Editing Your Writing: The Editing Process
Completing A First Draft Never Means You're Finished
There is no less accurate depiction of a writer than when they are shown typing away on their computer or typewriter before typing, "the end," sliding their chair back, and announcing that they are finished. It’s a bit insulting, especially considering the fact that the scene was written by a writer who most likely did not do that when they were finished writing the script that contained that moment. Who are they trying to fool?
Finishing a first draft of a piece means that you are no more than halfway done with that specific piece of writing. Everything from poems to news articles, short stories, screenplays, scripts, and novels requires extensive editing. First drafts are filled with typos, grammatical errors, clumsy language, confusing ideas, and unnecessary or missing content from even the best writers. When I’m on a roll and ideas are flowing, I write or type like I’m in a race. It’s all regurgitated on the page, especially when I lose focus or need to end quickly due to time constraints. If I were to print out a piece of writing directly after I finished typing it up and handed it to someone to read aloud without reviewing it at least once, I would be mortified by what would come out of their mouth.
Questions To Ask Yourself Before You Edit
Beginning to edit isn’t as hard for me as beginning to write. Everything is there. You just need to start reading. However, the process of editing includes many aspects to consider. Should you edit everything at once or just focus on one area for each edit (ex. spelling, format, length, etc.)? It’s ultimately up to you, but it’s in your best interest to focus on one thing at a time. Otherwise, you could skip a section and miss something crucial. Regardless, you will be looking over your content multiple times, but focusing on one area will keep you from becoming overwhelmed or rushing through and not catching everything that needs to be corrected.
The next question is how many times should you look over a piece before it is considered ready to read, publish, or produce? Length and content are large factors in determining this along with deadlines and the quality of your first draft. A poem could take as long to edit as a novel-length manuscript, depending on how satisfied you are with the first draft and each edit as you go. I personally feel that a piece is never finished; it can always be reworked in some way, even after publication. Showing it to the world doesn’t make it perfect. It just makes it publishable. The thoughts are all there in a clear, acceptable structure, but there are always words, sentences, and ideas to tweak.
Anyone in a creative field will tell you that when they see their completed work, they only see the flaws. Writers don’t write for perfection, though. They write for the enjoyment of crafting the piece itself and are fueled by the enjoyment and information that others get from it. Not everyone may like it. There are always critics to dodge, but a good writer is always their own biggest critic.
Back to the original question, though, the number of edits on a piece can range anywhere from two quick viewings to dozens of reviews. To give you a ballpark figure, however, a college professor once quoted approximately 10 edits for a novel and about 25 for a poem. I throw in short stories and articles closer to the novel range, roughly five to 10 edits per piece. Editing is about repetition, going over each word again and again, sometimes skipping over it, sometimes recognizing a change and making that change.
Another question is how best to edit: by hand, on the computer, or both? Each technique has its benefits. You're more likely to catch a spelling error when reading through a printed version. However, you can easily cut and add content by editing on the computer. When I'm editing a novel, I always do at least two edits by hand. The entire piece is printed out and then cut and rewritten in pen. That's the easy part. The hard (and unappealing) part is going back through and making the edits to the typed document. Even then, what corrections I hand wrote are reconsidered and altered when I type it up. With this technique, you cover two edits at once before the corrections are officially made.
So, how do you know when you're finished if every edit alters the piece in some way? One of the most telling indications is that you are ready to share it with another person. You are sure that it is free of all glaring errors, and your ideas are clear and as close as you can get to the message that you wanted to convey at the idea's inception. There is no science to it, but there are some guidelines to help you get to the point where the piece is introduced to a reader outside of yourself.
I use this Flip Dictionary when I can't think of the word I want to use in place of another.
Attitude Towards Editing
In a three-part series, I will outline the different stages of editing. Each stage is important to crafting polished, memorable pieces. While the piece itself is precious to the writer, individual words, sentences, and even chapters shouldn’t be. Some sections will need more work than others. You have to be prepared to cut entire sequences altogether or even start over if you discover an approach to make the piece stronger. I will provide helpful editing tips, personal editing experiences, and famous editing stories.
Editing is a side to the writing process that I feel is not written about enough, despite being one of the most important steps in the process. A good first draft is merely a good start. The meat of the piece, though, is formed in this stage.
What are your editing techniques? Leave your answers in the comments below!
Also, be sure to read part two where I will discuss the types of edits typically made to a piece before it is published or performed.