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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Guest Blogger Jim Warner on Editing

I am delighted to feature Jim Warner as our guest blogger this morning. Jim's article caught my eye because I just turned in my third round of revisions to my publisher on Monday. Each revision round represented multiple edits. I'm rare, I'm told, because I love the revision process. I tease my agent because she actually told my editor I "live" to revise. Um, not exactly true, but I will certainly attest to the validity of Jim's article. ~Mary

Why I Call Writing Editing (And You Should Too)

by Jim Warner

I’m going to shatter some illusions today.

Writing shouldn’t be called writing. It should be called editing.

Why? And more importantly, why should you care?

Because editing and revision are important, and you must do it well. If you think you’re only writing, and what you do after that is merely cleaning up the rough spots and fixing the little mistakes that creep into an initial draft, you’re missing something vitally important.

Here’s how to tell if you’re doing it wrong. Writing rarely feels like work. But something else does, if you’re doing it right. You know that feels like a chore?


I’ve looked all over for a magic bullet, a way to cut down on revision, editing and proofreading. A way to make this awful process shorter, to get back to the fun stuff, like researching and writing. I hate editing. Lots of writers do. Do it anyway.

I’ve been told Rachel Caine can write a book in two weeks. My source likely heard something out of context, but I could (if I worked really hard and didn’t have any distractions) knock out a first draft that fast. I’m no Rachel Caine, but you probably aren’t either. For me, pre-writing can take anywhere from one to three months. It takes me about a month to hammer out a first draft. But I’m not done there. I still have to edit those words, and this takes time. I plan on at least two months, maybe ten weeks. I spend more time editing than I do on any other process.

I have to revise, and I have to revise a lot. This involves a lot more than looking for typos, misspelled words, and grammar mistakes. I tighten up a sentence here, I unscrew an adverb there, I add detail or take some away. Sometimes I cut things. I’ve been known to dispose of entire scenes, even though I use outlines. I’ve also added them. Both made the manuscript better. It’s all part of the editing and revision process.

The ugly truth is, no matter what technique I’ve used, what gimmick I’m applying, whatever system I’m trying, it takes me ten to twelve drafts to make a novel presentable.

You’ll want to speed through the editing. Resist this. It’s best to work only an hour at a time, maybe two at a stretch. Take long breaks between sessions. Do you think that’s too little editing over too much time? I’ve cheated and my beta readers noticed. That novel took more time than if I had done it right the first time. So develop some patience. Two months is not very long to revise a novel.

The reward for all this self-inflicted torture is the tenth draft. When I get to that tenth draft, I’ve caught almost all of the typos. I’m changing words or making the dialogue work better. I long ago caught all the major errors. By the time I get to the tenth draft, I’m polishing, making my prose more saleable. Sometimes I need to do an extra pass or two. It depends on the state of the manuscript. If I’m playing with words and toying with sentences that are already working, then it’s probably okay to stop. If I’m still finding grammar errors or too many commas, I sigh and start another run the next day. Early, so I’m fresh.

I’ve seen websites out there telling you that you can make do with a single pass. Don’t believe them. If you disagree with me, start saving your drafts as separate documents. Make five passes. (You don’t even have to go backwards, although everyone should try that once. You’ll be amazed at what you find.) Read draft five and then go back and take a look at draft one.

If you’re the editor you should be, you’ll see an enormous difference. The first draft will be awful, embarrassing, and nowhere near as good as you thought it was. You wouldn’t dream of sending that piece of garbage anywhere. But the fifth draft, now that baby just might have possibilities.

In about five more runs.

After a few months, you’ll stop thinking of what you do as writing, and rename it editing. It’s more than a word, it’s a state of mind. Don’t give in to the urge to cut corners. There is no easy path. Unlike the Force, you can’t turn to the Dark Side to find a quicker, easier solution.

