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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7 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: editing as writing and why it’s important

  1. To paraphrase writers who are much wiser and more famous than myself…I would have written less, but I didn’t have the time…that’s me!
    I find that much of what I chop and edit is stuff that I just keep pounding on and saying over and again in circles! On my “Corrected” read-through, I spend most of my time asking myself…hey? DId this already happen? Did I already tell this part of the story?
    Sigh…at least I’m not suffering from blank pages 🙂

    1. Writing more and chopping it back sounds like a great way to write because you’ve got the whole thing laid out before you and can see what’s what! I do the same – and, absolutely, that question, ‘didn’t I just write that half a chapter ago’ definitely pops up.

  2. Oh yes, I love this analogy, “This is akin to hacking out the rough shape of a statue, then working on the details, and finishing off with a careful polish.” In my first attempted novel I polished diligently all the way through, arriving with a finished statue that was gleaming, smooth and nice to touch. It was recognisably human, but was awkwardly posed and thanks to pantsing instead of planning, had three arms and only one leg. (In my defence, back then I’d never met another writer and the internet wasn’t around for helpful information like yours!)
    Definitely pay attention to structure first, otherwise you do a lot of fine detailed work for nothing. And there’ll always be an ugly space where you chipped away that extra limb!

    1. Absolutely true! The other thing is that writers are always apprentices – and the onus is always on writers, no matter how experienced, to keep learning new things about the craft.

  3. I’ve put my second novel in the drawer and I’m thinking about leaving it there! I worked on while I was ill and now it makes little sense–I think a two year old wrote it.
    Knowing me, I’ll take it out tomorrow and see what I can do with it.

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