Essential writing skills: editing as writing and why it’s important

One of the key things an author needs to understand about their manuscript is the point that editing is integral to the writing process. It can take just as long to edit a first draft as it does to assemble those words in the first place. Maybe longer.

Wright_Typewriter2That’s a daunting prospect, but it’s do-able. The key to it is critical evaluation and breaking the task into manageable layers – starting with the big picture and moving down to the detail. Here’s how:

  1. Get the big picture. Take your manuscript out of the metaphorical drawer. If you can, print it out so you can strew the sheets of paper on the floor. Look at it from the big-picture overview. Is the structure right? Does everything mesh together? Make notes if it doesn’t. Avoid the temptation to re-write the specific words just now.
  2. If the structure’s wrong, figure out how to adjust it and nominate the sections that need re-writing.
  3. Go back to the computer, make a copy of the file labelled ‘Draft 2’, and work on that. Make the structural adjustments and re-writes. This may well be time-consuming. Don’t worry too much about the wording – this is still first draft territory. Print it out again and review. Rinse and repeat until you’re satisfied.
  4. Now it’s time to think about the wording. Start going through the wording in detail, initially from the viewpoint of the broader purpose of your argument or content. Does the wording work? Have you conveyed the intent? Are their ambiguities? This part of the process can be done with a printout and pen-and-ink, which often highlights things you don’t see on screen. Make sure your word-length stays tight to the intended quantity – as I’ve mentioned many times before, word-length is not an end-goal, it’s a tool. For authors, it enables authors to keep the structure of their work under control; and for publishers it’s a budgeting tool, because word-length quantifies production costs.
  5. Finally, it’s time to get down to the micro-detail of the wording – the fidelity of it. This demands another read through in which you go through the material with a close focus, looking for specific wording – making sure there are no extraneous or ambiguous phrases, keeping the styling tight to what you intend.
  6. Now stick the manuscript in a metaphorical drawer again. Leave it there for a few days before bringing it out, printing the material, and reading it carefully – word by word – on paper. Make notes or amendments in pen and ink. This change to a different medium is very important because it forces a different way of thinking and a different view on the material. You’ll be surprised what you find. Only then should you implement on the computer.
  7. If necessary, repeat the above steps until you’re satisfied.  Then – and only then – will the material be ready to submit for publication.

This process won’t necessarily work for every author – and you have to do what works for you – but the key principles are having time and space to let your thoughts breathe – to keep returning to the material with reasonably fresh eyes – and to change the medium from screen to paper as a device for improving that ‘freshness’. The steps I’ve noted here also break the task down from largest to smallest components. This is akin to hacking out the rough shape of a statue, then working on the details, and finishing off with a careful polish.

All of this is time-consuming, and all of it will involve more writing and composition. But that’s not the only part of the editorial process. Not by a long way. More soon.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: fixing that first draft

There’s a lot of truth in the old adage that a bad first draft is better than no first draft. The annual National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) contest is, essentially, geared to produce them.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

I posted earlier on ways of preparing that bad first draft so it’s properly structured – so it has the right foundations. The words may not be right, but the basic form will be. First step after that, as I’ve mentioned, is to chuck the thing in a drawer for a month.

What then? The trick is to understand how editing words. There’s a notion – certainly among beginning authors – that ‘writing’ is the part where you’re assembling the words for the first time, and ‘editing’ is a quick polish afterwards, whereupon the work’s ready to publish. I’ve actually seen tweets from authors announcing they’ve ‘finished’ their book and after a quick edit, it’s going to be published in a week or so.

But that’s how it’s done…Right?

Actually, wrong. A first draft manuscript is way, way off being submitted to an agent or publisher, still less self-pubbed. Editing is as much work as the original composition, and it’s an essential part of the whole writing process. It’s also, separately, a part of the publishing process; and neither part is quick, easy or – unfortunately – cheap to accomplish.

First, there’s the editing needed to finish the manuscript – to get what you’re writing into its final form. This involves a good deal of re-wording and perhaps re-structuring, depending on how you set that first draft up in the first place. Trust me – this will take as long as writing that first draft did, maybe longer. And if it doesn’t, you have to ask yourself why.

Second, there’s the sort of editing done by publishers, which itself breaks down into several phases – proof-editing and various flavours of line editing. It’s also time-consuming, and there are no short cuts. If you are self-pubbing, you’ll have to do it (actually, for reasons I’ll explain, pay somebody else to). The phrase is ‘quality assurance’.

What does all this entail? Over the next few posts I’ll be outlining all of this in detail. Watch this space.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: Tolkien and character arcs as an editing tool for writers

I’ve posted several times about the importance of character arcs – the pivot around which novel-writing must revolve. The narrative events of plot all derive from it.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

A character arc is the journey – the direction – in which a character moves through the story. When that journey is complete, the novel ends. It is not about what a character wants – it is about what they need. Often the character arc is all about the difference; a character goes out to get what they want, learning along the way that what they want – and what they need to develop as people – are two different things.

