An interviewer once asked Hemingway about how much rewriting he did. Hemingway told him it depended as he had rewritten the last page of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. When asked what was the problem, Hemingway replied ‘Getting the words right.’
T. S. Elliot thought the ‘larger part of the labour of an author in composing his work is critical labour, the labour of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing...’
Writers need to have two personalities. On the one side, there is the creator whose brain is crammed full of ideas just waiting to be brought to life, and first drafts are often written in a spontaneous creative rush. But after you’ve poured your heart out, taken time for that liberating experience to settle, writers need to call on another aspect of themselves – one that is critical, demanding and who will view the writing with a dispassionate logic.
So once a piece has rested – and how long is entirely up to each writer as no two writers follow an identical process, and ways of working vary from one individual to the next – it’s time to call on your analytical self and become reacquainted with your work.
Most writers start editing by dealing with the larger issues first – plot structure, character and setting, before moving on to word choice, repetition, grammar, punctuation and spelling issues. Knowing your own weaknesses, whether it’s stereotypical characters or purple prose helps in sharpening the focus of your work. Another area to consider is pace – giving the reader time to breathe in between sections where you increase the drama. Reading aloud is an effective way to pick up awkward phrases and rhythms – especially if you want to sharpen and enliven your dialogue.
Ursula Le Guin, in her book, Steering the Craft advises keeping all your drafts and taking the attitude that you’re exploring what other drafts look like – and you can reverse your changes any time you want. She also welcomes the self-discipline involved in editing for this is where you learn what works in your writing, as well as what doesn’t.
If you think of your writing as a diamond in the rough, all you are doing is shaping, polishing and refining it so that when you present it to the world, it shines. I think editing has a central role in the completion of a piece of writing, and it’s important to remember the goal is to give your reader greater pleasure.
When I think about my editing, it’s true - I am carrying the weight of the world - the world I’ve created. And getting this right is a responsibility to myself to justify the time I’m giving to this story. I also feel an equal responsibility to any prospective readers because I want them to enjoy, and become absorbed, in the lives of the characters I’ve created. I don’t want their suspension of belief destroyed by errors.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Although I’m working hard at this editing stuff, I’m never going be shouting, ‘I dare you to find a single modifier (dangling or otherwise), adverb or even adjective in this book!’ But when it’s ready, I want it to be the best it can be and if someone doesn’t like it, it should be because it isn’t the type of story they enjoy, not because I’ve missed a mistake in the first paragraph.
So, to answer my own question in the title of this post, no, I don’t believe editing is endless and word by corrected word, I am moving closer to the Holy Grail of a finished novel.
When I can fit it in, I keep working on a chapter outline for this year’s nanowrimo. I’ll admit I am haunted by the editing marathon which awaits me with regard to last year’s efforts. That’s on the back burner for now, but I’m surprised at how often I churn over ideas for finishing this story. However, I'm genuinely excited at the thought of actually writing something new again!
Join me on Twitter at: teagankearney@modhaiku
To all story lovers out there, good reading, and to those of you who write, good writing.