Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why I Prefer Editing a Novel to Writing One




Some authors start writing their novel with a detailed outline prepared in advance. These "planners" may have labored out a scene-by-scene plot before sitting down to write the first word of their book.

Other authors start writing with a general idea in their mind but with a willingness to allow the story to develop as they go. These "pantsers" may only know the basic idea of their book, or perhaps just its opening line.

Both types of authors work hard at completing the first draft of their manuscript but when they succeed in that, the field is leveled. Editing, the next stage, takes a hastily written manuscript (although the writing process can actually go on forever) and transforms it into a readable novel. Many writers abhor the editing process, but I actually enjoy editing a novel much more than I do writing one.

Here's an interesting fact about my writing process. I am preparing a detailed outline of my book after having completed the first draft.

Am I a "pantser" or a "planner"?

I started writing my new book in April, and a few weeks ago I completed the first draft. When I started the book I had a very specific starting point and a general idea where the story would go. So that makes me a "pantser". But I also devoted some time to preparing a list of the chapters and what would happen in each. So that makes me a "planner". Not exactly. I frequently veered off course as I wrote, introducing new characters and plot lines I had not previously considered.

Now that I am editing in full force, I can't remember everything that takes place in my novel. That is why I need to outline the story, chapter by chapter, as I edit the manuscript.

I happen to enjoy editing. When I'm not engaged in creative writing, I work as an editor. Grammar mistakes, misused punctuation, and poorly phrased prose jump out at me like a sore thumb. I specialize in making difficult texts more comprehensible and in removing repetitious words and run-on sentences.

Editing gives life to a manuscript

Editing a manuscript is the process that gives life to a book, so in many ways, it's even more creative than the initial writing. The first draft, rough and wild, is like a deflated balloon. Editing inflates the story, gives character to its characters, enhances the descriptions, and makes the action flow more smoothly. As you edit, you work out the inconsistencies in your plot, fill in the holes, explain the unexplained. Editing and revising give you an opportunity to switch adjectives, find better nouns, and delete overused adverbs.

I use my outline to keep track of everything that's going on. Seeing the storyline in a detailed timeline helps me understand if I've succeeded in making my book come alive.

This is not to say that editing a manuscript is the final step in getting a book into print (or digital print as the case may be). I am currently working on the second draft, and who knows how many other drafts will result from comments, critiques, reviews, and suggestions gathered along the way.

Editing never ends, until it does

Unfortunately, editing is a process that never seems to end. No matter how many times you review and revise and correct and improve a sentence, paragraph, or a chapter, there are always additional ways to make it even better. This is why it is important to take breaks from editing, to come back to the manuscript a day, or two, or even a month later and re-read passages with a fresh outlook.

I would never consider myself to be the ultimate editor of my writing. It is crucial to get a professional editor - a second pair of eyes - to review a manuscript and correct the things I missed, or messed up in the creative process. With my first novel, I had a very successful time finding my editor and you can read about my experiences with that.

And now, enough with the writing and back to the editing I love.

Related article:
How I Found My Editor

Comment and let me know what you prefer - writing or editing?

30 comments:

  1. I totally agree! And outlining your novel after writing it is a great way to make sure you haven't lost the essence of your story along the way

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  2. I'm in the editing process now. It's a process I have not yet successfully completed on any of my novels, but your post gives me hope. I like the idea that editing is as creative as writing, and that it provides a chance to give more life to the book than the initial writing.

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  3. I love it when I get to the revision stage - primarily because I let the completed manuscript sit for a fair bit of time before tackling it. I can spot a lot more of the dreck that way and breeze through it relatively quickly instead of the teeth-pulling stage of a first draft. After I'm done, my trusted beta gives me his two cents, usually more :). The editing I leave to the pros and that doesn't happen until I sell it, a publisher assigns me an editor and we slog it out together.

