Let’s talk about editing for a moment. You know, that thing new writers think is a slam dunk. Wham-bam thank you Mam and look at my shiny, new book! I’ll be so great the first time around, I’ll just do a quick spell check and be on my merry way, all the way to the bank, with my big, fat check in hand. Move over, Stephen King!
Now back to reality. Editing is a joy for some writers, but then there are the rest of us—the tired, weary-eyed writers who open their computers and reluctantly set out to edit. But that’s not to say it’s all bad.
When I started writing my first novel, I did a lot of reading up on the ol’ editing process. Yes, yes, that joyful middle ground we writers wade in for what feels like an eternity. I read some really great books on the subject, and I also read many forums where other writers shared their experiences. Some paint editing out to look like a writer’s purgatory of sorts, and some jump for joy at the opportunity to edit. As for me, before I even finished my novel, I knew damn well that editing wasn’t going to be a fun roll in the hay. I knew it was going to be hard work, and a ton of it. I went in eyes wide open and totally aware of my lack of brilliance. I would need to edit—and edit I did.
Now, for what I didn’t know: I didn’t know that editing wasn’t just editing. Sure, I thought it required going through your work with a fine-tooth comb, but what I didn’t realize was that editing is really re-writing. The reality that you’re going to re-write your entire book—over and over and over—kind of hits you like a sack of really big, really pissed off potatoes. That’s right, young people and new writers, editing means re-writing, and then, once you’ve re-written your novel to near perfection—whether that be 5 times or 25—the simplistic editing comes in: spell checks, grammar checks, polishing. This might sound insane (I know it did to me at first) but there’s a reason for the madness. Writing your book several times isn’t something you do just to prove to the world that you’re willing to slave away for your art. Nope. It serves a valuable purpose. But if you just need a pat on the back for trying so hard, go ahead and ask someone to do that for you.
Let’s use my first novel as an example: it was a whopping 238,000 words. Needless to say my book required massive amounts of editing, and guess what? I’m still editing the beast. It was when I finished it, when those blissful words were written: “The End” (actually, I didn’t really write “The End,” but just go with it—I’m trying to be dramatic here), that the amount of work still ahead became clear. Sure, I had this novel that I loved and was proud of, but good God, if it wasn’t the most pitiful thing I’d ever read. And that’s the most important thing to remember about editing: everyone’s first draft is horrible Absolutely, stinking, horrible. No one is immune to it, and if you think you are—because you’re that one in a million writer—watch out, ’cause your book is probably the biggest stinker of them all. This profession requires humility, so remember not to get too big for your britches, grasshopper.
Now for the really cool thing about editing. Yeah, yeah, it’s a heavy load of work and it’s not always easy to do, but something really amazing happens in the process. When you finish your first draft and put that sucker away for a while, you’ll go back later and read it straight through, and then the pissed off potatoes come out to play. Abusive buggers, they are. You read your novel and realize that it’s bad. Real, real bad. Then you beat yourself up for a while, eat mass quantities of processed garbage, tell yourself you’re a hack—do whatever you have to, and you will have to do something to ease the pain of reality. But after that, when you’ve come back to reality and get to work again, that, my dear readers, is when the clouds start to part and the silver lining appears. That’s when you find out that something very special happened to you in the process of writing your first (shitty) draft: you became a better writer. Now you get down to editing (rewriting) that trashy manuscript, and as sure as the sun comes up, you’ll see something amazing happen to your novel: every sentence you restructure and every word you replace will be far better than the last. You’ll be amazed by how much your writing will have improved between the time you wrote page 1 and edited page 1.
I’m into the third re-write of my book, and while there are days when I just want to work on a new story with new characters and new plots, I have to admit that I enjoy the simple act of fixing my work, of replacing poorly written material with better material. Every rewrite I do will render a far better book, and I’ll be a far better writer for it.
So, for anyone out there who’s embarking on the editing journey: fear not, and don’t get discouraged. It’s a long, bumpy road, but it’s the best learning tool in the box. Nothing will improve your writing like editing will.
© 2013 Sloane Kady