Writers write. Or so you would think. Do artists art, or musicians music? Well, yes, in a way, but there is more to being a writer, artist, and musician than just a word that describes what we do. Being a writer is more than just putting words on a page, it’s also reading and editing and rewriting. Being a writer is way more than just writing.
I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize that for a long time during my first decade of writing. I think part of it is the media that surrounds writers. When an author comes out with a new book, we, as consumers don’t see that struggle, we don’t see the sleepless nights, and the thousand or so cups of coffee that went into fueling that masterpiece. We just see the finished product, all shiny and new with a stunning cover and a title that makes us want to read it as soon as we touch it. I think media has a lot to do with the notion that writers just write. Think of any movie that has a writer as a main character, does it show the editing process, the struggle to rewrite? Chances are, it doesn’t.
This is a huge reason why editing, and rewriting and whatever else editing entails, can be frightening. All the doubts that maybe we didn’t encounter when we wrote the first draft, can jump out at us. The improper word choices or clunky phrasing can jump out like monsters from the closet. Even the names of characters and places can make us scream like frightened children, afraid of the dark. The fear that the first draft is the best draft you can get could quite possibly eat you alive!
There is no one way to edit. It could be all your piece needs is a line edit here or there, or whole sections could need to be rewritten or scrapped. Maybe it’s everything under the sun needs to be changed, and the whole piece needs to be written from scratch. There is no “catch-all” formula for editing. It all really depends on you, and your writing, and what it means to you.
When I first started even thinking about my first novel Spark before I even augmented the title, or even realized it was meant to be a series, I wrote an outline of what I wanted including characters, places, and a bit of plot. I had planned to write the whole thing, first book, from one characters perspective, but at the last minute changed it to third person. I followed the original outline pretty closely, but found that the last chapter would be too many pages and that I still had so much to say. I ended up splitting the last chapter into four more chapters, which worked at the time. I thought I was done when I wrote those last words. Done, copy, print, send it out to an editor.
Then the book then became a series, first of three books, then of seven books, and then finally nine (or so I hope). I read through the first book again, after it was so graciously printed for me, and there were some sections that I cringed at for what felt like days. It was pretty bad for a huge chunk being written in 30 days, then left alone for nearly four months and then finished pretty quickly in the three months following. It was terrible, but I didn’t know how to edit it, what to add, what to take out, where to move things. It was a disaster.
So how do we, as writers and editors, get over our fear of editing?
The simple answer is: We dive right in.
Let it Sit For A While- Like a fine wine, let it age for a few months. Distance yourself from your piece, as strange as that may sound. Work on something else for a while, so when you return to it, you can view it as a reader instead of the author. The recommended time really depends on what the purpose is, if there is a deadline, and how long the piece is. If you spend 15 years writing an epic, you’re not going to let it sit for a month and dive right back in. Give it enough time to become interesting again so you don’t remember every plot point, character dialogue and plot twist. When you are ready, usually when you forget what it was based on the title, or forget exactly what the characters names were and why you chose them, move to the next step.
Make A Backup Copy- This step is SUPER IMPORTANT! You may think that you don’t need to make a backup copy, but let me assure you, yes you do! It may be cringe worthy, and you may never want to look at it again, but you should still keep a copy. Why? The simple answer is this: That was the original, the first draft where you just put your ideas down unedited, unfiltered. If you decide to go back, that you’ve edited too much, that you want to keep something from that first draft, you have that copy to fall back on. Finishing something is a milestone, and you should keep a copy of it, even if the first draft sucks.
Read Your Work- This step should be a no brainer. You have to read it to know how you want to fix it. And why would you not want to read the finished piece in its entirety? Especially after you’ve let it sit and age. You could surprise yourself with the ideas, or the words you added. You have a right to be proud of it, and enjoy it just as a reader would. Read it several times, make notes in the margins, read like an editor would, finding words or phrases or scenes that don’t work. After reading it through, anything can happen. The choice is yours.
There are some people out there who think that writers shouldn’t self edit their own work. I can understand why, we’re too close to our own projects, we don’t know the business as well as professional editors, we don’t know grammar and the rules as well as we should… the list is endless, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give our work a once over and make it tighter.
As writers we should learn the tools of our craft, and put our best work forward, instead of focusing only on the work of others. Sure, you could pay to have a professional editor go through your draft, but they can be pretty pricey, depending on your number of words, and it could be weeks and weeks of waiting. Why not learn a new skill yourself, and get that satisfaction of editing, and not have to wait on someone else?
Another tip: It doesn’t hurt to really be in love with your work, whatever it may be. It’s ok to put it away for a while, but make sure you want to come back to it.
That first book I was telling you about, I’m still editing it and learning as I go. Right about now, I’m about to start draft 4, which means more rewrites, but it’s getting closer to that first image of brilliance I had almost 5 years ago (And even better with editing!)
The first draft and part of the second. Still in edits, even after 4 years.
What has been your experience with editing and the fears that sometimes follow?