Alright, so, you’ve got a first draft. Maybe you went off to write a second book instead of editing the first one, maybe you felt done and it’s been years since you wrote the first draft and you’re finally at a point where you want to see what you can do with it. Maybe you have a publisher who wants you to make some changes.
Regardless of how you got here, if you’re actually working on putting out a piece of quality literature, you will, at some point, enter the editing phase.
For me, it took a lot of effort to get to the point where I could mentally deal with the editing of my first book, The Legend of Buddy Hero. I not only wrote an entirely different book to separate myself from it, but several months of absolutely nothing (except probably some hefty depression) as I dealt with the fact that I knew I had poured my heart and soul into creating something that, at this point, I absolutely hated.
Now, I can’t say that all writers hate their first drafts. I’m not going to tell you that you might be at the point, after finishing your first draft, where you feel like you should quit this whole idea of being a writer because of how bad that first draft is. I’m certainly not going to declare that every single writer reaches a point in their early attempts at writing (and consistently throughout) where they question the idea of whether they have what it takes to be a good writer.
What I am going to tell you is that I stared down the barrel of editing a book that I absolutely hated.
I wanted to throw out The Legend of Buddy Hero, just get rid of it completely. I was so totally disappointed in myself for how it had turned out, and how it wasn’t the book I had envisioned, and how it felt so pedantic and plodding and simply meh.
But at the same time, I had poured so much of myself into it. Although the book wasn’t at all what I had initially envisioned it to be, it wasn’t the funny, thoughtful reimagining of a superhero origin story that I had intended, it was still something that I felt had a lot of heart, and, basically, some good bones. But ultimately, I couldn’t throw it out because it was a story that was incredibly important to me.
And so, after literally having to pull myself off the floor in my attempts to procrastinate ever having to look at the book again (I can’t express exactly how much I hated it at this point, so much so that every print copy I could get my hands on was burned), I finally settled in to do the real work.
And so, I dug in, and started doing the real work.
I didn’t know this at the time, but if you’re a writer, you spend far more time editing that you do actually writing. Like, you really shouldn’t consider yourself a writer as much as you should consider yourself an editor.
And the really hard part about being an editor of your own work is that you have to be critical of every single choice you made when you first wrote the damned thing. All those things you thought were absolutely brilliant when you wrote the first draft, you have to look at from a different perspective, from outside yourself, and really be honest with yourself about whether or not its working.
It is so much harder than you could ever imagine to be that self-aware and be able to determine if the things you think are clever really are that clever, or if they’re just another lame trope in a series of lame tropes.
I remember writing my first draft and laughing at the idea Hollywood gives us of writers as they lament over word choices for each and every word in a sentence. And then I got to the editing process, and I found myself spending hours on trying to figure out the precise best way to word something to get the idea out there.
And then I’d realize that I had 1000s of “that”s in my book, and would literally hunted for each and every usage of the word “that” throughout the entire thing, spending hours trying to determine if there was a better word to use (and then having to go back through and review the 500 “which”s I used to replace them) or if I could get rid of the word from the sentence entirely without impacting the meaning or comprehension of it.
Editing is slow, painful, and, well, after years and years of working at it, I’ve found it to be one of my favorite things. Well…sorta…
Like, I love the creativity and creation of a good first draft, but when you actually get into the flow of editing, there’s a certain amount of pride that can come into a perfectly worded sentence. When you can change a one-dimensional character into someone who is the star of the whole book. Or when you force yourself to sit back and attempt to describe a sunrise in a forest.
Buddy Hero is a solid example of an edited book that looks almost nothing like the original, but even my most recently completed novel (not yet released, as I attempt to figure out how I want to release it), Moonshine Monarchy, showcases how some great editing can completely change the overall tonality of a story. My first draft was really focused on characterization and action. My second and third drafts were focused on the technical aspects of writing. It actually probably wasn’t until my fifth or sixth run through of the book, after I had my first beta readers give thoughts on the book, when I actually went back and created the visual aspects of the story. The book now is almost unrecognizable from what it was when I first sent it out to beta readers. So much so that one of the people I had read the newest version didn’t even actually place it as being the same book as the first version they had read. They realized a lot of similarities, but since the prose was so different, it took them a while to realize they had already read the book. To their credit, the titles were different for the two versions as well.
While editing can really feel like a chore, I’ve found it’s also the point in which I can truly flex my writing muscles. And so, even though I get to these points when I’m writing books where I’m eager to simply be done with it, when I find myself focused on a strategy for an edit of a book, I find myself in a place of even greater creativity than when I wrote the first draft, locating places where additional scenes could be crafted that better highlight this aspect of a character’s journey, or how they might not actually say that one thing because of how it implies this other piece of their background didn’t happen.
So, this is what I have to say about editing: It sucks…but it’s also pretty awesome.
And the one thing I learned about the writing process from day one of having readers to even my most recent works is that if there’s anything about your book that you’re not completely happy with, like, for instance, you say to yourself that you aren’t a really big fan of one specific piece of dialogue, well, that’s going to be the exact piece of dialogue someone’s going to come back to you and say felt off. Because you’re right. You know this story better than anyone. And if someone comes back to you and says something you already had a feeling was a problem, well, it’s one of the worst ways to be proven right.
And then go back and fix it again.
Every time I do an edit of my book, I have piles and piles of notes that I write to myself as I do yet another read-thru. And I’ve found that I can really only consider myself done with editing the book if I can get through a read without those notes, which are often very little more than “Does this make sense?” or “This is worded weird” or “Why is this guy doing this thing right now?” or the ever more important “Why don’t I know what this place that’s so important looks like?”
Edit. Rinse. Repeat.
That’s the writer’s life.