I got into a debate with a fellow writer this week, about editing.
I was interviewing him for my nonfiction blog, and he told me that he loves first drafts but hates editing.
I have to admit I was surprised. Because I love editing.
But from talking to other writers, I think I may be unusual. Most writers love the creation process of the first draft, and they hate the tedium of going over the same words again and trying to make them better.
Some writers don’t even edit their own work. There are those who write a first draft and simply put the book up on Amazon (not something I’d recommend), and those who leave all the editing to their editors. I once listened to an interview with Ben Aaronovitch in which he said editing isn’t his job: it’s his editor’s.
I disagree. For me, editing is writing. I spend longer editing than I do on first drafts, and I enjoy it more.
So why do I like editing so much? Here are my reasons.
1. I already have something to work with
One of the things many authors are terrified of is the blank page. Sitting in front of a computer screen, staring at it. Wondering what to add to it.
With editing, there is no blank page. There’s just existing words for you to improve.
Now, sometimes there is a blank page. If I don’t like a chapter from the first draft, I’ll often delete the whole thing and start again. But it still isn’t a blank page. I already know which characters are in that chapter and what they’re going to be doing. I know where the drama will be, and the conflict.
But by rewriting it, I can sometimes produce something better than my first version.
That’s not to say my second drafts are complete rewrites (although there ware authors who do work like that). The vast majority of the first draft stays where it is, but with changes.
I move things around (my writing software, Scrivener, makes that easy). I add extra elements. I take things out. But essentially I’m improving, not rewriting.
I like the challenge of improving something I already created. Of analysing it and identifying what works and what doesn’t, and then making changes based on that analysis.
It’s not just about tweaking words and producing beautiful sentences. It’s about fashioning a more compelling story and bringing the characters to life. What’s not to like about that?
2. It’s where I use what I’ve learned about writing
The process of writing a first draft hasn’t changed much for me since I started writing.
True, I’ve got much quicker at it, largely because I switched from being a pantser to a plotter (more of which shortly), but also because I’ve learned where and when I’m most efficient.
But I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the writing process over the last few years. I’ve studied other writers, I’ve learned from writers I know personally, and I’ve read lots of books about writing craft.
So why don’t I use this in the first draft?
Because writing a first draft, for me, is almost a subconscious process. When I really get into the work, I enter a flow state (something lots of writers will tell you about), where the story pours out of me and I hardly have to think. It’s a wonderful experience, but it can be very draining.
Now you might be thinking this is the kind of state that produces works of genius. Hah! Nothing could be further from the truth.
The flow state produces something coherent, something that gels at a subconscious level. But it doesn’t produce tight plotting, or beautiful sentences.
So the plotting comes before I start writing that first draft. I spend weeks working on the outline for a book, tweaking it, moving things around and checking it. Then I shift all my notes into Scrivener and turn each plot point into a chapter. That means that the fabled flow state can only work on a single chapter level. It’s never in danger of sending me off on wild tangents at a larger story level.
And once I’ve finished on that first draft, my analytical mind comes to the fore and can look at my story with an eye on all the things I’ve learned not only about plotting, but about character, and scene structure, and language, and theme. I’ll read through the book and make copious notes in the margins, put post-its all over the place, and mark up places in the story where the plot points happen.
All this is a conscious process, designed to take something my subconscious vomited out and turn into something my conscious mind approves of.
Maybe it’s my personality type (I’m quite analytical and logical), but I like doing this more than the hard work of getting those initial words onto the screen.
3. First Drafts, For Me, Are Less Creative
I’ve already mentioned that I’m a plotter, not a pantser.
A plotter plots their novels before starting to write; a pantser writes by the seat of their pants. (They’re often called discovery writers, which is probably more tactful.)
I pantsed my first novel, and it took me 15 years. I don’t have 15 years to write the next one. So plotting greatly speeds up my writing process.
This means that a lot of the creative energy goes into the plotting process. It’s not all taken out of the writing; there are moments when I discover new ideas and twists, and never let myself be shackled by the plan. But for discovery writers, I guess the first draft is more fun because you’re discovering the story as you go along.
I do that (or most of it) when I’m plotting. And I find that more fun, and easier than first drafts.
So that’s why I like editing. Call me a weirdo, but I’m not ashamed. Editing is where I turn something dull into something shiny, and I love it.