I’m getting to know a few writers now. We check in with each other on our progress – the word count of our current WIP, how we solved the problem of slipping into past tense, whether we chose to kill off a character who was loveable but didn’t add anything to the story. One thing I’ve noticed is that some of us rework first chapters incessantly. We do it at the expense of the later chapters, treating them like second and third children, left to fend for themselves after all the effort has been exhausted on number one. We get frustrated and picky over tiny details. What is it with first chapters that we feel the need to edit them over and over and over?
In the Book Length Project Group earlier this year, one writer said she hated editing because she felt like she always deadened the text in the process. I lose the original voice, she said. We talked about how she edits. She told us that she starts at the beginning (the first chapter) and reads through, correcting as she goes. Sometimes, this means she picks up typos, repeated words, and slippage between tenses. Sometimes, she fixes a clunky sentence, only to find that one sentence change results in wholesale re-arrangement of the rest of a chapter, kind of like needing to re-arrange the house after you’ve moved one chair. She said she is almost never happy with the result. It feels overcooked and bland, she said. She gives up after a few chapters, only to start at the beginning again a few weeks later.
Should you avoid editing?
My BLPG writers were sympathetic. They, too, were confounded and frustrated with editing. Some suggested engaging independent editors, some wondered how much editing they should do before submitting a manuscript to a publisher. Some said they have been told by other writers to refrain from editing altogether.
Robert Heinlein, author of Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers, famously gave five rules for becoming a successful writer, including offering an opinion on editing:
Rule One: You Must Write
Rule Two: Finish What Your Start
Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market
Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold
A whole lot has been said about what Heinlein meant in rule three. My own take is that
- You should trust your original creative voice
- You should edit your work
- But edit in an informed way.
How to edit without overcooking
You can find a heap of useful information online about how to edit your work without overcooking it or destroying the original voice. Here are some tips from the BLPG:
- Do a good job the first time.
- Give your manuscript a structure edit. This usually means asking questions like:
- Characters: are they believable, likeable, motivated, agents of their own destiny?
- Plot: does it make sense; does the story have a satisfactory ending?
- Pace: do parts of the story rush; does it have a soggy middle?
- Setting: is it a pretty backdrop or does it influence the action?
- Point of view: is information revealed in a way that is consistent with the point of view?
- Copy edit like your life depends on it. Your manuscript should be as free from errors and typos as possible. If nothing else, this shows respect for your reader. I love the 25 Tips from www.thewritelife.com. It makes me work systematically instead of going in blind and includes reminders like
- Axe the adverbs
- Make your verbs stronger
- Ditch the passive voice
- Identify your tells
- Spot “very” and “really” (and, in my case, “lovely”).
The Book Length Project Group meets on the third Sunday of every month at Mattie Furphy House in Swanbourne. All FAWWA members and friends are welcome to join us. Go to The Fellowship of Australian Writers WA (fawwa.org) for more information.