Tuesday 31 August 2010


The difference between a first draft and the final draft should be vast. It is the difference between ignoring your readers and listening to them. It's the difference between being a loudmouth and being a writer. It's the difference between being an arrogant bastard who loves the sound of her own voice, and a dedicated, tuned-in communicator with a passion for words and a burning need to make those words matter.

It's the difference between not being published and being published.

I remember when I was trying - and failing - to be published. (God, I remember it.) Anyway. I went to a thing. I'd like to call it an event but it was seriously uneventful. It was a gathering of people who wanted to listen to someone - not me - who'd had a book published. Or, as I now realise, self-published. (Which is fine, because actually it was the right sort of book to be s-pubbed, being a genuinely niche book.) Anyway, I got chatting to the author. And I made the big mistake of telling her about my lengthy editing Process. God, what a process, I said. I edit and edit and hone and hone and slice and splice and generally try to make it as perfect as I can.

"Oh," she said. "Don't bother with that. I can always tell an over-edited piece of work. One should never edit too much."

CRAP. One should edit and edit and edit and edit until there is nothing more one can possibly do. As Oscar W famously said. "I spent all morning editing a poem and I removed one comma. In the afternoon, I put it back again."

I have never edited "too much". Sure, sometimes I have to stop because I have reached The Deadline and people are about to shout at me, which I hate, but I would rather carry on. And on. And...

By the way, that woman's book really really really needed editing.

So do my blog-posts but that's different because if you don't like my stream of consciousness you don't have to read it. You  haven't paid me, after all. More's the pity, you mean buggers.

So. Editing. I have talked about it before. But I want to take a different tack on it today. There are, it seems, three things to do.
  1. You must cut.
  2. You must add.
  3. And you must check for hidden nastiness.
The first and the last are the ones most often covered in how-to-write thingummies. I've said them myself. It goes like this:

Apply the machete. Be ruthless. If it's not necessary, get rid of it. If it wriggles and pleads, kill it. If you love it especially, it must die. Every word must count.

Know what could be wrong. Get genned up on voice slippages, POV switches, structural crappiness, pace issues. Slash dialogue tags, burn redundant adverbs. Make your beginning zing, tighten up your saggy middle, make sure your ending satisfies. Smarten up your grammar, kill clich├ęs, disentagle metaphors, make sure that all disbelief is suspended from a very high tower. Do not let yourself get away with anything. Masochism is compulsory.

We don't talk about this, do we? We talk about getting rid of things because for most writers that's the big necessity. But someone emailed me recently and asked what happens when, after cutting out your redundant words, you are left with the nightmare scenario of a book that's too short...

Well, one thing's for sure: you shouldn't just bulk it up with some more description or character analysis or whatever. Because, for crying out loud, that's what you just took out.

So, what we might need is a whole new angle. A new sub-plot. And that's not easy. And might look added on. So, ask yourself this: what if... well, what if anything. What if a new character suddenly forced his or her way in? Yay! Right at the start. What if someone was watching your first chapter and muscled in? Seriously. Just forced his way in. Bastard! Deal with him. He could cause serious damage. Ooh, damage - that would be GOOD, no? Could so disrupt your other characters. See, they were sitting there all complacent when suddenly someone from Carrie's past, or Joel's past, or someone from the future, or just someone with a new agenda arrives. Ooh, what shenanigans. Could be someone that Sarah would hate or Esma would fall in love with.

Or, maybe not a whole new angle. Maybe a diversion. Maybe you had been so focused on the imminent ending that you hurtled your characters too quickly towards it. So, how about if, instead of having three things that get in the way of your MC's aim, you have FOUR? Ooh, just as the reader thought it was going SO well, you introduce a huge new spanner, and it throws everything into disarray.

Crikey, it could take another 20,000 to get out of that.

So, new character or spanner. Go on, you know you want to.

Thing is, there'll be a load more editing to do because then you'll need to do the cutting and checking again. And you'll find bits that need re-threading and tweaking. But it will be worth it. Because eventually you will have your beautiful final draft.

Draft. Still a draft. Not finished.

Well, of course, a bit more editing. Mmmm. And eventually it's not a draft any more. No, it's not perfect - it never will be. But it will be as perfect as you can make it.

And that's enough.

Go edit. Cut. Add. Check.


Summer Ross said...

Wonderful post. Its true we rarely discussing adding elements...interesting take on it, Thanks for posting

Dan Holloway said...

Oh Nicola, anyone who says Anyway. I went to a thing should be laureated - I love that kind of turn of phrase. And structural crappiness is just marvellous.

