Editing is the most important element of writing that authors neglect. As I’ve said before, they’re many reasons for this, but none of those reasons ultimately matter if you want to consistently produce high-quality, publishable content.
P5 (Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance)
I know this first point will fall on deaf ears for a lot of you, but it takes place as you’re writing: you have to take notes as you write. Not me, you say, when I’m in the throes of the passion that is my muse, I wouldn’t stop for a biblical deluge. But here’s the thing: if you’re like me you’ll be writing along and one of your characters does something that is at odds with something you had them do in an earlier scene. Or you’ll simply realize that you didn’t “hit” something the right way previously. Here’s an example.
I was writing a story in which a woman meets someone who is wearing a disguise. When she first meets him, she notices his suit but little else. Later, when she realizes that the man is related to a friend of hers, she sees that they have the same eyes. I realized that in their first meeting I needed to have her recognize something in his eyes without being able to put her finger on it. That way, when I went back to it at the end, it would ring true. But I didn’t go back and find that scene and immediately change that scene. I pulled out my notebook and made a note of it. Then, when I had time, I searched the scene out and made the change. And don’t think that you’ll remember that change—you won’t. Write it down.
The second thing you have to do is to let the piece sit. If you’re feeling up to it, move on to another piece, or start the planning process on something, or just take a break. But let it sit for at least a month. I’ve always found that when I come back to it, I always find at least one piece of writing that really surprises me with how good it is. And I also am finding things I don’t recognize writing at all. But mostly I find a lot of really bad prose that needs changing.
And that’s okay.
Everyone from Stephen King to Ernest Hemingway says that first drafts are always awful. Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist said that she wrote one chapter of her novel Tales From the Goon Squad over forty times before she got it right.
Different Editing Methods
- The complete rewrite. It may sound crazy but there are authors out there who completely rewrite every story they work on. It’s not the worst idea—though admittedly not for everyone—to take a scene or a chapter that isn’t working and completely rewrite the entire thing once you’ve seen just how bad it is.
- The four draft method. Write and revise every day for your “close-in” writing. Then, when complete, edit it on your computer for the “close-in” edit. Third, print a hard copy and make notes for a “distance” edit. And last, print it again and read it aloud for an “oral” edit. Not my favorite method but there are some things in it I use.
- The Strunk & White method. This method gets its name from the ubiquitous The Elements of Style writing manual that you should have nearby whenever editing. Follow the rules to omit needless words, eliminate adverbs, and use the active voice.
Which one is best?
As you may have guessed I use parts of all these methods. I’m a big fan of The Elements of Style, but I also recognize that it’s a 60-year-old style manual that has not been revised in almost twenty years. It’s still awesome, but it’s not a panacea. Above all take this from Strunk & White: “Vigorous writing is concise.”
I’m also a big fan of reading aloud. You really get a sense of what works and what doesn’t when you read something allowed. If you’re reading it aloud and find yourself stopping and going back, this is something that needs to be fixed. This is where you’ll almost always find dialogue tags that get mixed up. It happens all the time so don’t freak out. Just note it down and fix it.
Then there’s the complete rewrite. Unfortunately, there will be times when you’re reading something that is a complete mess. I’ve found this is most true when you introduce a new character who later in the story is much different. To do this rewrite you need to get in the head of that character so take a moment before you tackle the rewrite. Read a later scene with that character that works and really find out who they are. Then start from the beginning and write the scene fresh. It may seem like a lot of work, and it is, but it’s also necessary.
Opening scenes and closing scenes are also ripe for full rewrites. Hemingway has stated that he wrote the opening of A Farewell to Arms fifty times and did the same with the ending. It’s not the worst idea to write your open scene several times, trying to find a different way “in” to the story. Even if you’ve done a thorough job of planning, that opening scene may not work the way you imagined. Don’t fight it. As the Yiddish proverb says: “Man plans and God laughs.”
So which one works best for you? Do some methods work better for specific problems while some others? I think so.
I try to give the Strunk & White treatment to everything I write, even blogs. Hell, I might start taking it to my daily writing as well. But there are times when even the most steadfast rules must be bent, broken, or just ignored.
But the one rule that must be followed is that no rough draft is going to be good enough as is. The greatness in writing is done in the rewrite. It’s where you open the door to your writing room and let others in. Here is where you must be your most brutal to your own creation. And when you succeed, the final product will be all the better for it.