Editing -- The Agony and the Ecstasy
By Dave Butler
“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs,
is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
One of my earliest writing mentors, when hearing that I’d finished the first draft of my first novel, congratulated me, then told me that the hard work was about to begin. At that moment, I almost gave up. After spending hundreds and hundreds of hours writing that first story, after losing gallons of blood, sweat and tears, sometimes simultaneously, I couldn’t imagine how it could get any more difficult.
But now that I’m working on my sixth novel, I understand that she was right.
I’m in the midst of turning 105,000 words into 90 or 95,000 words and find myself pausing often to consider the process.
As any successful writer knows, self-editing is not a mathematical formula, or a surgical process that’s clean and simple. If anything, it may be best compared to dieting – except more violent and painful.
Editing your own writing is hard work. It’s about making improvements, one small step at a time. For me, it’s one of the most difficult yet satisfying things to do with a manuscript. Except, perhaps, for that simple action of typing “the end.”
Sometimes, editing is excising single words. Other times, I delete entire sentences or paragraphs. Or remove whole chapters -- highlight, backspace, gone.
I’ve found that the most challenging pieces to self-edit are those that seem at first to be clever – a fun turn of phrase, a play on words, a sentence that flowed onto the page with little effort or thought. They’re pieces that might persuade a writer to say: “I bet my readers will smile at that.” Beware of that self-delusion; when something doesn’t work in the story, no matter how clever or fun or satisfying it was to create, it must go. With experience, the attachment to specific words or phrases dissipates.
Reading my own writing aloud helps immensely, as does scanning the manuscript backwards (that way, you’re not reading -- you’re looking at words and structure).
Every writer I know has a different process to write a first draft, but they're often centered around a similar theme --- get the words down as fast as possible, leave them to age for a while, then go back to edit.
New writers often finish a draft, then assume it’s ready to publish. I see this when I share my writing experiences with high school or college classes. Eye-brows rise and eyes widen when I talk about the multiple edits a story needs to become great.
Now, it’s second nature to me that editing is not a single act, done once. I edit my own work ruthlessly, often cutting and paring and compressing many times, to ensure it’s ready to be seen by anyone else. Then, there’s more editing to do after my circle of beta readers has seen and commented on it. If a writer has a literary agent, he or she will surely want more changes … perhaps many times, until they think it’s ready to pitch. If a publisher finally decides to take it on, there will be at least three more levels of edit – a substantive story edit (which often goes back and forth multiple times), a copy edit, then that final critical edit where it’s up to the writer to study the final proof, searching (often in vain) for those mist speling misteaks, the double punctuation,, the absentor extra spaces between words. I hate to say it, but at least one error will remain -- like a cockroach after a nuclear explosion -- no matter how many sets of eyes scan the manuscript.
By the time a novel sees the light of day on a store book shelf or a digital site, it can – and should be -- a shadow of its former self.
However, compared to that first draft, it will always be a better story for having survived the mysterious process of editing.
(As an important aside, I must note here that skilled editors are worth their weight in gold. Praise them, pay them, take them out to dinner, buy them bottles of their favourite refreshments... But at the same time, remember that the Stockholm Syndrome is a real thing. Just sayin' ...)
Here for fun and inspiration, are a few of my favourite quotes about the editing process:
The first draft of anything is shit.
The purpose of the first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written.
Every first draft is perfect because all it has to do is exist.
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. Colette
Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear. Patricia Fuller
While writing is like a joyful release, editing is a prison where the bars are my former intentions and the abusive warden my own neuroticism. Tiffany Madison
The first draft is black and white. Editing gives the story color.
I edit my own stories to death. They eventually run and hide from me. Jeanne Voelker
Only God gets it right the first time and only a slob says, "Oh well, let it go, that's what copy editors are for." Stephen King
All writing is guilty until proven innocent. A.D. Aliwat
Editing is the very edge of your knowledge forced to grow--a test you can't cheat on. S. Kelley Harrell