If you’ve ever written a story you’ll know how important editing is to the process. Without it (unless you’re some sort of alien genius) your story will be flabby or under-developed or just not as good as it could be. Editing is the only way I know to make a story better.
The first draft is your chance to get all those ideas out, to throw stuff at your story wall and see what works and what doesn’t. But the real work happens in the edit, this is when you really get to know what your story is about. You can play with themes and structure, you can develop characters – hell, you can even delete characters! If you follow my YouTube series Writing & Stuff you’ll have seen me talk about merging two characters into one: each character serves a purpose in your story. Sometimes you might find you’ve got two characters who serve the same purpose, but you only really discover this in the edit. The edit is where you make sense of your amazing stream-of-conciousness first draft. (Jason Arnopp calls it Draft Zero, Stephen King talks about writing with the door closed.)
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” – Stephen King, On Writing
Editing is what makes authors look good. But don’t get me wrong, I detest editing! I’d love it if everything just worked on the first draft. Sometimes it goes really well, the ideas come quickly, the solutions to the narrative problems are clear…
But usually problem-solving just means thinking over the plot for hours at a time. A lot of editing is done away from the keyboard when you’re busy doing other things. Your subconscious is still trying to fix the problems with your story. You can usually tell a writer who is editing by their far-away distracted expression.
My first book, Sorrowline, went to seven drafts before it was ready to be published. Editing is hard, hard work (not like being a nurse or a policeman or a child minder, but hard work, relatively speaking). Certainly, it’s the hardest part of the writing process, and will take the longest time to get right. In fact it’s like an iceberg, with far more lurking below the surface that you can see above the water. But, to push the metaphor down your throat, you really have to take a big breath and dive down deep into those icy waters to make sure your story is working as well as it could be.
It helps if you take some time between completing your first draft and editing. Take a week or two away from it, go outside, see people, have a life, so when you return to your story you can read it like a stranger and see what works and what doesn’t.
I’ve just finished the fourth draft on my latest work-in-progress, and I think I know what it’s about now. Each time it gets a bit tighter, a bit more polished, but it never gets easier. Each edit ends with the tired triumph of a job completed, even though you know it’s never done, it’ll never ever be done until it’s published.
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