Writing Craft Hack: Edit in Layers

Here’s my nerdy little secret: I love editing. It’s sooooo much easier than writing. Editing means that someone else has done the heavy lifting of imagining and I get to pick all those words and paragraphs apart and put them back together–better, faster, stronger. I love a good critique. With practice I have become a very good editor. If I do say so myself. Editing, or any other component of the craft of writing, is not about talent. Editing really and truly is a skill you can practice and perfect.

Three cheers for editing! However, while editing others’ work is easy peas, editing your own work can be brutal. You’re usually way too close to those darlings to kill them. That’s why I get so excited about a method I’ve developed for myself and taught to students and clients over the years. I’m no baker, but I’m a master of the Layer Cake Edit.

What is the Layer Cake Edit?

This is no ordinary all-the-same-flavor layer cake. The Layer Cake Edit is one of those ridiculous rainbow cakes you see on Pinterest, the kind you gaze upon with either admiration for the skill, patience, and dedication to culinary beauty, or astonishment at the amount of disposable time some people seem to have.

Either way, this is the kind of layer cake that makes you question your choices in life, and on the page.

Unlike attempts to create a Pinterest-worthy rainbow cake, the Layer Cake Edit won’t leave you feeling like failure. Quite the opposite. The Layer Cake Edit is your recipe for crafting professional prose like a pro.

Why the Layer Cake Edit Works

No writer is perfect. In my writing, teaching, and coaching, I have found that we tend to struggle with the same weaknesses over and over. Whether that’s passive voice, favorite/over-used words, or forgetting to include tasty sensory details. In my experience, beating yourself up about those weaknesses is nothing but a colossal waste of energy. Why waste time feeling bad? Edit instead.

Enter the Layer Cake Edit.

When we edit in layers, we focus on one component of craft at a time. Your components will be different than mine. In addition to attacking a pervasive weak point in your craft, you can use your layers to master a new skill like writing dialogue or punching up the humor in a piece. My coaching clients make incredible progress when we identify their layers, because small craft corrections make for huge changes in the finished product.

3 Steps to the Layer Cake Edit

Here’s the simple recipe for the perfect Layer Cake Edit, no matter how many layers you decide to bake.

Step One: Gather Your Ingredients

You can’t bake that cake without breaking some eggs. And you can’t edit without your raw materials. So write away, with no worries over the final result. Ingredients are only components of the cake. In the end they are transformed into something completely different. Think about it– Have you ever tasted an egg in a cake? Nope. And your readers will never know what your initial ingredients looked like either. So free your mind, fill up the counter, and dump those goodies in a bowl.

In other words, if my metaphor isn’t doing it for you, write.

Write freely and write fearlessly, knowing your batter will be baked to perfection.

Step Two: Bake Your Layers

Hold up there, quick draw Betty Crocker.

Not. So. Fast. With that oven timer.

Remember, I told you this isn’t some ordinary 3-layer chocolate-on-chocolate dessert. This is one seriously obnoxious rainbow cake. Before you are ready to bake, you need to divvy up that batter and add some color! The colors represent your literary weaknesses, or those elements of craft you are currently focused on mastering.

Just as one by one, each layer of that rainbow cake needs conscious care to get just the right hue of red, green or blue, each of your edit layers will also need unique, focused attention, to ensure you get just the right end result around that particular component of craft. In working each layer, you need to concentrate on one and only one thing. You wouldn’t try to mix the perfect pink and the ideal indigo at the same time, and it’s just as difficult to fix all the things all in one swoop.

For example: If you like to use the word “it” waaaaayyyy too much– like I do in every single draft ever– then you’ll need at It Layer. In this layer, I go over mhy entire piece of writing solving for IT. God bless a Command F. Every time I find an IT, I make deliberate decision on whether or not that word is the best word in the context. I am always shocked at how often those tiny offenders hit the page. At least half of the time I find an IT, I can replace the word with a more specific reference.

Specificity wins every time.

Just like step one, this step provides an incredible degree of freedom to the baker. By separating each one of those pesky, not-quite-perfect writing habits, you’re free to focus on improving just one thing at a time, 100% confident that you’ll catch everything–one layer at a time.

Step Three: Cool & Ice

Have you ever tried to frost a cake that just came out of the oven?

Probably not because you follow instructions and have patience and never leave things to the last minute like I do. Maybe you’re one of those people who make fancy food from Pinterest that actually looks like the picture.

Good on you.

For the rest of us…

Yes, you need to cool those cakes. As in, set your edited work aside. For a while.

No one can tell you how long you’ll need. A day, a week, six months. Doesn’t matter. You’ll figure that part out. The important thing is to get away from your work for long enough to see it again with fresh eyes.

Reading through your work again is like assembling all those layers. By this time, your cake should start to look pretty good. Those colors are popping, and you’re starting to feel fairly smug about the creation you’ve whipped up.

The only thing left to do is add that frosting (By the way, I called it icing above, because icing sounded better with cool, not because I’m one of those people who refer to frosting as icing. Just so you know.)

Your frosting is the final proof and edit that creates a unified first impression. Once readers cut into that cake, they’ll never know the effort you put into each and every layer. All they’ll know is the sweet goodness that’s almost too pretty to eat.

That’s how you get them to devour your words and tell their friends about the awesome treat that is your work.

Bake on, write on.


Lela DavidsonWriting is messy. I help you find your story, craft your structure, and hold you to a plan. Because sometimes all you need is a coach in your corner.

Please write to me and let me know what you’d like to work on. If I have room in my schedule, we can set up a 15-minute interview to make sure we are a good fit!

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