On a serious note, it's good to see you make so much of adding. I remember reading Miranda Dickinson's excellent account of life after being scooped from the slush - the one thing she remembers er editor telling her above all else was to flesh out the backstory and add a subplot.

Spanners. Machetes. "slash dialogue" Next you'll be having us add characters who come round and get their wrench out

Sally Zigmond said...

Thank you. This is music to my poor battered ears. So many people who say how much they love writing and how keen they are to be desperate to be published tell me that the editing process is as boring as hell, both tedious and unnecessary because it kills the 'spontaneity' and brilliance of the moment; alien to that gushing thrill of pouring their stories out onto the page or screen.

If they ever argue with me again I shall point them in your direction.That'll 'larn' them.

Sally Zigmond said...

Please take a machete to the un-deleted phrase "to be desperate."

Pot. Kettle. Black. I really should learn to copy-edit.

Jane Smith said...

This post has everything. The ice queen, Nicola Morgan, getting all sweary and worked up; and Sally Zigmond, the perfectionist, leaving in a phrase which she meant to cut out.

I love it. Editing is as much about filling in gaps as it is about cutting out extraneous stuff. Tonight, I am filled with joy.

Franklin Beaumont said...

Great post. You're right, the adding aspect of the editing process is rarely talked about. I find the removal of something large often involves the adding of something smaller in its place to bridge the gap. Slowly the manuscript gets tighter and tighter... but it's fun. Well, sometimes.

Queenie said...

Adding adding adding, yes yes yes. Have just encountered the too short book problem, and devised a fab new spanner, which will turn the whole plot and make my MC suffer much more mwahahahaHAAAAAAAAAAAAA as well as giving me the extra wordage I need. I find first drafts quite tortuous but I love editing.

Kittie Howard said...

Thank you for a wonderful post! I posted one of my Louisiana stories today, a few days late. What held me up? A comma. I'd take it out, put it back in, neither approach pleasing. So I cut a few sentences (yep, painful) and rewrote that pesky comma sentence. Whether this pleases the reader, I don't know. But I try to put myself in the position of reader, try to feel reading's easy flow....So, I learned a lot from your post today, Nicola.

catdownunder said...

Hmmm....wise advice as always. If I really, really like something I have written then I have (sadly) managed to learn I probably should claw it out. I have to keep my claws sharpened for this reason...which makes me think that, like claws, a blunt machete might not be much use. Claws and machetes have to be sharpened at regular intervals.

Keren David said...

Brilliant post. Editing is so much more than cutting over-written prose. For those of us who habitually under-write (description? what's that?) it's the time when we work out what's missing and add it in.
One thing I always do when editing is a search on the word 'feel'. Generally I can take out any sentence in which the narrator is telling us about his or her emotions.

Kath said...

Thank you for such a wonderful and timely post.

I am having an ongoing (often *heated*) discussion with a writing pal who does not believe that she needs to do much, if any, editing of her novel. This is, after all, the job of an editor.

I am sending her a link to this post, which will hopefully let me get back to my editing in peace. Thanks Nicola.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Omigosh Nicola I am laughing through this whole post it is so funny, and it is so you. I love your blog voice, and I've missed it as I've been MIA on the internet a lot this summer. Been busy editing my piece of crap ms. that needed all this stuff you talked about here. Now I'm ready to do some adding, hopefully some real writing and not the top of the head stuff I'm too good at.

P.S. I'm borrowing your Blog Party idea for my blog this weekend. I hope you don't mind, and I hope you'll stop by!

Nicola Morgan said...

Summer, Keren, Franklin, Kittie, Cat etc - thanks for positive comments, all.

Dan - thank you! I have discovered that the main difference betweeen the blog and the book I'm writing from it is that I can't be so irreverent with language in the book. Which is a real shame (for me). :(

KarenG - ditto - it's really hard to strike a balance and I wonder if I've taken too much blog voice out of the book. Anyway - not your problem! Thanks for your comment. And of course you can use the blog party idea. I don't think it was mine originally - I based it on an idea I found on Jane Smith's blog. I will try to remember to come along but I have family staying all weekend so I might not manage to get to my computer. Have fun!

Sally - WHY do serially unpublished writers not realise that the reason is usually that their writing needs improvement; that ALL of your writing need improvement? GRRR.

Jane - for a moment I thought you were saying I was sweaty...

Queenie - "I find first drafts quite tortuous but I love editing." Me absolutely too.

Kath - you will be doing your writing friend a HUGE favour if you emphasise that point. Gone are the days when editors would take a terrible first draft and deal with it.

