A Writer’s Nightmare
We’ve all been there.
It’s late at night and you’ve been working tirelessly to finish your first draft. With the end in sight, you begin to race to the finish, fingers darting across the keyboard with precision, keys clicking feverishly, wavering only as the final words appear on the page, as if by magic. Then the clicks come slower and slower in anticipation of what comes next. A few more clicks echo out.
Then there is silence in the room.
You might not have typed those fabled words, but you know that you have reached it: THE END.
You did it, another job well done! You are elated, as you should be. Be it a novel, a short story, a poem, or a blog post, it wasn’t easy. Sitting back, you know you have done something special. You just know it.
And now, for many writers, the real work begins.
Editing is as vital to good craftwork as the actual writing process itself, and while the relationship between writer and editor can be a turbulent one, the writer has just as much an obligation to produce the highest quality polished work as possible before submitting their project to an editor.
Creating polished work of this caliber requires a certain degree of self-editing.
Now, before you say it, no, you don’t have to be an editor on the level with a Maxwell Perkins, or even Charles Foster Kane, but you must develop an eye for what requires revision, as well as what can stay, and more importantly, what can go.
It may seem a daunting task, but the first step is the most difficult part.
Are you done? Good. Now walk away.
The first step to successful editing, whether you are working on that meticulously crafted first novel or the most recent internal report at work that’s due by end of day, you still need to take a moment to reflect, and allow your mind to wander in other realms.
This step is typically dictated by your own schedule more than anything else, but I have found that the longer you let something sit, the better the end result will be. If you are looking at the manuscript of your first novel and no one else knows about it, then keep it that way. Put it in a drawer for a month or two. Visit one of the other worlds you’ve been dreaming up, begin research on the next novel or story, or maybe take some time out to read.
I made a similar suggestion in my first Writer’s Corner article about what to do with Writer’s Block. Take some time off, the words will come back. Same idea. Funny how that works out, right? Yet in this case, instead of walking away to find the words, you are walking away to get away from them.
Space and time will allow you to come back with fresh eyes to an old project. The less proximity you have to your work between the first and second draft, the better you will be able to assess it upon returning to your project.
And if it is that TPS report that can’t wait? Put it in the drawer, and work on the next assignment for as long as you can afford. Even if you can only leave it alone for an hour, it is better than getting to the final page and immediately jumping back to page one, red pen in hand, ready strike.
I have been in both situations and I promise, while the urge will be unbearable, you will ultimately spend less time working on the second draft if you give yourself the time and space you need to really absorb the work. You’ll see the errors, the mistakes, and the weak points; you will know exactly what needs to be done.
And hey, if this step goes well enough, you’re second draft might be the final one.
Second time around, might do it
So, as much time as possible has passed and you’re ready to come back? Good. Roll up your sleeves and break out the red pen. Or turn on track changes, it’s up to you really.
Remember, there is no one right way to do it. I like to edit on paper when I can justify it because I find it easier to make notes and references, but track changes on Word or markup on Adobe works just fine.
Write your way, and when in doubt, write it out. The same basic logic applies for editing.
You are now reading your own work the way that someone else might read it for the first time. Only you still have the luxury of making revisions where you have to, and rewriting where necessary.
It is okay to be brutal with yourself at this stage of the game. Read your work with a critical eye, like Ernest Hemingway was known for doing in his day. He was notoriously a bastard to himself when editing his own manuscripts before submitting to his editor, oftentimes throwing away things that other writers might have kept. In this part of the drafting phase, we can all learn from Hemingway.
Be your own toughest critic, be relentless, be willing to sniff out every unnecessary word, every dull syllable, every weak point, and throw it away.
Be your own toughest critic, be relentless, be willing to sniff out every unnecessary word, every dull syllable, every weak point, and throw it away. Thrive on vanquishing cringey errors and learn to both laugh at them and love them. They make you human. They make you a writer. Do this, and no editor or critic can ever hurt you or your work.
Though entire courses have been taught on editing, I will try to condense this element into a few sentences and save the broader topic of types of editing for another day.
In my opinion, the second draft is the most important for a writer. Why? Because the story is already on the page. You can see the characters, the story, the dialogue, you can see everything on a landscape before you, and therefore, you can see the dark spots on the map.
Always examine the landscape in full before calling it good.
Which characters need more development? Where are the opportunities to advance from new directions? Is there something missing? Is there another chapter or side plot tucked away in those mountains? And over there, by the river, what are those two characters sneaking off to do down there?
With the second draft comes a peculiar sense of clarity that does not exist as you are still dreaming up your project.
For me, the second draft is almost always the last. Almost, anyway.
One more time around, might make it
So, you’ve completed your second draft? It felt a lot less fun and a lot more like work, right?
Wait, should that have been your second draft, or the second draft… Damn.
So, you’ve completed the second draft? It felt a lot less– Wait! You’ve or you have?
Okay, let’s fix that mistake.
So, you have completed the second draft? It felt a lot more like work, right? Wait, did that sound better the other way?
Notice how I began by asking you about your second draft but drafted that sentence three times and am still contemplating the merit of every other word in the damned thing?
If you picked up on that, hurrah for successful framing devices, but if not, let’s dive in.
One of the most prevalent issues I notice with writer-friends of mine is that once they catch the editing jitterbug, they never want to stop.
A writer can spend an eternity writing the same chapter over and over again trying to figure out where it goes or if it has a place. American writer Stephen King has an anecdote he will occasionally tell at writing seminars and writes about in his memoir On Writing about the writer James Joyce being unable to get past this phase.
According to King, Joyce had a friend who came to visit him (Joyce) one day, and found Joyce in a state of great despair:
When the friend asked if it was the writing, Joyce responds “Isn’t it always?”
The friend asks Joyce how much he managed to write that day, and Joyce responds “seven words.”
The friend is surprised: “Seven,” the friend muses, “that’s good- for you.”
“Yes,” Joyce replies, “But I don’t know what order they go in!”
While this was likely intended to be an amusing anecdote about the dangers of over-editing or over-thinking the craft (I cannot find any evidence of this having actually happened), it still proves a fundamental point, similar to the one I made at the beginning of this section.
While you should take your editing seriously, only you can be the judge of when enough is enough. Though one thing I can say, as a concluding note, is this: Do not be the James Joyce of the anecdote.
Whether it actually happened or not is almost irrelevant, as there are numerous writers who I have actually encountered in real life who are like this, so much so that they very rarely get any writing done, and when they do, their voice is gone almost entirely. These same writers treat a red pen as if it is a Brillo pad to scrub their sins from the page but instead of taking only the mistakes they end up losing the soul of their work.
Any given piece of writing should gain something from the editing process as opposed to just losing pieces of itself. If writing is removed it should be for the sake of clarity. If writing is changed it should be to amend errors of form or function, grammar being chief among them.
Yet if you arrive at a point of micro-managing yourself, it might be time to pack it in and call it day. Submit that report or pitch that novel. In the spirit of Hemingway, let it be a farewell to red pens and a hello to a new friend.
Let the professionals do their job once you have done yours.
Just don’t lose yourself in the process.
About the Author:
Shane is a content and grant writer for the Love Yourself Foundation. Originally from New Jersey, he has lived in Las Vegas since 2013. A recent graduate of UNLV’s English and Professional Writing program, he is now putting his skills to work wherever they are needed. He also has a degree in Criminal Justice from the College of Southern Nevada, which he hopes explains his love of true crime novels and of all things horror. A constant reader and frequent writer, Shane has two novels currently in publication and a few more on the way, including a book of poetry due this fall.