I love writing. I enjoy the actual process of putting thoughts down in words on a page/screen, and especially that mysterious reverse aspect of writing–when the act of writing actually drives your thoughts. It is fascinating to be part of the interchange between process and product, the fluid state where you aren’t sure who is in charge of the story that is taking shape.
But even more than writing, I have to admit, I love editing. Writing can never achieve on its own what writing and editing achieve together. Writing is only the very first part of the journey. You might compare it to a hiking trip. It’s packing your pack and reserving campsites and planning how far you will hike each day. It’s making sure you have everything you need, gathering the essentials of your story–characters, setting, plot, etc. But just like a hiking trip, you don’t want to stop with the prep work. You want to actually go on the journey. You know it will be hard work, but that it will all be worth it in the end.
I’m not talking about overarching revision, though that is often important, especially when you push yourself to write at a quick pace as so many of us are doing for NaNoWriMo. And I’m not talking about proofing, that necessary nitpicking that gives you a clean manuscript.
I’m talking about looking at individual words and judging their merit. Are they hardworking or lazy? Are they unique or commonplace? Do they truly mean what you want them to mean? Is there a better one, a more complete one, a more interesting one that could be substituted to bring your writing to the next level? This is like looking down at the forest floor on a hike, noticing the individual plants and flowers and mosses, spotting the snake slithering away or the butterfly sipping nectar. It’s paying attention to the little things, because the little things are what make up the whole of the experience of the trip and they are important. If your readers are tripping over the roots or rocks that are poorly chosen words, this is your chance to level the path.
I’m talking about looking at individual sentences with that same critical eye and asking yourself if that sentence is truly the best it can be. Does it say something important? Does it say something true? Does it say something necessary? Is it essential? Does it move the reader forward? This is like looking at everything around you at eye-level. This is seeing the path ahead, seeing the deer tip-toeing among the trees, seeing the play of sunlight and shadow on the water. This widens your scope from individual words and takes into account the somewhat larger landscape of your story. If your readers have come to a river with no bridge in sight, this is your chance to build one for them so they don’t have to slog through the mire of unclear sentences.
I’m talking about examining a paragraph and then a chapter and applying the same criteria to it. Is it unique, necessary, dynamic, clear, interesting, and compelling? These are the breaks in the trees that allow you to experience the bigger picture. They are the overlooks, the vistas, that you miss if you are too focused on the ground. These are the points at which you (and your reader) can get a glimpse of what is coming ahead in your story.
So, writers, if your bags are packed (you’ve written your story) it’s time to enjoy the editing journey. The lovely thing about editing is that this is your chance to reshape your literary landscape, to remove obstacles that trip readers up, to improve the scenery and make the path clear. And, just like a hiking trip, you can start from the beginning again, make the same hike, and notice new things every time, so you’ll want to plan multiple trips through your story.
My own penchant for editing has thrown me way off my NaNoWriMo schedule and I’m quite behind now. I took a break to finish an edit on an earlier work (possibly my 20th time doing that hike) before sending it off to a literary agent. I also succumbed to the temptation to go back in my current manuscript for NaNoWriMo and do some revising and editing. But, in my defense, in the early stages of writing a novel, sometimes that really does have to be done or else you will find yourself lost in the wilderness days later having taken a wrong turn way back in chapter 3. Better, I think, to retrace your steps now, consider your options more carefully, and take the right path. After all, blazing new trails is hard work and if you’re going to do it you want to end up in the right place. Or, to put it in terms of our packing metaphor, I don’t want to get too far into my hiking trip and find that I neglected to pack my water purifier or my tent.
Not sure where to start on your editing hike? One of the best books I’ve read lately on the subject is The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. It’s a veritable field guide to editing success. If you take his advice seriously and apply it to your manuscript, you will end up with a far better product than you started with.
Enjoy the trip!