If you’re skeptical, try this on for size. I’ve never received a rejection telling me my writing needs work. I don’t get letters that tell me to polish, rewrite, and resubmit. What I get are “enthusiasm” letters. They didn’t like the book enough to represent it. They had trouble with the premise, or they didn’t like the style. It wasn’t right for them. But they never have trouble with the prose. I’ve even received compliments from agents for my writing. And that’s what we are all about, isn’t it? That’s what we’re trying to sell. Good writing.

Ironically, it’s really just good editing.

* * *

Jim Warner turned to writing fiction after he discovered that there were no jobs available for an intergalactic spice smuggler. He's sold everything from liquor to luggage, worked in academic and public libraries, and has composed over a hundred pieces of music. In college, he majored in American history and anthropology. He has completed six novels, including four urban fantasies, a horror piece set in Dark Age Paris, and a science fiction/mystery thriller.


Unknown said...

I'm getting to the end of one of my novels - Night Walker - and it's at 146,000 words and counting.

When it comes to editing, I know I will chopping a lot off aiming for about 70,000. I'm actually looking forward to cutting it down, looking at words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes in detail. That's because I've allowed myself to go fluffy with the free writing that I'm doing now - what I'm doing is pointing the camera at the scenes and characters I want.

It's at the editing stage that I'm going to relish the details and getting rid of props that doesn't add anything.

I just didn't realize that it may take 10 drafts and of course, I'm not an expert at what to look for yet.

Thanks for the post, Jim - it's good to know - and I'll take your advice about taking it slowly and not go crazy with the cutting. And to save each draft edit and see if I can see a change. I know there will be but still it will be interesting to see. It's also good just to feel that there's a progression.

Jessie Mac

Genevieve Graham said...

Fantastic article. Thanks. I love editing as well - cut 75,000 words from my first novel by accident, and the book emerged 100% better. Now I find that subsequent books run more smoothly. The more experience I get, the better I get (obviously), so now I help others with their novels as well.

Would you mind if I posted this blog on my company's blog? We are at www.nightpublishing.blogspot.com

Thanks again

Unknown said...

Excellent post - and something every writer should read. My old writing partner is an editor by trade and she taught me more in the months we worked together than any book or critiquing group ever could.

Lucky for me, my agent is an editor as well. I may never have the grasp on punctuation they do, but damn if they haven't both taught me more than I ever learned in school.

Wishing you the best in your own writing... and now, I must head back and do the fifth edit on a new piece.


Anonymous said...

Great article Jim. Thank you for talking about this most hated part of the job. I am in the process of doing it right now. I have no idea what draft I'm on. I stopped saving them with numbers. I do believe it's probably about number 7...woo hoo...almost there then.

Jim Warner said...

Something I just want emphasize. Ten drafts is just the point where you might be able to stop. I'm getting ready to start draft 15 on a project I've been querying for a few months, because someone brought my attention to something I missed. The revision process isn't over until the book's in print.

Your writing can always be better, so don't let some magic number get the better of you. Think of draft ten as a checkpoint. That's where it may (possibly, perhaps!) be ready to go.

Happy editing, good hunting, and I'm glad you all found this useful.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

A good article, but I do have a couple of observations:

1) Some writers are editors at heart and edit as they go. A first draft for that type of writer is not the same as the first draft written by someone just getting the words out on the page.

2) ANY piece of writing can always be improved. Still, there comes a point when you have to let it go out into the world or you might wind up staying on that hamster wheel and never getting off. And if you're trying to make a living at writing -- whether novels or technical writing or journalism or whatever -- impending deadlines will necessitate compressing your editing time down. Better to learn how to write/edit/let go in a reasonable time than to be a one-work wonder.

Every time you edit should teach you something about crafting the work in the first place so that by the time you've written your third or fourth book or your dozenth brochure or tenth magazine article, your editing cycle is reduced to just three or four passes.

Jeff King said...

AWESOME... this sum me up to a tee.

And it sucks to think i have 6 more drafts ahead of me.

thx for sharing and the great advice.

