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Thursday, March 09, 2006


"The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it."
Edward FitzGerald 1809-1883 "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" st. 17

Editing and Revisions. How much is enough? It seems, sometimes to be endless. So, when to stop? Being in a writer's critique group has helped me a lot when it comes to the revisions and additions needed to improve my novel. Because of this what I have already written, although the actual writing of it has taken a long time, is pretty well ready for 'final draft'. Of course I know I have to do a lot of cutting but I've already marked those passages that can easily be eliminated (though some will be difficult to cast out, I know they will simply have to go!)
Editing (such as line editing) can take such a long time and perhaps it's easiest to have a fresh eye look over the manuscript -- even if you have to pay to have it done. Otherwise, so much time is taken up while you meticulously search for errors like the proverbial 'needle in a haystack'.

That internal editor can be downright annoying, nit-picking, undermining your creativity by making you think your work isn't good enough. As Natalie Goldberg suggests in Writing Down the Bones, "The more clearly you know the editor, the better you can ignore it. After a while, like the jabbering of an old drunk fool, it becomes just prattle in the background... Meanwhile, you will continue to write."

Of course, the goal mustn't be simply to get the writing done, but to make the writing as good as it can be. This often means a lot of rewriting and revisions. There's different ways of doing this. Some writers plough right through to the end before doing a second, more perfected draft.
I prefer 'block editing' for my novel. That is, revising and editing in chapters or chapter segments. I do several drafts, then workshop, then revise and edit again, then move on. When I get writer's block, I'll go back over the last few chapters, do more revisions or editing and that gets me back into the cadence of the prose again so I can continue with the new chapter. That way I'm not leaving too much of a mess behind me which I'll just have to untangle and sort out later. For my shorter works, such a travel articles, I do several drafts, workshop, revise and edit and then they are usually ready to send off to market. Luckily most every article I've had published has had no further editing and is published word-for-word as I've submitted it.

I happen to like editing and do a lot of it for my classes. It doesn't take me long. Sometimes the revisions on my novel take longer (especially transitions, which I find sticky). But I've always got something on the go so that even when I have a 'block' with the novel I am still writing. Heaven knows I have a backlog of material for travel stories, but at the moment I am trying to focus only on the novel to get as much of it finished as possible before I get stuck again.

The question is, how much editing and revising is necessary before a writer should be satisfied and get on with something new? Hemingway admitted to revising a section of a novel thirty-seven times "to get the words right". Good writers take the time to recreate, revise, edit and proofread. This is all part of the writing process, and often the hardest work, because you must make sure that what you send off to an agent/publisher is as near-perfect as you can get it. Sloppy, amateurish work will quickly be delegated to the trash pile. But when to stop?

It's interesting to read some of the blogs of other writers and get their points of view on this and other writing subjects. These days writers (novelists, in particular) are expected to be working on other projects or at least have something else on the back-burner. Publishers like to know there's more than one novel in you. Book publishing is a money-making production these days so you have to be willing and able to produce if you want to become part of a publisher's 'stable' of writers. There are writers who seem content to endlessly edit and revise their work without ever starting anything new. "Send it out! Send it out!" they are urged, but they never do. Is it because they are afraid of turning their 'baby' out into the big competitive world? Are they afraid of rejection? (If you are afraid of rejection, you're in the wrong business because it's all part of being a writer.) Or perhaps they keep on editing because they don't want to start something new?

For me, editing and revisions are not such a chore except when I writing myself into a tangle like I probably did yesterday. I've avoided, since then, looking at what I'd written because I'm sure I'm going to have to start over. I tried revising a chapter by cut-and-paste and adding new ingrediants. I fear I have, in my zeal to get it finished, overdone it. Well, at least I can workshop it at my next critique group meeting and will be sure to get some practical advice on how to make it better. I know the editing and revisions are necessary, but I'm just so anxious to finish this novel (which has been taking me far too long to write) and get on with my other projects: another half-finished novel, a half-finished 2-act play, and a long list of travel articles yet to be written! Oh yes, and I do have an idea for a third novel as well which I'd very much like to get started on! Time to move on!

"Remember: good books aren't written; they are rewritten. Revision is a key phase of your novel writing. With short fiction pieces, it's advisable to put them aside and let them 'cool' for awhile. Only then can you go back to your own work with a fresh and somewhat objective eye and catch a few of your mistakes, though you'll never see them all. Fortunately, with a novel, when you've written your way through the last chapter, enough time will have passed so that you can return to the beginning with more objectivity, but even then you can't be entirely objective...
During revision you must become the critic. In the first writing, you give your story life; in the second, you get it right."

Phyllis A. Whitney, author, writing instructor
from an article Revisions and Rewrites: A Checklist" in The Writer magazine.


Sam said...

This is what I've learned and what I've heard most often - for your first draft, don't revise - JUST WRITE!!!
Just finish the book. Then, only when it's done, do you go back over it and rewite, revise, and so forth.
It really is good advice.
When teh book is accepted for publishing, or even accepted by an agent, there will always be more rewrites and edits to do - so the important thing in the beginning at least, it to just finish the book.

Gabriele C. said...

I edit while I go. I have tried to stop that habit because it makes for a somtimes frustratingly slow process, but I can't continue if I know there's muck behind. And if I look at my first novel which I wrote on the fly and without much editing - well, that one is in for an even more time consuming rewrite. The later projects are better from the start, and I hope that I only need one last edit pass after I've finished them.

The trick is to find what works for you, and Just Getting the Words Out doesn't work for me. I tried Nano, believe me. *grin*

I would suggest outlines to Edit While Go writers, though, else there's the danger of getting stuck.

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

Hi Wynn!

I've always been an edit-while-you-goer and I always will be. I can't function with 200 pages of messy writing behind me.

I think, as you get more comfortable with your novel voice, you'll know when you've done enough editing/revising. For me the process has become very clear: I write. I read. I edit. I read. I think it's brilliant. I write more. I read. I edit. I read. I finish the story. I edit again. I think it's total crap. I send it out.


For me, the moment when I feel most hopeless, that the book is really a big fat failure despite my best effort, is the moment when it's ready to go. I only learned this through experience. I wrote six books before getting published.

It sounds so insane, especially when I write it down here in your blog. But that's how *I* work.

You'll find your way too.

Have a wonderful trip!

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

Oh, and PS--your comment that I now had the body of a playmate named Fat Albert (in Sam's corrupted wishes) nearly made me wet my pants!