Editing a First Draft

My first substantial story/content edit of a first draft is the most important one I do when I’m writing.  I write more slowly than some; the first draft of the novel I just finished, for instance, a post-apocalyptic young adult sci-fi story, took me around five months to finish.  That’s an estimate, because I started writing it on a lark and ended up switching gears from my other project to finish this one, and as a result I wasn’t working on it full time right away.  So had I sat down to write that story alone, in other words, it might have taken less time.

My writing process is somewhat nontraditional: rather than blast through a truly rough first draft and polish it with multiple, successive edits, I tend to linger over the first draft, working on the prose and pacing and details more carefully than some.  This is just the way my mind works; I find it very hard, often distracting, even, to block out a story roughly, which is in direction contradiction to the way we’re all supposed to be writing.  What, after all, do most writing guides tell you?  Something along the lines of: don’t worry about your first draft!  Your first draft is supposed to be horrible!  Just get it on the page, and worry about making it good later!

This may work for some writers, and despite my sarcasm, I don’t actually see anything wrong with this technique.  It’s how many, if not most, artists work.  Oil painters paint in layers: first brushing on a background wash, then blocking out major shapes in differing values of neutral colors, then gradually adding layers of bright color, light, and shadow, before finishing with minor details and nuances.  Sculptors who work in stone must first carve out a rough shape before chiseling in the fine features of a statue.  I often find that by not working this way myself, I run a greater risk of being bogged down in details when I should be focusing on the bones of my story.

That said, I don’t regret my methods; they seem to be working for me.  I might even go so far as to say they’re more modern: sophisticated word processors like Microsoft Word allow us to make changes on the fly, whereas writers of yore were constrained by the limitations of typewriters.  Even pen and paper is more compatible with the traditional, phased method: the physical effort and comparative mess of writing freehand discourages too much ad hoc messing around.  It used to be much more efficient to write a rough draft, edit it longhand, type it up, then edit again…repeat, ad nauseam.  Today we’re able to truly play with each sentence as we write it, which is both a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing because we can take full advantage of being in the moment while writing: our fingers, if we’re decent typists, move more quickly on the keyboard than they do with a pen on paper, and can come much closer to keeping up with the story unfolding in our heads.  Moreover, it gives you the speed and efficiency with which to take advantage of a sudden, inspired turn of phrase–even if you think of a better way to say something five minutes after you’ve finished a scene, it’s the work of mere seconds to go back and edit it in Word.

This might all seem a bit remedial, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I edit this manuscript.  I do most of my editing on the computer screen, rather than on paper, which is also, traditionally, a no-no.  But I find, again, that it’s more efficient.  I can try different things more quickly, see if they work, and make changes to the text live rather than making chicken-scratches all over a paper manuscript only to have to go back later and actually make the changes.

The down side, I suppose, is the detriment to posterity.  Readers and writers of the future will have less access to physical copies of early drafts, which give insight into a writer’s process.  On the other hand, it’s certainly possible to track changes with Word, much more effectively than by hand, so the preservation of the digital file would solve this problem.  And it’s a minor one, anyway, isn’t it?  What matters, in the end, is the end.  The end product, that is.

Editing, even more than writing, is where you first find the methods that work best for you.  The initial process of writing, after all, is dead simple: put one word in front of another and repeat until you have a novel.  (Don’t let anyone tell you it’s more complicated than that, incidentally.)  But editing is much more like work; hard choices must be made, a pace set, discretion and judgment utilized and prioritized.  Editing is where the real work comes in, in other words, and doing it is the best way to learn how.

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