The Stages of Editing Grief

by Jeanette the Writer
published in Writing

As writers, we joke that writing is giving birth to a story and that our characters are our children. Editing, therefore, is a traumatic event in the life of something we deeply love. As we edit, we experience a flurry of thoughts and feelings. In one moment, we berate ourselves for our mistakes. In the next moment, we struggle to edit a line because we love our writing too much. Knowing what to do is difficult when our emotions cloud our judgment.

Everyone mourns for their first draft. What we spent months or years on is now being hacked to pieces before our very eyes—and often by our very own hand! To successfully move through the grief of this process, the Kübler-Ross model outlines five important emotions we may face. Experiencing some or all of these emotions during editing is completely natural and, arguably, necessary to craft the best draft possible.

1) Denial — I don’t need to edit

Editing often begins with a healthy dose of denial. During grieving, denial makes survival possible. The denial stage builds our inner strength so we are able to move on to healing. During editing, denial masks our other emotions so we don’t become overwhelmed and abandon our work. The denial phase gives us the time we need to step away and see our words with a fresh perspective.

Denial becomes dangerous when we can’t overcome it. The shock of beginning the editing process may stop us from clearly seeing what needs doing. Instead, we live in a perceived reality of what we want our manuscript and the editing process to be. Denial can leave writers closed to critique and lacking improvement. We must remind ourselves that editing is a necessary part of all writing.

2) Anger — EDITING IS THE ABSOLUTE WORST!

Now we actually sit down for our first attempt. It’s rough; we feel lost and confused. Suddenly, we get angry. The anger phase can seem counterproductive, but every stage of grieving has its purpose. Whereas denial isolates us, anger connects us to something. When we locate the underlying source of our anger and focus on it, rage in it, and expel it, we can then move past it.

Are we feeling frustration due to our lack of editing knowledge; disappointment at our mistakes; jealousy toward the work of others? We mustn’t place guilt or blame on ourselves or others. Instead, we collect these energies and focus them on our writing and revising. Don’t ignore anger either. Holding it in will only fester into resentment and we will lose the love we once had for our work.

3) Bargaining — If I just do this tweak here, then I don’t have to edit that part over there

To avoid the full pain of editing, we offer up deals in the form of “if/then” statements. We compromise and debate about how much editing to do and where to do it. We try negotiating with the ghost-of-manuscripts-past to avoid what is already a present reality. This mindset isn’t getting us anywhere.

However, bargaining does offer a form of control. We are now actively engaged in the editing process, even if we can’t see the full picture. As we continue to edit, we can always renegotiate our bargains to change, expand, and evolve every aspect of our novel for the better. The more we bargain, the more we end up changing.

4) Depression — This is never going to end and I’m a failure

Now, back in our immediate reality, we face the inevitable truth and we begin to lament. Point of view, tone, pacing, characterization, structure, syntax, grammar, punctuation—the editing process seems unending. Uncertainty or inexperience can leave us doubting ourselves and the future payoff of our efforts. Depression during this time is completely natural and important.

Depression gives us our first glimpse of a brighter future. Feeling depressed means we are facing and experiencing our emotions, not hiding from them. Without acknowledgment, we cannot move on to the final stage of acceptance. The trick is keeping up the strength during this phase to complete the editing and grieving processes.

5) Acceptance — I’ve totally got this

Achieving acceptance is no easy feat and we shouldn’t rush into it. Whether it’s the first edit or the hundredth, it takes time to learn to live with reality and face what comes next. Acceptance is not about forgetting where we started (a slip into the denial phase) or accepting only some of the truth (bargaining, anyone?). It is also not the ribbon at the finish line. We do not simply accept something and then never have to deal with it again.

Rather, acceptance is about using the past to create a better future. Instead of looking back at what we once wrote, we look forward to what our writing could become. Conquering our editing goals means accepting responsibility, putting forth our best effort, and taking pride in the resulting finished product.

How to “Ask the Editor”

Have a burning question for the editor? Just ask!

Jeanette is always accepting questions for our Ask the Editor column. Send a few paragraphs introducing yourself and your question to Jeanette@JeanettetheWriter.com. You can also send up to five pages of your WIP for critique. We do our best to answer every question we receive, so keep an eye out for our next Ask the Editor article. Your question may be featured!


Jeanette the Writer is an editor, coach, and freelance writer who wants to help others demolish their editing fears and finish their manuscript. As a former scuba instructor turned entrepreneur, Jeanette knows about putting in the hard work to pursue your passions. She has worked with authors, speakers, coaches, and entrepreneurs—empowering them with the right mindset, knowledge, and tools to help them tackle their editing goals. You can learn more about Jeanette by visiting JeanetteTheWriter.com and GoldenRuleEditing.com.

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