In Defense of Editing

“Make no mistake, a rewrite is always a corrective measure. Nothing to brag about,” writes Larry Brooks in an otherwise extremely insightful article on structuring the end of your novel in the latest issue of Writer’s Digest.

I had to read this line several times. My first reaction was, “Really? Seriously? Of course rewrites are corrective measures, that’s kind of the point.” But then I got to thinking, what kind of message do those two sentences send? Nothing to brag about? I agree, but rewrites are necessary. To imply they aren’t is to set up expectations of inhuman perfection in writing that will only result in despair. I’ve seen this attitude in “how to” writing books before and all it does is make me think that I (and every author I’ve ever read) should pack it in and never write anything again, even our grocery lists. And I refuse to buy in to that kind of thinking.

The whole point of rewrites/revisions/editing is to make your work better. To expect that perfection will pour out of your fingertips on the first try is just ludicrous. You have to allow yourself to make mistakes in early drafts; that’s the only way to actually get where you want to go. Hemingway famously said that all first drafts are terrible. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott extolls the virtues of “shitty first drafts” because that is where you’re just trying to get the ideas down. Drafts are great because no one has to see them unless you want them to. They are you’re chance to play and work things out in your own head. Change your mind a million times and no one has to know. I have personally chopped 15,000 words out of a story, only to try again. I know of succesful authors who have thrown away entire drafts and started over. Sometimes rewrites are just necessary.

I’ve also learned by experience that if you don’t give yourself permission to write a big ol’ mess from which you can later mine the good stuff, you’ll get so mired in details and perfectionism that you won’t get anywhere. And sometimes the plot changes as you go, so you have to go back and make changes. I’ve edited more drafts of Book 1 than I care to think about, but each one has taught me something and I’ve walked away as a better writer with a richer story for it. I’m not saying that I enjoy editing. I don’t know anyone who does. Whether it’s for work or fiction, it’s my least favorite part of the process and is sometimes physically and/or mentally painful. But once you’ve gotten through it, the rewards are sweet.

So no, needing to correct your work is nothing to brag about, but it’s also not something to fear. Like death and taxes, rewrites make you human, and you can’t escape them. You may never savor them, but edits are what transform your work from something you write for fun to something others will pay to read.

Remind me I wrote this next time I complain about having to edit something…

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2 thoughts on “In Defense of Editing

  1. This is a really good post! It can kind of feel like editing is something to brag about because it makes you feel kind of virtuous. Like, the initial writing is the fun, storytelling bit (like you say, drafts are a chance to play) whereas when you rewrite/edit, you’re going back and making *good writing*, which feels more like work.

    Following your blog and Twitter!

    • Hi Isabella! Thanks for the comment and the follow! My experiences mirror your remarks The first draft is the really creative part and the rewrites are more like the business part, getting your creation ready for others to read (and hopefully, like). But I’m willing to bet that’s the case with any creative medium. First you have the heady inspiration, then comes the refining. As I wrote that, I thought of a sculptor (something i know nothing about). At first, a statue is a block of stone. Then slowly it takes on a vaguely human form. Then the real work begins, with the delicate carving and details. I bet they don’t like it any more than we do. Although, all we have to do is hit the delete key. I’m guessing it’s harder to fix a statue when you’ve accidently shaved off too much stone!

      PS – I’m following your blog, too. Your latest post is really interesting!

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