Rewriting and Editing

Writing isn’t writing. Writing is editing.

I’ve been struck by the importance of rewriting, or editing, over the last few days. Yesterday I rewrote an article I was working on to editorial direction, and today I made it half way through the 4th draft of ‘The Great Western Pile’. (To those people who bravely volunteered to read this for me, it will be on its way to you by the weekend) Both have been much improved for the rewriting, and as always although the idea of rewriting is never appealing the actual process of rewriting and editing is enjoyable if hard work. I’ve heard writers compare editing to manual labour. Writing is like drawing the architectural plans, editing is getting out the trowls and hauling bricks around. Like a days hard physical activity, a days hard mental exertion leaves you feeling tired but satisfied.

The really painful part of editing is the realisation that you will have to do it. After each draft of ‘The Great Western Pile’ I’d become increasingly convinced I was finished. It took me a week to decide that the 3rd draft was incomplete and that a 4th would be neccessary. I spent a couple of days in a good mood because I’d finished a new story, and then around Sunday the grey storm clouds of doom emerged as I re-read and saw what was missing from the piece. In this case it was something really major, as I’d actually forgotten to tell the story! Or at least the emotional core of the stopry that really needed to be there to make the whole thing hang together. I think it will take maybe three or four writing session to rectify this. I did two today and will do two more tommorow, so fingers crossed.

The flip side of getting started is knowing when to stop. You can continue editing a story forever, but beyond a certain point you will stop improving and then start actually making your story worse. So when is enough enough? I go back to the building metaphor for this, and think about the story as a structure. Does it have a beggining, middle and an end? Are there engaging, believable characters? Is there a convincing, fictional world? Has the central theme been resoulved? And so on. Once the answer is yes to enough of these questions, I’m done. At least until an editor asks for rewrites, when it starts all over again.

Hopefully the 4th draft of GWP will be finished tommorow, in which case I will be celebrating.

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

2 thoughts on “Rewriting and Editing

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I’m on the 3rd edit of The Penguin Variations now and it’s possibly six months since I’ve finished it. I’ve been working on it every day.

    I spent 21 days in January on the first chapter. I thought I was going mad, reading the same words over and over every day.

    I think of it like sculpting, chopping bits, moving them somewhere else. I’m quite happy to cut bits, even if I really like them, if they don’t fit into the story.

    The Penguin Variations was 86,000 words when I finished it. It is now about 75,000. I set myself a target of cutting 40 or 50 words a day. On top of this I am adding new stuff so I’m always looking for bits that can go.



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