Why I Call Writing Editing (And You Should Too)
by Jim Warner
I’m going to shatter some illusions today.
Writing shouldn’t be called writing. It should be called editing.
Why? And more importantly, why should you care?
Because editing and revision are important, and you must do it well. If you think you’re only writing, and what you do after that is merely cleaning up the rough spots and fixing the little mistakes that creep into an initial draft, you’re missing something vitally important.
Here’s how to tell if you’re doing it wrong. Writing rarely feels like work. But something else does, if you’re doing it right. You know that feels like a chore?
I’ve looked all over for a magic bullet, a way to cut down on revision, editing and proofreading. A way to make this awful process shorter, to get back to the fun stuff, like researching and writing. I hate editing. Lots of writers do. Do it anyway.
I’ve been told Rachel Caine can write a book in two weeks. My source likely heard something out of context, but I could (if I worked really hard and didn’t have any distractions) knock out a first draft that fast. I’m no Rachel Caine, but you probably aren’t either. For me, pre-writing can take anywhere from one to three months. It takes me about a month to hammer out a first draft. But I’m not done there. I still have to edit those words, and this takes time. I plan on at least two months, maybe ten weeks. I spend more time editing than I do on any other process.
I have to revise, and I have to revise a lot. This involves a lot more than looking for typos, misspelled words, and grammar mistakes. I tighten up a sentence here, I unscrew an adverb there, I add detail or take some away. Sometimes I cut things. I’ve been known to dispose of entire scenes, even though I use outlines. I’ve also added them. Both made the manuscript better. It’s all part of the editing and revision process.
The ugly truth is, no matter what technique I’ve used, what gimmick I’m applying, whatever system I’m trying, it takes me ten to twelve drafts to make a novel presentable.
You’ll want to speed through the editing. Resist this. It’s best to work only an hour at a time, maybe two at a stretch. Take long breaks between sessions. Do you think that’s too little editing over too much time? I’ve cheated and my beta readers noticed. That novel took more time than if I had done it right the first time. So develop some patience. Two months is not very long to revise a novel.
The reward for all this self-inflicted torture is the tenth draft. When I get to that tenth draft, I’ve caught almost all of the typos. I’m changing words or making the dialogue work better. I long ago caught all the major errors. By the time I get to the tenth draft, I’m polishing, making my prose more saleable. Sometimes I need to do an extra pass or two. It depends on the state of the manuscript. If I’m playing with words and toying with sentences that are already working, then it’s probably okay to stop. If I’m still finding grammar errors or too many commas, I sigh and start another run the next day. Early, so I’m fresh.
I’ve seen websites out there telling you that you can make do with a single pass. Don’t believe them. If you disagree with me, start saving your drafts as separate documents. Make five passes. (You don’t even have to go backwards, although everyone should try that once. You’ll be amazed at what you find.) Read draft five and then go back and take a look at draft one.
If you’re the editor you should be, you’ll see an enormous difference. The first draft will be awful, embarrassing, and nowhere near as good as you thought it was. You wouldn’t dream of sending that piece of garbage anywhere. But the fifth draft, now that baby just might have possibilities.
In about five more runs.
After a few months, you’ll stop thinking of what you do as writing, and rename it editing. It’s more than a word, it’s a state of mind. Don’t give in to the urge to cut corners. There is no easy path. Unlike the Force, you can’t turn to the Dark Side to find a quicker, easier solution.
If you’re skeptical, try this on for size. I’ve never received a rejection telling me my writing needs work. I don’t get letters that tell me to polish, rewrite, and resubmit. What I get are “enthusiasm” letters. They didn’t like the book enough to represent it. They had trouble with the premise, or they didn’t like the style. It wasn’t right for them. But they never have trouble with the prose. I’ve even received compliments from agents for my writing. And that’s what we are all about, isn’t it? That’s what we’re trying to sell. Good writing.
Ironically, it’s really just good editing.