What perhaps isn’t realised is that this arc is also a key editing tool. We often conceptualise stories as successions of cool scenes, snapshots that the writer things, ‘gee, that’d be neat to include’. The problem is that it’s too easy to wander – to end up with scenes that go nowhere or which don’t advance the story.

The answer is in the character arc. Sort that out first – what is the journey your character goes on? In The Hobbit, for instance – the classic ‘hero journey’ – Bilbo has to learn to discover his innate heroism. It is a progressive journey in which the development steps are clearly laid out.

First he is pushed into that journey by an unexpected event, with the help of a mentor (‘An Unexpected Party’); then he meets his first challenge (the trolls) – and is rescued by the mentor; other adventures follow that force him to act alone for the first time (‘Riddles in the Dark’); and finally he is stripped of his mentor and forced to find his heroism (Mirkwood and the spiders, escape from the Elvenking). Tolkien, brilliantly, extended Bilbo’s journey of self-discovery into ethical heroism – the confrontations with the dragon and the Arkenstone sub-plot.

The narrative events of the plot were subsidiary – Tolkien geared them to make it possible to explore Bilbo’s hero journey – not the other way around. That’s quite clear from the ‘first drafts’ published recently in a two volume set. Tolkien’s notes exploring narrative directions suggested various possible stories that were very different from the one he finally came up with – but all were built around a principle of rising tension and the essential character arc for Bilbo. The character arc, in short, drove the story. And that, I think, is a good principle to follow.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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NaNoWriMo – don’t dream it’s over…

You’ve spent the last thirty days on NaNoWriMo – that annual 50,000-word-in-a-month novel contest. And suddenly it’s 30 November.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

That arrived fast! And what counts is the doing – not the ‘winning’. Which sounds facile, but don’t forget that, whether you won or not, you’ve just joined a fairly select group. A lot of people have ambitions of writing ‘their book’. Do they even tackle it? No. You just have – and that’s the first and hardest hurdle. A brilliant achievement. So take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back.

What now? Agents, publications, riches? Don’t even dream of it. Not yet. There’s work ahead, folks. If you haven’t finished in the time – don’t sweat, keep writing and finish the draft – for that is what NaNo produces. And don’t sweat if it’s a little under or over. Word count isn’t an end point. It’s a tool by which you make sure your work’s balanced and to required spec. In point of fact, 50,000 words is a little light for a modern novel.

Next step. When you finish – or if you have already – stick the manuscript in a metaphorical drawer and leave it there until after Christmas. Don’t forget to back up the files. Now go and write something else.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

This is actually vital. Putting a pause into the work – even if you’re still in a white heat of enthusiasm – pays colossal dividends. You’ll come back to it with fresh eyes – and that’s one of the keys to good writing. What then? Well, there’s no easy road. If you’ve been following the approaches I recommend, you’ll have something that’s well structured but roughly worded. That’s fine – this is how professional writing works. It’ll need re-writing, possibly completely re-wording, but the hard part’s been done, which is getting the underlying structure, the balance of pace, the character arcs correctly meshing with the dramatic pace of the plot narrative, and so forth.

Of course, that approach doesn’t work for everyone. But either way, the manuscript’s going to need work. How much work? Some writers look on the act of initial drafting – which is what NaNo is – as ‘writing’, everything else as ‘editing’.

Actually, the whole thing is writing and on my experience the first draft is only about the half-way point, maybe less, before it’ll be ready to submit to an agent or publisher. And the publishing process could add as much author time again. The point being that there’s still some effort ahead. But it shouldn’t be a chore. Writing’s fun – and re-writing the first draft, quite possibly, is even more fun, for reasons I’m going to outline soon.

As the song says – don’t dream it’s over.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: pinning down the muse when deadlines press

So there you are, NaNo target or deadline just hours off – and your muse has disappeared so fast you can’t even see a patch of dust on the horizon.

Mars imaged in 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope - with blue cast due to Rayleigh scattering. Cool. Photo: NASA, public domain.

Mars imaged in 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope – with blue cast due to Rayleigh scattering. Cool. Photo: NASA, public domain.

One of the challenges writers face is that problem of forcing the stuff out even when the inspiration to write has decided to take a holiday on Mars.

What do you do? Other than run around in circles shouting ‘I’m a teapot’?

There are all kinds of tricks to nudge that inspiration back into action – taking a break for twenty minutes and doing something else, like going for a walk or getting some housework done. But what happens when those tactics don’t work either?

