Overediting: Sucking the Life Out of Your Story


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I had the pleasure of attending my local RWA chapter meeting last year and hearing author Catherine Spangler talk about "Writing Right".  She gave a great overview of the most common writing mistakes she sees when judging contests and critiquing.  We've talked about many of them here, but one that stuck out for me was the mistake of overediting.
She said sometimes she sees work where the writing is technically good, clean, and flows, but there is no life in the work.  Writing is ultimately a passion driven practice.  That's what we're doing when we're drafting; we're letting our creative juices and excitement about the story spill onto the pages.  This is the essence of a our writing.
And oftentimes, when we put our editor hat on and go back through our work, we become story vampires--sucking the lifeblood from our words.  We polish and cut and rearrange, we nix the adverbs and dangling participles, we make sure no dialogue is buried.  These things are all well and good and you want to edit and rewrite and polish.  But you also don't want to do so much that you leave your story pale and gasping for air.
This can be one reason why you see some people finaling in contests all over the place but then never convert it to a sale. They may have hit every line on that contest score sheet perfectly but if there's no oomph to the story, it's not going to sell.
I'll tell you a big secret. CRASH INTO YOU--you know that book that got me my agent and book deal has *gasp* some adverbs and incomplete sentences and probably too many "just"s. I may have even used a non-said dialogue tag on occasion. Oh and that whole "don't overload with backstory or use flashbacks" rule--well, every other chapter in my book takes place ten years earlier (Backstory! The horror! OMG!) Shh...don't tell. 
I'm not saying you shouldn't edit and be tough on yourself and know the rules. But by making sure things are perfect to the point of following every rule is going to drain the lifeblood from your pages.
Think of it like chicken soup (or in my case, gumbo).  Your grandmother's always tastes better than Campbell's (well unless you're grandma can't cook).  Campbell's is technically perfect-every ingredient precisely measured, the cooking exactly timed, taste tester approved, but it's sterile.  Your grandmother, on the other hand, after years of practicing her craft, can throw in a bit of this or that and always make it taste great.  Why?  Because she put her heart and her own spin on it.  This is what needs to be in our stories.
So make sure you edit and cut and revise--those things are absolutely necessary.  But take care not to take the magic out of your book.  Keep the heart of your story in tact.  
So how about you?  Have you ever been a story vampire and overedited?  Have you critted work that seemed like it was written well but lacked that spark? Have you ever read a great book that definitely broke the rules?


*This is an revamped post from Jan. 2010