On Editing…

by limebirdmike

I recently read a thread in the Limebird Forums on the subject of editing, and so to save myself writing a long reply, I thought I’d write my thoughts in a blog instead!

Editing for me, is perhaps the most important part of the writing process, and is something every writer should actively engage in. While some writers are happy to just write and would prefer to ignore the editing stage completely, for me, it seems these writers are perhaps missing the point.

Remember: writing is not the same as driving a car. When you get in your car you drive from A to B. Some drivers may drive faster than others, while some drivers may get lost, or take the “scenic” route to reach their destination. Writing is not a linear process in this respect as it’s not something you can say has a set starting point, or indeed a set finishing line.

Having given this topic some thought over the years, I have come to the conclusion that writing is far more like sculpture than anything else that comes to mind. Just as a sculpture will perhaps cut away the basic shape of the impression they are intending on, so the first draft of any work of writing is just like this: it’s the first stage in a far lengthier process of creation of which editing is a major part.

At this stage, some of you will doubtless disagree with me, and that’s fair enough – we each have our own ways of approaching writing. What I would say however is this: editing can help make you a better writer. By learning to distance yourself from your work – by learning to critically appraise the work you’ve produced, and learning to appreciate how your writing may be perceived by your audience – you will find you will gradually come to terms with that most important of skills in writing: separation.

Being able to distance yourself from the work you produce is an incredibly powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal, and is a lesson that can only be learnt over time. Along with subtle lessons such as this, editing, and the art of editing, can teach you a great deal many more lessons that might not at first even seem apparent to you.

I remember when I first started writing major works (was it really nine years ago?), I thought I knew it all when it came to the English language. How mistaken I was! Having written what must have been something like 90,000 words, I came across a subtle mistake in my punctuation – I had been using hyphens instead of dashes! Hours of editing later, and this problem was resolved, never to be made again!

Beyond relatively minor lessons such as this, one of the main things editing taught me, was the importance of continuity. If you spell something one way in chapter one of book one, then 200,000 words later, you need to spell the word the same way! Thankfully, I am blessed with a remarkably pedantic eye for details such as these, and so this part at least, came fairly easily to me. What was perhaps harder however, was the major works in terms of plotting and story arcs that, at the time, I had to deal with over the span of what turned out to be three books. I tell you now, this wasn’t easy, but the lessons I learnt in the process taught me a lot not just about my writing, but also about myself, and the ways I should approach writing in the future.

While for some of you editing may seem a chore (and trust me, it really can be a chore sometimes!), I encourage you all to look on it positively – to see it as a learning experience, and a chance to improve upon your writing to make it the best it can possibly be.

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15 Responses to “On Editing…”

  1. Love the sculpture analogy. Having an art background, I often liken writing to modelling. You start with a wire armeture, it’s very rough and looks little like the finished piece. It gives you the basic shape, the flow, a structure on which to build. As you start to build up layers and add details it begins to fleshen out. These are the re-writes, the editing. Then you get to the last stage, the hair color, the eyes, the subtle curve of muscle and a wrinkle here or there. That’s the final polish when you’re ready to send your ms out into the world.

  2. I have heard it said that there are no great writers; only great re-writers. The first draft is the easy part. Who knew?

  3. Editing is a frequent theme in my posts, so I love everything you’ve said here. Hand in hand with learning to distance yourself mentally from your writing is to distance yourself physically. Put that manuscript away for a couple of weeks or a month before doing a major edit. Getting it out of your mind for a while will make your edits far more productive. That’s when you catch things like the friend asked someone to bring a bottle of red wine to dinner and you had them open their bottle of white in the dinner scene. . . .

    And like kathils, I think the sculpture analogy is wonderful!

  4. Yes, the ability to distance yourself from your work is probably the most crucial requirement for editing. It’s something that comes with time and practice, which is why a fair lapse of time is recommended between the writing and the editing. But I’ve found that there are two elements which make the editing less of a chore (even if you love doing it and see it as anything but a chore). The first is to have written a novel that is as well-structured and coherent as possible. For me, that means spending a great deal of time on prep work before the first word hits the screen. The second, and I’m afraid it’s probably something you either have or don’t, is a terrible memory. Laugh if you will, but it’s the one time that poor memory is a valuable tool instead of a pain in the butt. It’s hard for me to remember what I wrote yesterday, much less an entire novel, so I come to it fresh each time I read it. The combination of the two has enabled me to work my way through two additional drafts of my NaNo novel in a little over a month. The structurally sound 74k story has grown (yes, I grow my novels) to over 87k. I don’t necessarily recommend this kind of marathon, but if you want to write more than one or two publishable books a year, it’s worth striving for.

  5. Good call on the sculpture analogy. Indeed, writing is easy, however writing well is a bit more difficult, and that is where editing can make the difference. As I edit my current work in progress, I feel that as I identify and correct my mistakes (and there are many) I am hopefully becoming a better writer.

    Of course, if wanting to be a better writer is not enough reason to edit, think of the reader. No attention to detail, poor grammar, wandering plot points and other poisonous verbiage normally culled in the editing process all tend to make reading difficult and portray the author as uncaring. And who wants to be known for that?

    Great post!

  6. In painting, the size of the brush often gets smaller and smaller…

  7. Like sculpture, the quality of the “finished” work will often depend on the amount of editing/re-working that has gone into it. The more we edit our darlings, the broader audience they will appeal to, because the truer to life they will be.

    The problem is (for me) that I don’t have the education to know things like, the first three paragraphs of this story are not needed and can be taken out, and take this aspect of that story and add to it…editing is necessary, but you have to know what you are doing or the end result will mirror the beginning.

  8. I agree. I spend 25% of time writing and 75% of my time editing. And I still don’t think I’ve edited it enough.

    I love Mark Twain’s line, “This would have been shorter if I had more time.” in reference to a letter or something he’s written.

  9. Thanks for your comments everyone. As proof of my own personal battle with editing, I’m currently procrastinating my way through editing my latest manuscript having cut almost 30 pages in total! I wonder why I do these things to myself sometimes :p

    To help myself get through the ‘first draft’ process I often find it’s useful to have a separate piece of paper onto which I list all the things I need to ‘go back to’ at a later date! Actually, now I think about it, I think this might be a topic for a future blog…

  10. That’s very inspiring–and encouraging. It helps to know we ALL need a bit of editing.

  11. Excellent post. Do you also have other people edit your work Mike?

    • Hi snagglewordz,

      Personally I don’t have other people edit my work. I have very mixed feelings as far as editors go. Having said that, when I finish my next manuscript I will send out a few copies to a few trusted individuals for proofing and general comment.

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