Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’
Having spent the last two years studying writing and editing, I’ve come to understand how true this is. Still, I am shocked by how often authors think their work is beyond improvement. Whatever the issue, many writers have a big problem with editing, an essential part of the writing process.
Maybe it’s the word ‘edit’; perhaps it conjures the image of some failed writer hacking at your manuscript with an axe. (I don’t think all editors are failed writers, I just needed a relevant stereotype to make my point.) If only we could use a different, friendlier word to make this bitter pill easier to swallow.
I just typed the word ‘edit’ into a Word document and right-clicked on it. Among others, these synonyms popped up:
As far as myself and the good folks at Microsoft Office are concerned, these are all acceptable synonyms. My point is, if it helps, call it something else, whatever helps to make editing seem less scary. We should all approach it with the right attitude, though – that is to say, an attitude akin to Mr Hemingway’s.
I’m not scared of being edited. The last short story I wrote was read, dissected, deconstructed, reassembled and finalised by no less than six people, including myself. I haven’t always approached writing this way. I was once naive enough to believe that stories were either written or they weren’t. I stopped writing countless pieces simply because they never spilled out of my pen already filled with brilliant prose and memorable characters.
It never occurred to me that storytelling requires work.
If you’ve ever been excited by a story idea, you owe it to yourself to wring as much potential out of it as you can. And as much as you want it to be true, a story is not finished the moment you write your closing line. It will only happen after many hours of labouring over it, getting a second, third – sometimes twelfth – opinion, and pressing on, in spite of how frustrated or disheartened the process makes you.
Just finalising a story is a huge achievement. (I use the term ‘finalise’ because I wholeheartedly believe I can tinker with the same story until death do us part.) But the next step is not to send it to every suitable competition with an open submission window. The next step is to send it to someone you trust, to ask for feedback and know that constructive criticism is invaluable.
Praise alone is nice, but not necessarily helpful. (Do not ask someone to edit your work who feels obligated to say, ‘IT’S AMAZING!’, even if you’ve just presented them with a shopping list scrawled on a used napkin.) If you can, have a discussion about the piece with your editor. Have several discussions. Buy your editor a cup of tea, (editors really like tea). The more you understand about what works and what doesn’t, the easier it will be to proceed.
Next is the harrowing task of determining what will stay and what will go, what needs subtle adjustment and what needs a complete overhaul. Draft Two should take a long time. Accept this from the beginning and you will find the process becomes distinctly less painful. Remind yourself that hard work is character-building … or something.
At this point you are either ready to collapse from exhaustion or encouraged by the progress you’ve made. You’ve realised you don’t need nearly as many adverbs as you thought. You’ve managed to include a semicolon somewhere; it’s exciting, right? This draft reads more smoothly, and that pesky sentence on page three has been eliminated.
Is it finished now, you ask? If you’ve only had to move a few commas around, then sure! (Having said that, you should still send it to someone to proofread; as much as Word is good for some things, spellcheck is not one of them.)
If you’ve done some serious overhauling, though, there is more work ahead. Think about it: you’ve incorporated a lot of ideas, made minimal to drastic changes and the story is much better – but it’s also different. It needs to be edited again. This time you send it to someone else. Fresh eyes for a freshened story.
After countless man-hours, you are convinced this is as good as your writing is going to get. Now you’re ready to unleash your story upon the world. Not because it’s so stupendously great you’ve gone ahead and spent the prize money – before you’ve earned it – on that pair of shoes you’ve been eyeballing. You’re ready because you’ve done everything you possibly can to present the version of your idea you deem the best.
Time to get to work before the next submission window opens …