How I write - Editing Part 1 - Learning How (Not) To Edit
This is the second in an occasional series of posts about writing process stuff that has worked for me, and the first in a sub-series about editing. This time I’m talking about my long and winding road towards realising that writing is editing and that if I never learned to do it, I would never achieve what I wanted to with my writing.
I’m going to write three posts in this series. This first post is more of an overview, for those writers, like me, who don’t have a finishing problem, but definitely have a ‘make it as good as you can’ problem. It’s a cautionary tale about how I tried pretty much every trick in the book to avoid digging in and actually editing the novels I spent nearly twenty years writing.
The second post in the series talks in more detail about the types of editing I’ve started doing and how I do them, along with some crunchy technical detail about the tools I use. I’ll be using my experience of editing my last novel, The Burning Line, currently out on submission with editors.
And finally, the third post in the series talks about the new drafting and editing process I’m using in my next novel, which will (I really hope) integrate everything I’ve learned over the past year and a half since I finally got tired of only ever moving forward in my writing, like some kind of anxious draft-producing shark 1.
I used to work in a, shall we say, fairly inconsistent style. I’m being generous with that description. What I actually did for about a decade and a half was to produce books, or at least book-like objects, in sudden mad dashes of enthusiasm, two or three month stretches of self-flaggelating, high word-count days or nights. I’ve talked before about how I learned to measure effort rather than output, so I won’t go into how that period of my writing felt. But it certainly did produce books, even if I was deeply frustrated with my own process. I’m far more consistent now and much happier for it, but that consistency of effort was not enough on its own.
The real problem back then was not my inconsistent production. It was what I was producing. I’ve described this to other writers as ‘word compost’ - vaguely book-shaped piles of sentences and badly structured chapters, rife with continuity errors, muddy characterisation, cliche, you name it. If there’s a sin of first drafts, I have very likely committed it.
Because for many, many years, I only ever wrote beginning-to-end, start-to-finish, completely linear. I never jumped forward or back, I never went back and touched a word until the last sentence of the first draft was down on paper.
Folks, let me tell you, while that gives you a lot of ‘finished’ ‘books’, it does not give you actually finished books.
Of course, I’m not an idiot. At least most of the time.
I knew that I needed to edit my books. So over the years, I tried a few tried-and-tested methods that may well be familiar to anyone who has also spent years avoiding actually doing any editing. In no particular order, here’s things I’ve tried that failed miserably to actually edit my books.
As anyone who’s read Stephen King’s On Writing will tell you, all you really need to edit is a ‘legal pad’ (I think this is a very American kind of paper) and your printed manuscript. Then you just, you know, ‘edit’. King doesn’t go into much detail about this mystical process, but I felt I could hardly go wrong with a sharpened HB pencil and some elbow grease.
I was very wrong. Mostly what I did with my binders full of carefully hole-punched paper manuscripts was murder trees and waste graphite. I would try to rewrite on the fly, squeezing rewrites into the margins and spaces between lines. I would circle things and strike out other things. Then I would feel my eyes glazing over, look at the four lines of ‘notes’ on my ‘legal pad’ and decide I’d rather do literally anything else.
The ol’ skim n’ typo hunt
I’m a child of the 21st century, an Elder Millenial if some are to be believed. I bridge centuries! I am both digital and analogue!
Obviously the best thing for me to do is to edit on screen. Such flow, such speed and accuracy. No pencils or ‘legal pads’ required. I can just dive into the ever-flowing river of text, swiping out the salmon of typos and badly formed metaphors with my vast bear paw of editing prowess.
The reality was that my eyes glazed over for a different reason. The words felt too close, too much like an early draft. So, instead of working hard to actually make the novel good, I hunted for typos, skim-read page after page, find-replaced character names I didn’t like and generally didn’t actually edit much.
I think this kind of ‘editing’ is incredibly common among novice writers who have not really thought much about their editing process. We treat it like revising a university essay or CV draft, never thinking about the whole story. Instead, everything is at a surface level, skimming lightly over the substance of the book. There is a place for this kind of overview copyediting, but it is much, much later.
The ‘Burn it down and rebuild it’ approach
Well, if I can’t work on paper and editing on screen doesn’t work either, what about if I split the difference? I’ll export the whole book to eBook format so I can display it on an eReader or tablet, then I’ll retype the whole damn thing.
In some ways, this was the first time I engaged with editing as actual work and it was also the first time, not coincidentally, that I substantially fixed a structural issue with a book. My huge, untitled space opera that I wrote in 2013 had an entire broken subplot that I simply forgot about. Retyping the whole thing allowed me to insert the rest of this subplot and smooth away the joins in a way that I found immensely satisfying. That book will probably never see the light of day for other reasons, but it did help me to understand that editing was not going to be a short, easy thing I did at the end to polish my work to a high shine. In many ways, once I learned how to do it, editing would become far more time-consuming but also more valuable than my drafting process. Drafting is just slapping raw clay into an approximation of a finished piece. Editing is where you do everything that actually matters 2.
The breaking point
I rumbled along, trying variations of the above processes over and over again for several years. Finally, determined to write a truly great, well-planned first draft, I outlined a big generation ship novel in incredible detail, right down to individual scenes and sub-scenes.
When I finished it, the first draft was 165,000 words long.
Seeing that number on a novel I’d meant to be about 120,000 at most was a bit of a watershed for me. The size of the book felt overwhelming and the detail of my outline meant that I had no idea what was actually important to the plot. I had been thinking for some time that I should really take my next book and put it through a rigorous editing process, but the prospect of doing that with this book just made me feel defeated before I’d even started.
“RIGHT!” I said to myself. “Enough of this shit. Time to learn to edit.”
The beginnings of a process
In 2015/2016, I’d written a draft of a futuristic spy novel. I had done several rounds of ‘editing’ with it, including a skim through and typo hunt and even a full print-out. That draft is behind me on the shelf as I write these very words, in fact. These efforts had not exactly made the book worse, but they hadn’t made it better either.
For some reason, when I looked at my word compost piles, this book kept elbowing its way to the front. I liked the characters, even if they felt a bit thin and trope-y in their initial forms. I felt like the setting was vivid and exciting, even if I had a lot of research to do to really properly ground it. And most important, when I picked up the manuscript and read the first few pages, I wanted to read more.
So - I determined that I was going to research the hell out of this editing business, figure out my own process and use this book, now titled The Burning Line, as my test-case. Can I edit a novel to publishable standard? Can I create myself a repeatable editing process? And will anyone else want to read it?
All of which I will cover in the next part of this blog series:
Now that I use the metaphor, I have no idea if that whole thing about how sharks need to swim forward all the time or they’ll suffocate is an actual thing, or just a terrible bit of internet truth regurgitated in business seminars. Googles. Huh. Turns out it’s mostly bollocks.↩︎
That’s not to say that good things don’t come out of first drafts. One of the coolest experiences you can have as a writer is reading back something you haven’t touched in weeks or months and coming across an absolute jewel of a sentence or an action sequence that just works. These really do show up in first drafts sometimes. But the work of editing is to get the whole thing up to that standard. That’s why it’s hard.↩︎