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  4. I can't wait to get to the revision stage! I'm almost there. I must say that the 9 steps technique (I blogged about it a little while ago) was really helpful for reviewing/plotting where my story was going and I'm guessing it will help me when I'm editing to keep the plot tight. Do you have a similar technique?

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  5. I completely agree with you. Even carefully planned work can benefit from editing, and I find that the story is more natural when you let it develop on its own.

    Some of my best work comes from revising multiple drafts. Sure, it might require a lot more work, but the end result is super well done. Thank you for reassuring me that this is perfectly alright!

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  6. Good stuff, Ellis. I basically do a Table of Contents and stay flexible. There is a rough idea for each chapter, maybe specific dialogue, but overall I try to keep it open in case there are better decisions to be made. Thanks, I really enjoyed this one.

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  7. Just connected with you on twitter and came here to have a look. Very timely. I just completed another rewrite of my second book and contacted my editor for the next go through. I enjoyed reading this post and am happy to meet you. Paulette

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  8. Nice blog. For me, characters lead the way and editing is mining the jewel, requires patience and delicacy, but oh so crucial to the final gem.

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  9. I don't think editing ever ends. You can always write a sentence better. At some point you have to say --enough and send it to the editor. My problem is, when I get it back, I immediately begin to re-edit. I never feel like it's done.

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  10. I too am both a planner and pantser! I do an outline in some details, then forget where I left it and just write. I like to be as surprised as the reader will be. I like to wake up every day and go "What's going to happen today???!" At the end of every chapter however, I do make some notes including which characters were introduced in that chapter, key characteristics, what they did, triggers that have to be closed out later, odd bits of story that need to be returned to later. Then every now and then I review these notes to make sure the little gems don't get missed out. Then I edit like a crazy person... Never ends. But I do love it.

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  11. I am a planner, because without an outline I have no idea what to write about! My outline (left-brain) asks me questions, and my composing mind (right brain) makes up the answers. Very interested to read about how you found your editor.

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  12. I outline, but only the milestones. After that everything is very changeable. I often think about the writing process like sculpting. A first draft is akin to slapping clay down in front of you. Revision is where you mold, scrape away excess and add detail to your work.

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  13. I much prefer the editing process. For me, getting the first draft down is the hardest part because I cannot help going back and agonising over certain sentences and paragraphs that are not right. I know I should just go on and get the first draft down but there is always the 'pull' to go back and read.. And correct...and change.. And change again!

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  14. I've always dreaded editing as a noncreative chore, but I like your positive attitude. When I think about it, editing does allow me to realize connections and structure, so it's creative in its own way. Thanks for the new perspective.

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  15. I agree with the concept of re-visiting after some time has passed. When it consumes you, that's when you miss things.

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    1. You can let too much time pass. I finished the book 3 years ago and submitted it in fits and starts. Finally last year I sent it to a copy editor. In fixing those edits, I read it through for the first time in years. What a great experience of rediscovery! Now it's time to publish the darned thing myself.
      Great article! I too did an outline after the first draft was done.

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  16. Brilliant article. The way you write your books is the way I write mine - part pantser, part planner. And although I sometimes love to hate editing, I love that it refines the MS.

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  17. I also enjoy editing quite a lot, but I couldn't say if I like it more than drafting. After all, writing is editing is writing is editing...

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  18. It is actually quite a complex question. I have learned that after a while it is easy to become “store blind”. Apparently your brain autocorrects errors so I tend to edit up to a point and then return to my work at a later stage so I can look at it from a fresh perspective. To me editing is writing in a way, you’re absolutely right the challenge is knowing when to stop. I do love the editing process, you make perfect sense.

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  19. Gosh, this is such a tough choice! I really love the writing; it's sort of like falling in love, with that rush of joy and curiosity. It's just you and the idea, which is a treat. I've forced myself over the years to become a planner, but I let my planning remain open enough that unexpected things can happen as I write. I was a magazine editor for years, so I find that the editing phase is challenging for me because I can over-edit. I have to work especially hard at not correcting all the line errors I find during my first editing round, so I can keep my mind fresh for critiquing the actual story. Sometimes I find that I make a story technically great, but the actual plot isn't as great. Still, there is a sort of obsessive glee I feel in the editing process. Overall, though, I vote for the raw writing. That's the most fun.

