Editing the first draft

You’ve finally done it! You’ve finished your first draft! You stagger off to bed, or down a few stiff drinks, or celebrate in some other way. What comes next?

The best thing to do with your draft is to put it away. Let a hard copy ‘chill’ in your bottom drawer. Do NOT be tempted to take a peek. Let your subconscious go to work. Ideally, start another writing project, maybe a short story. I always have at least two projects on the go so that, when a draft is chilling, I can work on something else.

How long you leave your draft is up to you, but I’d recommend at least a month, and preferably longer. That way you can ‘forget’ your novel, or at least the details. The task ahead of you is to read your draft AS THOUGH YOU’D NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE. You’ll be reading with your editor’s eye, critically, pencil in hand. Make notes, in the margins or using the ‘Comments’ function, as you go. For larger structural issues (e.g., this chapter belongs after the next one), make notes in a separate file. You can put any additional insights that occur along the way in this file too. In a sense you’re carrying on a dialogue with yourself about the story.

You may be amazed how much is obvious now and how much better you know your characters (Of course Florence wouldn’t wear that red dress …). You may find yourself cutting (if you tend to overwrite) or expanding (if you tend to underwrite). It may now be very clear that certain scenes are unnecessary while other episodes (dramatic ones) are not developed enough. You may even decide to change point of view at this stage. Be prepared to “let a bomb go off,” as a writer friend of mine put it. In other words, don’t be wedded to what you’ve already written, tempting as it may be. This is the stage for drastic changes. Where you aren’t sure, you can insert questions: Would this scene work better in Chapter 18? Do we need to know about Alex’s drinking problem earlier? Etc. Trust your intuition. If you have a niggling feeling that some aspect of the story isn’t working, trust that feeling.

How many drafts does a work of fiction or nonfiction need? Very broadly, I would say three major drafts, but parts of the work may require much more. Each book is different. And each writer differs; some writers write more slowly and do less revising. However, it’s a very rare book that requires no revision. Some writers are notorious for continuing to revise even at the proofs stage, when it begins to cost their publishers money!

Editing is like anything else—you’ll get better with practice. Learn to be ruthless. Kill all your darlings, as Hemingway used to advise. No matter how deathless your prose, a story that drags will not be read (or published). Your job is to get your ego out of the way and do whatever’s necessary to make the book better. “Unless you really have to write,” Hemingway also said, “go and do something easier, like climb Mt. Everest.”

And for a hilarious take on the “joys” of the writing life, check out Edward Gorey and his priceless illustrated story The Unstrung Harp (available from the library or online). It’s about an upper-class English writer, one Clavius Frederick Earbrass, well-known author of (among other titles) More Chains Than Clank.

Here’s poor Mr. Earbrass after finally finishing his latest novel:

Mr. Earbrass has been rashly skimming through the early chapters, which he has not looked at for months, and now sees The Unstrung Harp for what is it. Dreadful, dreadful, DREADFUL. He must be mad to go on enduring the unexquisite agony of writing when it all turns out drivel. Mad. Why didn’t he become a spy? How does one become one? He will burn the MS. Why is there no fire? Why aren’t there the makings of one? How did he get in the unused room on the third floor?

Have a wonderful holiday season, and here’s to a productive writing life for all of us in 2016!


Next WIR blog post: January 13, 2016

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