I never liked editing. Of all the parts of the writing process, as much as I love the craft, editing always struck me as more of an irritating necessity. For me, it’s all about the first draft, baby. The excitement of watching it all happen in real time, making decisions and immersing yourself in the really good scenes, typing at a hundred words a minute with your heart racing. Rare moments, sure, but it’s the first draft where these golden experiences happen. The way I’ve been looking at it until now, once the first draft is done, your story has been born, lived and died. Editing is nothing but prodding a corpse, conducting the autopsy, dissecting the guts until you’re sick with it, and you just want to sew it up, bury it and try to remember it fondly.
Part of the problem is I never learned any right way to go about it. Like pretty much every other aspect of writing, there are as many different ways to edit as there are people doing it. The general consensus is that you should edit, and extensively, but that’s about as specific as it gets. Stephen King recommends at least four edits: one for surface things like spelling and grammar, one for deeper things like structure and character motivation, one in which you deal with the problems your secondary readers and editors have pointed out, and a polish. I believe Kurt Vonnegut used to pin pages to the bottom of his walls, and move them a length up each time he went over them, until they reached the ceiling. Some other guy (can’t remember who) would rewrite each page of the first draft until he had it exactly the way he wanted it before going on to the next.
I could give you plenty more examples, and it’s a pattern I’m noticing a lot in this business. The writers can all agree that the cat exists, and that the cat needs to be skinned. Beyond that, it’s a shrug of the shoulders. ‘I dunno what the others do, but I do it this way and it works.’
So in the end there’s nothing to do but pick a method and give it your best shot.
I’m writing this post now because I’ve recently changed the way I edit and think about editing, and it has improved my writing far more than I expected. Better yet, I didn’t even mind doing it that much. Hell, at times I even found I was liking it. So now I’m developing my own brand new system. Maybe it’ll give you an idea, maybe not. It’s working for me better than what I did before, anyway.
First I wait. This is also one of the agreed upon rules of writing – you must wait until you can read the story with some objectivity. For me, it works out to around one week per ten thousand words. The longer the work, the more invested I am in it and therefore the more distance I need. So if I write a hundred thousand word novel, I’ll start the second draft after ten weeks.
Here’s where I differ from a lot of other folks, because I don’t look at different aspects of the novel or story separately, like King for example. Instead, being a simple man, I just start reading. I read the way I’d read any other novel, and wait to notice something. It usually doesn’t take long, though. Man, if editing has taught me anything it’s that no matter how carefully you write that first draft, it’s gonna be rough. You could spend an hour on a paragraph, and it’ll still suck when you read it over, and for apparently obvious reasons. Goddamn writing. What a bunch of bullshit. But whatever, I’ll be reading and I’ll notice something. A clunky phrase, a spelling mistake, a word repeated six times in a paragraph for no reason, a character doing something they would never do. There are a million different ways you can screw up, believe me. I’ve written perfect, tight stories that make total sense in the first draft, only to read back over and find plot holes so huge they implode under their own gravity and become wormholes of total despair.
And then I fix it. These days, most problems can be fixed, but it wasn’t always the case. I’ve written solid hundred and twenty thousand word novels which had so much wrong with them that they were beyond hope. Like when your kid breaks a leg. Technically you could fix him up, but it’s just easier to bury him in the back garden and adopt a new one.
Ha, okay that was dark, even for me.
Some problems are hard to fix, and you have to delete and rewrite huge chunks of text. Other things require nothing more than a sentence here or a word there. But whatever it is, I fix it up as best I can and move on, and in this way I work through the story. It’s usually slow going the first time round, but I manage about five to ten pages a day.
When I get to the end, I go back to the beginning and start again. It’s a bit smoother each time. I think of it like tending a garden: at first, it’s messy. The grass is chest high and full of weeds, there are thorns and bushes and trees all over the place half buried in dead leaves, etc. You have to spend the whole first day hacking stuff with a machete just to move around. Each time you work through, though, there’s a bit less to do, the problems smaller and more nit picking than serious issues. If you go over it enough times, you’re left with a beautiful garden.
If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll keep going, and then you run the risk of over editing. Every superfluous word gets cut out, every sentence and paragraph rewritten until you forgot what it was about in the first place. You’re cutting individual blades of grass to uniform size, lining up your roses in straight lines and killing every insect you find. Beware of this obsessive compulsive behaviour or you’ll end up with a concrete slab. Very clean, clear and neat, but no longer interesting.
Readers prefer something too raw, emotional and messy to something too restrained and bare bones. Ideally, though, you won’t be in either extreme but somewhere between the two.
I go over, start to finish, until I can read the whole thing through at about the same speed I read other books. If it takes me an hour to read through ten pages for my second draft, I can usually get through forty or fifty in that time by my fourth. At that stage I can read entire chapters and only stop once or twice to tweak something, which is how I know it’s time to stop.
And that’s all it is. Probably I’ll post on the subject again a year from now overturning everything I think I learned – such is the nature of writing. Just as you’re getting comfortable with how you do everything, you learn something and realise you’ve been doing it wrong all along. Fool, I’ll say, You can’t stop at four drafts, you need at least ten! Or maybe it’ll be, Idiot! You have to read everything out loud as you go!
But until then, this is my method, and it is an improvement on the last method, and in the end that’s all you or I can do – be a bit better than you were yesterday.
Wait, then read until you find a problem, then fix the problem.
Seems kinda obvious in retrospect. Oh well.