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  20. I guess I'm a "pantser"! I do however, have notes that I had written out as "plans", for what the novel will contain before I began to write it.

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  21. Hi Ellis,

    It's Xena. Anonymous again.

    'I am preparing a detailed outline of my book after having completed the first draft.'

    I can totally relate to that. Although I found myself at it when I had written a novel 800 A4 pages long, which in the printed book format would be about 1600 pages. I go through every chapter jotting down brief summaries. There's no other way to keep track of it! I suddenly understood all these writers of the past, who would normally write books much longer than the average nowadays. 'Chapter 3, wherein is related the droll way in which Don Quixote had himself dubbed a knight.' It used to annoy me. Now I'm in the same boat.

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  22. The one piece of advice I always give young writers: Figure out your writing process, and the do that (but always remember that it's a process to which you must attend). Once you've started to understand how you write, the rest is just a matter of doing. Outlines, writing, and editing will all be shaped by your process.

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  23. I'm currently struggling through the edits right now so this was perfect timing! I'm typically not an outlining type of writer, but I think to get through these difficult edits, I'm going to give it a shot. If anything it will help me know the story that much better and help me over the hump so to speak. Happy writing!

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  24. This is a great discussion, Ellis. Thanks for bringing it up. I'd like to contribute a few words concerning my own experience. I suppose I'm more of a pantser when it comes down to choose between the two. For a while, I've been experimenting with what is called auto-writing in a variety of creative endeavors such as poetry, TV scripts and music. The use of common methodology in different disciplines makes sense in regards to the common source of creativity in all art forms : the spirit, or the 'spiritual mind' if you'd prefer it to sound a bit more scientifical and less metaphysical. I'd like to take one more step and argue that even the brain can be considered a mere tool that helps shape the wanderings of the spiritual mind into perfection, along with the body. I must say I am quite satisfied with the creative outcome of auto-writing, much more than that of forced mental activity. Once the superconscious picture is drawn then it might be the right time for one to engage their right brain processes to deal with form. Though I believe the mass media mindset, be it cinema or best-sellers, is more in line with the "planner" methodology.. Since they seem to be more concerned with delivering a particular 'product' than a standalone, independent piece of art.

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  25. Outlining and planning, for me, seems limiting, as something new pops into my mind as I type.I seem unable to stick to outlines and do better as a "pantser".

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  26. It's gratifying to see a work improving through edits. I'm almost done with the first draft of my current novel. It's so close to the end I just wish I could snap my fingers and edit now. I can't wait to finish so I can turn it into something wonderful.

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  27. Always enjoyable to hear how others work. I (accidentally) found that writing a synopsis of my WIP for a pitch to a small press, while I was only halfway finished, really focused me on what I wanted my novel to be and how to get there. Similar, but different. Right now I'm pantsing as I start another novel, but quasi-outlining it as I go—mainly because I'll forget things all the way if I don't! I'm using—and loving—Scrivener, my amazing writing app to organize things, gives me the flexibility to do both.

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  28. I've also come to think that a combo approach gives you the best of both worlds. @SulariGentill mentioned at a talk recently that she writes the first 30k words or so by the seat of her pants, then outlines to explore ideas and options, once she's got the sense of the general trajectory or theme. And yeah, at a certain point you need some kind of outline to keep everything straight. (Unless your memory is phenomenal, I suppose.)

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  29. I'm a "planner" rather than a "pantser," but I am in complete agreement about enjoying the editing process more. Facing the tyranny of a blank page during that first draft is daunting. Once that first draft is down on paper, however, I love the editing process. Taking an existing draft and hammering it into shape feels like a concrete activity compared to stumbling around in the dark with that first draft.

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