Monday, February 11, 2013

Starting Out #4: Learning to embrace the editing process

If there's one thing that every writer - fiction, non-fiction, features, freelance, experienced, inexperienced - must learn to embrace, it's the editing process. Sounds straightforward. But it's not. Whether it's learning to work with an editor (not always easy), learning to edit your own work (really not easy) or learning to turn off the self-editor as you get your first draft down (often impossible), editing is a skill unto itself, and its importance cannot be underestimated.

If you've been visiting the Fibro for a while, you may remember me talking about the first (to this day unpublished) romance novel I wrote, many, many years ago, featuring Celeste of the winter-white suit. After I'd bashed out my 50,000+ words, I sent it off to Harlequin, quietly confident that I'd get 'the call' within weeks. Instead I received a polite rejection letter. Actually, it wasn't even polite. It was a form rejection letter. The lowest of the low.

Bewildered, I sent it off to a manuscript assessment agency run by two experienced romance writers. Their assessment? It might be okay after a good edit. Having no idea what they meant, I put it in a drawer.

Fast-forward a few years when I sent off my first complete 'women's fiction' manuscript to my agent at the time. Her assessment? It needs a good edit. Hmmmm. It seemed this editing caper was something I was going to need to learn to do. I'm still learning. But I've also learnt the value of getting the words out first.

The importance of editing is something that every writer learns as they progress. As our Starting Out* guest writer Kelly Exeter has been learning. Kelly's blog A Life Less Frantic is the place I go when I need to escape my own messy mind for a while. But, as she outlines here, sometimes you need to let go of your own idea of perfectionism to really get to the heart of what you're writing.

Dealing with the horror of a terrible first draft

"You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page." ~ Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is not the first author I have heard say the above, and she certainly won’t be the last.

But it kind of goes again the grain of what I used to think the average day of an awesome writer looked like. In my head they sat down at their computer, cracked their knuckles, and then proceeded to pour forth beautifully structured sentences on to their screens like a veritable river of literary delight.

In my quest to emulate their awesomeness, I either compulsively edited as I went … or I simply didn’t write when all I could muster was tripe.

So I was a bit shocked when I took part in NaNoWriMo last year and was admonished by the more experienced writers for my apparently unsavoury editing-as-I-go habit.

That’s not what NaNoWriMo is about they said.

You need to get out 1666 words every single day - there’s simply no time for editing they said.

Just get the words down on paper and whatever you do, don’t look back they said.

"But what if those words are utter shit?" I asked.

It doesn’t matter they said.

It doesn’t matter? I am sorry but this did not compute.

Still, I am nothing if not a good student and when the masters speak, I listen. So I dutifully wrote two chapters of my book without editing. Without looking back. Without spending 20 minutes making a three line paragraph ‘perfect’ before I moved on.

And when I went back to those chapters, I sobbed at their sheer awfulness and grudgingly spent two entire weeks wrestling them into some semblance of readability. Suffice to say I was a bit traumatised after that experience and immediately returned to my previous modus operandi.

Two months later I took part in a webinar series on writing. And had my thinking about horrible first drafts turned on its head.

Thirty brave participants in the group volunteered up pieces of writing for critique despite knowing that the person doing the critiquing is not known for her tact. And as she went through each piece I listened on in fascination as she showed how, in even the crappiest piece of writing, there was always one line or underlying concept that was an absolute cracker. And how a whole new piece could be written around that line or concept.

And that’s when I came to appreciate the magic of the horrible first draft.

That sometimes you can’t get to the cracker concept until all the crappy words have been poured out first.

You can visit Kelly Exeter here, or say hello on Twitter or Facebook. Her writing has appeared at Mamamia, The Hoopla and iVillage, as well as in marie claire and The Canberra Times. She is working on her first book, A Life Less Frantic.

How do you find the editing process? Do you find it impossible to turn off that self-editor as you writer?

*Starting Out is a series of guest posts by writers who are at the beginning of their writing careers, and making it work.


  1. Perfect and just what I needed to read this minute. Love both of your work!! xx

  2. Great advice Kelly. Old habits die hard though - and for me as a dyslexic writer I find it incredibly hard not to spell check as I go. It definitely slows me down.

  3. I edit a little as I go, just enough to keep me moving. I'm paralysed by awful writing and the extra ten minutes a day I spend on thinking about the truly bad parts gives me some momentum. I've also found that a little rereading has the added benefit of helping me to better understand my story, and that helps me go forward as well. A. Tait will probably punch me in the ear now.