M. Dunham said...

These are the sort of posts I wish more beginning writers/publishing aspirants would read. Thank you for showing me that my OCD with editing is fruitful and right on target. I was starting to feel ragged here on pass #4. :)

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Super advice!

Carolyn Abiad said...

Timely advice, since I'm on the verge of about the 10th draft of my work and I am so tired of editing! At least I know it will pay off in the end.

Silke said...

I actually agree with Phoenix.
There are different first draft writers. One who edits as they write, one who gets words on the page and goes back to edit.
I've just sold a first draft (yes, really) to a publisher.
The editer got back to me and said it needed very little revision. When I told her what she has is the first draft - she was completely flabberghasted. (Love that word, sorry. :P)
I don't usually submit a first draft, but I've been told before that my firsts are like other people's sixth and seventh drafts - but I edit as I go along. All.The.Time.
I still make passes, like Jim says, but I guess my passes are more like fine tuning, than actual "Gotta chop this out. It sucks." (I get those too, though.)
And yes, usually it's not "rework/edit/polish" letters I get back, but "not in love as much as I'd like to be/current market". It still tells me I need to address some things - like make the agent/publisher fall in love so much, they want it.
That's an edit too, but more of a character edit, rather than "there are too many *insert word of choice* in the book" or "It doesn't flow."
But yes, edit. But before you edit, put the book away for 3-4 weeks, THEN edit.
Because if you go straight back into the story, it's still fresh in your mind, you're still totally in love with it and you won't see the flaws.
Distance - then edit. :)

Silke said...

Darnit, I want an EDIT button LOL!
That should be EDITOR, not Editer! ARGH!
Fingers too fast for keyboard.

Jim Warner said...

Silke and Phoenix both made excellent points. I'm not the type of writer they are. I've used their technique before, and it does cut back on your revision at the end of the process. (I'm no longer that kind of writer, but I didn't abandon the process because it didn't work. I just found I write better this way.) But one thing I noticed about doing revision as I went was that my word count per hour totals were much, much lower (like 10% of what I do now). It isn't because I type faster now than I did then. It was because I spent much of my writing time editing. And I would have never realized how much time I spent editing if I hadn't kept detailed records of my daily output--and used a different technique later on. I'm willing to bet it takes Phoenix and Silke more than 100 hours to finish a manuscript.

But the advantage of edit as you go is that you can cut a lot of time off the revision process at the end. I'm not sure it's fair to call something a first draft if you've been editing as you write. If you use that process, it's very deceptive how much time you spent writing versus editing, because it's almost impossible to disconnect the two. But Silke IS right. Her first draft is probably like someone else's sixth or seventh.

I'd also like to point out that there's a third type of writer, one who hasn't commented yet. (Are you out there? Join the conversation! Tell us how you do it!) They begin with an outline, and as they write, they flesh out that outline, making it longer and adding more detail. They keep doing this until they end up with a finished manuscript in a fashion analgous to someone painting a canvas in oil. I've never tried this technique, but at a guess, I'd say you would have a much cleaner first draft than someone like me. And again, it would be very difficult to work out how much time is spent on revision, because essentially that writing process IS revision.

I'd also like to emphasize something else. I used the number of editing passes and the description of MY process as an example to illustrate a point. Your mileage may vary, and Phoenix is right, you do get better and faster at editing as you go. But revision, editing and proofreading take time. Everyone has a tendency to want to cut corners. Writing isn't about hammering out words and getting to the finish line. It's about producing something entertaining and readable, and to do that you spend more time working with the words you've written than you do actually writing them.

Incidentally, Phoenix and Silke, I'm going to start a thread in the forum on this subject. I think it'd be instructive to hear how you write, because what works for one doesn't work for another, and I know I fumbled around in the dark (and still occasionally make misteps) to arrive at the process I use today. It could help others struggling with their own revision processes.

But before I start that up, I've got to go do some editing of my own.

-- Jim

Jim Warner said...

Okay. Started the forum thread under the Fiction Writing category on the Discussion Forum.

I'll be interested to hear others techniques. Really!