The key to all of them is to analyse why you’ve dried up – work the problem, then tackle it. And sometimes, brute force is the only answer. Try these:

  1. Is it because you’re simply flat out of enthusiasm? It’s become a chore? Tough. Writing isn’t a fun pastime. Push through – keep writing.
  2. Are you stuck because your ideas have dried up? Go back to your plan. Er – you DO have a plan, don’t you – and look it over. Is there anything else you can write in the story, then backfill?
  3. Have you worked your writing into a corner? Got stuck on plot? Go back to the plan (yes, THAT plan) and see where it went adrift. Is it to do with character arc, plot narrative, or something else? Luckily, NaNo is purely about words-to-time, which is an important skill of itself. Bash through anyway and finish it – you can revise later (and I’ll be outlining how).

Do these techniques work for you? How do you tackle those ‘stuck’ moments?

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: how ‘pantsing’ can lead you adrift. Beware.

I posted a while back on the way to approach novel-writing as a blend of both planning and seat-of-the-pants free-flow.  You plan the skeleton of the story ahead of time, then ‘pants’ your way through the details.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

The trick throughout is to stick to that plan. Or, if it does seem to be failing on the back of too many new and good ideas, the trick is to recognise WHEN it’s in trouble, stop, and re-cast it accordingly. If you don’t, you lose the benefit of the plan and end up with your pantsing in a tangle.

OK, that was an awful image, but you get what I mean.

I can’t stress that point enough. If you ‘pants’ your way off into the creative blue yonder, I guarantee you’ll end up writing your characters into a position where they have to do something uncharacteristic – or where something unlikely happens. For instance, they’re on one side of the continent but the volcano into which they have to drop the magic dingus is on the other, and they have only five minutes to get there. Or you get to the point where they have to do something that the internal consistency of the setting prevents.

There’s no faster way to break the suspension of disbelief than to have to create a sudden deus ex machina to get your characters out of that sort of tangle.

The best way to avoid this sort of problem is not to get into it in the first place, because it WILL involve re-writing. Danger signs include too much time pantsing and not enough checking back against the structure and characters. But if you do end up tangled – what then?

There is, alas, only one answer. Re-writing the first draft. The only question is the scale of the re-work. If you find yourself, for instance, having to introduce an unlikely device to get your characters out of trouble, you may be able to get around it by re-working a much earlier part of the story where the device is first introduced. That way it becomes part of the plot and doesn’t look like an add-on.

But quite often the only actual answer is to scrap significant tracts of the material and start again. Which is fine – all writing is good writing, to the extent that everything adds to experience. But if you’re up against a deadline, either for a publisher or to meet the word-count of NaNoWriMo, having to re-write risks disaster. And if you’re writing to earn an income, time is money – meaning that the re-write time, effectively, reduces your rate of return.

That’s why it’s better not to go adrift in the first place, and keep an eye on that plan while you’re ‘pantsing’.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: the importance of styling

I’ve always argued that to write quickly and well means getting the fundamentals right first – the structure – and worrying about the style later. It’s a technique that’s really only come into its own with the advent of word processors – though, and without any sense of paradox, I also believe it’s important to at least plan using pen and paper, because of the way that different thought processes emerge.

Wright_Typewriter2Once you’ve got that draft, of course, the issue is that styling – and, in its own way, that’s as critical a part of the whole process as the structure. So what do I mean by styling? This is the front end of the writing; the way in which an author adds meaning, nuance and their characteristic ‘voice’. It can change the way the work is received – can drive readers off, or pull them in, depending on how it’s handled. It is, in short, a very powerful tool.

Styling involves getting the right words, the right phrasing, the right vocabulary and the right tone to the sentences. The word ‘right’, in this sense, is relative; it’s a value judgement. Different authors have different preferences – and so they should. If we all styled the same way, life would be boring. That said, a consistent style is often used by commercial magazines as a part of their branding. Take Time or National Geographic, for instance, where different contributions are re-styled in editorial to be consistent with the corporate ‘brand’.

In these and other magazines – including some I’ve written for – the author’s contribution is re-worked to meet a style without changing the meaning or content. And that principle also applies to your own novel – where the end point isn’t necessarily a ‘corporate’ style, but where you are trying to get it into a consistent shape that reflects your desired ‘voice’.

Some writers look on it as ‘re-writing’, but it isn’t – using the approach I recommend, it’s integral to the process. The time and effort required to get the styling right is often at least equal to the time and effort required to develop the structure and prepare an initial draft. The art of styling is also the art of preservation – keeping tight to the structure and themes you’d originally worked into the book.

If the book has been structured correctly – in the case of a novel, around the character arc with the narrative events and setting acting as backdrop – there should be no problems with extraneous scenes or extra characters, or padding, or any of the other irrelevancies that detract from the function of the character arc as the key device for capturing and holding readers.

Sometimes, of course, issues crop up structurally along the way as you review the work – meaning some re-work. But ideally, not too much.

So how does ‘styling’ work in the specific? More soon.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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