    You did a bang up job Kel, I have loved reading your book x

    1. Thank you Miss Anna. And truth be told ... I still do a little bit of the old editing as I go. But on the days where I feel I am just writing shite ... I push on and write through the shite. And always in there somewhere is the seed of something good that I can start with the next day!!

  4. Loved this Kelly and Al.... I edit as I go. I can't help it; it works for me (I also can't leave the house unless all the beds are made and the dishwasher is unpacked. These things may not be unrelated.) On the weekend just past, I taught a creative writing course for the Australian Writers Centre for the first time- and there, on (almost) page one was the rule: NEVER EDIT AS YOU GO.

    I agree in theory. I would certainly encourage all beginning writers to just get stuff down and worry about if it will win the Booker later (not that I am so far on from that beginner stage, but whatevs, as my son would say).... nonetheless, as I told my students (breaking the rules in the first ten minutes) the main thing is having words, however you produce them. AS LONG as you produce them! Loved reading this though- I'm always interested in how other writers write (and Al, I wish you'd been there for the very lively "plotters vs. pantsers" segment of the course) (not actually on the original program, but whatevs).

  5. Great post. I find it very (very very) difficult to flick that self-edit switch. Helpful for short and sharp fact sheets for corporate clients. Relatively useless in just about other undertaking. Thanks Allison and Kelly!

  6. Absolutely- I love the editing phase. Although it does sometimes make me cringe to think I actually wrote that first draft rubbish. I do seem to get much more creative through the drafting process. (It also seems to eliminate some alcohol induced errors!)

    It's a necessary part of the writing process, although it's sometimes challenging to seemingly "waste" time on it rather than just pouring out the words. I like to give my words (and myself) time to recover from the writing process and leave it awhile before I edit.

    Thanks for a great post.

    1. I love the idea of 'giving your words time to recover' Ellie!

  7. So true. When I was working for business online, part of the brw mob, I had to write about big business ecommerce strategies - now that was hard to write full stop (I still shudder). But I asked editor at the time Brad Howarth what to do and he said the same, just start, get something down and edit later. I still live by that concept both at work and in my blogging. As for self editing, I tend to go too quickly when I'm blogging, I'm so squeezed by time I often miss typos etc, but I love crafting ideas and will go back again and again to get it right. It's one of my most treasured past times. Thanks for yr post Kelly.

  8. I try to get it all down and then read back over it the next day with a big cup of tea. Things stand out more afterwards - its like I'm reading with new eyes.

    For me when I send a big piece of writing to be reviewed the personal feeling of being edited feels worse than the actual writing and structural bit of editing...but that says more about me than what I write!

  9. "In my quest to emulate their awesomeness, I either compulsively edited as I went … or I simply didn’t write when all I could muster was tripe."

    I love this Kelly. It is me EXACTLY and I hate it. Where other emerging author friends bash out words daily, I wait until I have the perfect words. This is why it took almost five years to write my first novel. I am only letting myself down: I have six months to write an 80,000 word novel and slightly freaking out about it. I am hoping this leopard can change her writing spots soon - and pronto!

  10. I actually like the editing process more than the writing of the first draft. You have something to work with, rather than just the terror of blank pages! I see it as sculpting something malleable, like clay. You take away and add; you smooth and alter; sometimes you turn it upside down, just to see what happens! xK

  11. Thanks for giving us the nod to just 'let go' and write the crappy stuff first. You do have to be brave not to edit every few lines as you go along. For me the notion is always hovering at the back of my mind that I could truly, this time, be wasting my time trying to write anything at all.

  12. I wrote a book about three years ago, and have just edited it now. It was terrible! So awful it had me questioning my resolve as a writer.
    But I got through it, had to rewrite most of it, but it's much better now, and I feel great

  13. Kelly, am taking this advice to heart and putting each day's work away in a draw. Will get it out in a few weeks time and see where it goes. Loving this series Allison. So many helpful piece of advice.

  14. Perfect timing with this post! Thank you. I was really struggling with a writing assignment that was due. I put it away last night, saw your post and in true writing procrastination form, read it rather than work on my assignment. I am so glad I did as editing was the very thing I was struggling with. Thanks to you I just hit 'submit assignment' and went about the room wooping!

  15. Urgh i hate editing. unless it's someone else's work...then I love it!


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