THE CREATIVE PROCESS

So Your Story is a Fixer-Upper

Editing and Rewriting

Too many aspiring writers think their work is done when they finally type “the end.” Unfortunately, the truth is far less romantic. There’s no final clip of the typewriter, no satisfying shuffle of papers as you set the last page in place. Imagine yourself crafting a great cake — three tiers, strenuous attention to detail, carefully placed fondant — yet when you set the last bead of icing in place, there’s nothing left but to cut into it and eat it. And there’s nothing pretty about that.

The most important element of revision is consistency. It’s for that reason that so many writers choose to lay each page aside until they have a complete draft before returning to the editing process. Still others, like myself, can’t help but revise as they write. Honestly, either method is fine as long as the final draft is clean. In fact, you’ll find that almost every writer has his or her own unique way of editing their manuscript. Discovering the method that works best for you is part of your journey as an author, yet there’s no need to struggle forward blindly. I’ve listed out a few of the more common techniques below. Try them out; see what works for you.

Come back to it later.
You’ll discover that, as you write, you begin to memorize your text. That means that, as you go to read back over your draft, you’ll find yourself unconsciously skimming over paragraphs without really being able to see the issues that might be hidden in each line. It’s an easy fix. Just set your chapter aside for a few days. When you come back to it, you’ll probably be surprised at the things you’d missed the first time.

Print it out.
There’s just something about a computer screen that gets in the way of a thorough reading. Print out each chapter as you revise and mark it up in a brightly colored pen. Being able to draw your own edit marks and scribble in extra notes can be a real time-saver in addition to improving the quality of the revision.

Set aside important passages.
It’s inevitable that some scenes are more important than others. When the antagonist first appears; when the main character faces the demons of his past; when a love interest is finally resolved — these are the moments the rest of the narrative anchors around, and so they should exhibit the best of what your style has to offer. Furthermore, you’ll want to keep the particulars of these scenes in the forefront of your mind when writing the rest of your story. Print out the corresponding pages and hang them up in your workplace. Personally, I run twine above my desk and clothespin the pages I’m working on like hanging laundry. Others pin sheets to a corkboard or lay them out on a spare table.

Keep your old drafts.
Some days you just want to change something whether it should be changed or not. It can happen if you’ve been working on the same passage for so long that the language has begun to bore you or if you’re thinking about a shift in your writing style. That’s fine, but occasionally you’ll come back to your revision the next day and wonder what you were thinking. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than wishing you could go back to what you had before and realizing you saved over the original draft.

Find a pen-pal.
If you want to improve, you need feedback. No matter what you do, you will always miss something during your revisions, because, let’s be honest, as a writer you have a unique relationship to your story. That’s why nearly every professional author has collected a group of people to share the story with as it’s drafted. After a preliminary edit, I usually send off a copy to my dad, my wife, and a fellow writer. My dad has a detail oriented approach to reading that catches all my typographical errors, and he somehow manages to find every plot hole I’ve ever tried to hide. My wife offers a more entertainment-oriented response to my stories; she’s the one who will tell me which characters she likes or doesn’t like, and which scenes make her cry or laugh. My writing buddy, on the other hand, will look more closely at my professional techniques — the style, voice, pacing, etc. — and let me know what’s working and what isn’t. Remember though, the final call is always yours; just because someone says they don’t like something doesn’t necessarily mean you should change it. Use your best judgment.

Rewrite indiscriminately.
There’s no harm in rewriting a passage just to see what a change might look like. You can always stay with the original if you don’t like the new draft, but you can never choose the latter if you never write it. In fact, I’d recommend you rewrite your most important scenes at least twice. You’ll probably find that your final draft will have elements from each rewrite, and will be all the stronger for it.

Take it all together, and separately.
It can be good to work on each page or chapter as it comes, but occasionally you should go back and re-read your entire manuscript so far to see how everything fits together. Take these opportunities to give a cursory edit to the prior passages as you go through them. Make notes on what you want to change; even if you don’t work on it right away, you’ll have the notes to direct your future revisions.

Be prepared to let it go.
There’s no end to editing. There’s no moment when you finally get to say, “I’m done,” but there will be a moment when you can say, “good enough.” As one of my college professors so perfectly put it, “You won’t ever feel as though you’ve finished a story, but one day you’ll wake up and realize you can live with your dislike of what you’ve written so far.” In my experience, that’s usually the point at which I send in a manuscript for submission. There’s still revision to be done, but now it will mostly be in response to suggestions by your editor. A quick word of advice on that front: trust your editor and take what he says seriously, but don’t change anything you don’t think you should. It is still your story.

 

You’ll find lots of blogs that tell you to cut 10% of what you’ve written, or to never edit as you write. Those techniques might work for some writers, but I personally don’t put much stock in them. It all depends on how you write. Sure, most writers can probably stand to cut a good chunk of what they’ve written, but that’s not for everyone. Find your own path, because with revision it’s a rare case of the destination being more important than the journey.

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