.” By my informal and non-scientific count, that single sentence was edited well over fifteen times.

Merciless editing takes time and patience but it not only creates a better result, it is also encouraging. All around me in writers’ groups and workshops, I see people who are discouraged; who give up because their current draft is not — well, perfect. 

“It’s the third time I have edited this,” they wail.  

They assume this is a sign of a lack of talent, instead of the inevitable need to go back over and over with a comb, pulling, tugging, manipulating and getting rid of the ticks, nits and tangles of words that are like dogs who have been in the briar bush. 

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  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Very helpful post, Carol. Thanks for sharing your process. I'm with you on this—that needing to be edited has nothing to do with lack of talent. We all need good editors, and most people should have their work edited again and again and again. I know your patience paid off! Can't wait to have your book in hand.

  • Carol Merchasin

    Monica, you are welcome!  One of my own personal weaknesses (besides using a variety of verb tenses in close succession) is meandering so the paragraph technique is helpful for seeing the total picture.

  • Jeanne Nicholas

    I like the editing process you've prescribed. I think the margin notation might really help me. I used to use beta readers. But now I use my chapter drafts in a critique group so I can get feedback about gaps and plot issues right away. Then I edit the chapter. Then back to my critique group for another review.

    It's interactive and I collect all the notes they provide on their critique copy.

    This method has provided some interesting changes in my plot.

    Last week two of the club members decided who the actors would be for the lead roles when Steven Spielberg started filming. It was a lovely boost to my writing ego.

  • I am currently revising a lengthy piece, and the paragraph exercise is a perfect tool. My personal weakness is not seeing the forest for the trees; lots of detail, but not getting an accurate grip on the total picture. Thank you so much, Carol.

  • Carol Merchasin

    Thanks, Mardith. Yes, laziness gets in the way. Sometimes I think I can just skim it and get the same result but it always is better to take the time, bite the bullet and roll up the sleeves--uh-oh, that won't pass the part of the self-audit checklist warning against cliches!

  • Carol Merchasin

  • Mardith Louisell

    Amen Amen Amen. Especially the paragraph skill. I can't believe how many times that has helped my writing and others'. That is, provided I'm not too lazy to use it! Also, sometimes in editing someone else's work, I can't see the structure unless I do that. This is an area where journalists (and lawyers) have a leg up on the rest of us. Thanks, Carol.