Editing is as important as writing a first draft. It’s the reason people are willing to pay for copy editors and proof-readers to scour their work looking for errors. Unless you’re Shakespeare, who was rumored to never change a single word once he wrote it, your unedited work will be a diamond in the rough, at best. Publishing it without taking the time (or hiring someone else to take the time) to look for errors is akin to announcing to the world that you are either incompetent at editing or too lazy to care about presenting your work in the best possible light.
If you’re serious about writing well, you need to be willing to edit your work.
Two authors I admire a great deal are Stephen King and Christopher Ruz. The former has published an outrageous 70+ novels, while the latter is just starting to send proposals to publishing houses for his first full-length novel. Both writers know how to edit.
Despite their vast difference in publishing experience and backgrounds, these two writers have very similar editing practices. Both write two drafts, both spend a period of time away from the first draft before looking at it with “fresh” eyes, and both ask for feedback from reviewers before sending out a polished manuscript. How many drafts you will need and how long a time you will shelve your first draft before feeling distanced enough from it to be able to see the flaws in it will depend on you. These things vary from author to author.
Stephen King takes no longer than 3 months to write a novel. Any longer and he claims “…the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs…” (149). Of course, his full time job is writing. Chris Ruz took a full three years to finish his first novel, while also juggling school, work, and a social life. Stephen King lets his novels rest a minimum of 6 weeks between drafts (212) while Chris Ruz gives himself 6 months before he’s ready to edit his work. When it comes to editing, both authors are brutal.
You can see an example of Chris Ruz editing of his novel Century of Sand on his blog post “Why Editing on Paper Beats Editing on Screen.” Stephen King includes an example of his own editing in his book On Writing, followed by detailed explanations for why he cut/changed what he did. I strongly recommend you look at both Chris Ruz’ and Stephen King’s editing examples to see the kind of brutality you need when proof-reading your own work.
Hopefully one day I too (and you, if you’re as hesitant about deleting words as I am) will have what it takes to cut entire paragraphs from work when it’s what needs to be done for the betterment of the story.
This blog post has me rereading Stephen King’s On Writing again. I pulled it off my bookshelf to get a few quotes and now I can’t put it down. If you haven’t read the book yet, I can’t urge you enough to go out and get a copy. Buy it, borrow it, steal it – do what you have to do to READ THIS BOOK. I’m going to include a link to its Amazon page under this post so you will know what it looks like when you go get it (You WILL go get this book).
King, Stephen. On Writing. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.Photo credit: CreepySleepy