Hope I haven't missed anyone...

Nick Cross said...

My approach to editing so far has been mostly complete rewriting - it's a habit I'll have to wriggle out of as I actually get good at writing! The edit I've just completed was mostly adding stuff though, and I had to practically tie one hand behind my back to stop myself slashing too much of the existing prose! Maybe you can over-edit after all...

@Keren - I am so there with you on underwriting. I swear my books would be 100% dialogue if I didn't go back and fill in the blanks.

Flowerpot said...

Great post Nicola, thanks!

Ness Harbour said...

I agree with both Keren and Nick. I am a serious under writer. Alot of my first editing is putting the colour in, creativing a visual tapestry. I know the idea is to write hot, edit cold. But I have to do a bit of edit warm and then cut my darlings out. One of the best way I have found to edit is to read it out loud and in particular perform the dialogue. You can then hear what isn't working.
Great blog again, thankyou

Keren David said...

@Nick I'm with you on the dialogue. I sometimes wonder if I'd be better off writing screenplays.

Mary Hoffman said...

I much prefer the revising stage to the writing stage.

But I'm not so keen on the editing-that-comes-from-editors stage!

Stroppy Author said...

Excellent advice, as always, Nicola. The real problem with editing is that it doesn't have the frenzied dynamic of writing so it is easy to get distracted into, er, reading blogs instead...

JaneF said...

Great post, and very useful for me as I am just coming to the end of (another) editing frenzy on my ms. My problem (well, one of them) is that I just can't stop tinkering.

I don't think I ever get to the 'as perfect as I can make it' stage. I could go on forever. What stops me is that I start to worry that I'm wasting my time on something that's rubbish. That's when I send it out. Hmmm, maybe that explains a lot...!

Charlotte said...

I agree. The difference between my first draft and my fifth is so vast, abyss-like, that they appear to be two different books.

I'm now on draft six, making revisions for my agent, and it looks some adding will be needed. Not adding to make up work count, but adding to round out the plot, make certain characters more believable and to give a couple of the sub-plots more zing.

Leila R said...

Great post, gets right to the point. The single most important editing tool, however, is TIME. This is what lucky, lucky unpublished writers have lots of, and should appreciate and make the most of. Once the first draft is written, stick it in a drawer and leave it alone for a month or three. Then pull it out and re-read it. The faults will jump out at you. Correct them, stick in drawer, repeat. As soon as you're writing to contract and deadline, though, drawer time is not a luxury you have.

(Word verification: Unklecta :))

Eeleen Lee said...

great post
I do some editing myself and I tell my clients that I'm going to be very tough and that I'm not Tinkerbell- waving a magic wand over your MS will not produce a masterpiece

Anonymous said...

Adding is much underrated

Nicola Slade said...

Great post, Nicola. I found myself staring into a black, empty hole in my new cosy mystery (what? didn't I mention it? "Murder Fortissimo", out end January. You're too kind...) My agent said: make it longer, so I whined about it a lot and someone said: make one of your people do something completely out of character. First think of something for him/her to do, then work out why, then follow the ripples in the pond to see how it affects everyone else.

Worked a treat; I discovered all sorts of lovely creepy things hiding under stones, that I hadn't thought of before! And added a nice large chunk to the word count.

Unknown said...

Terrific post. The timing is perfect. I think you hit the nail on the head here. It seems the majority of my editing has been dedicated to cutting and adding to my story.

I recently submitted the first chapter of my work-in-progress for critique on a writer's site. I learned my characters were one dimensional and my opening was cliched. I guess many novels begin with murder in a hospital room.

After drowning my sorrows in a half gallon of cookie dough ice cream, I took a look at the entire novel. There were several plot holes. My characters lacked distinctive voices and the antagonist was not horrific enough.

Before writing another word, I bought a few "how to" books on characterization and POV. I have since learned a lot about the pros and cons of omniscient, close third and mid third. (I know, I should have done this in the first place, but better late than never).

In order to increase my understanding of how and when to unfold the plot, I read every horror novel I could get my hands on. ( It seems I gave away too much information in my first draft). I've even written bios on each of my characters. It makes a difference. I know them a whole lot better than I did.

I also outlined my novel. This process has forced me to give each chapter and each scene a lot of thought.

I've killed three darlings and added two,cut numerous chapters and inserted new ones. So far about half of my novel is mapped. The chapters seem more cohesive and cogent now.

I hope when this draft is complete my editing will be limited to looking for POV shifts and problems with sentence structure etc. Writing is hard---phew. Rubs sweat off of brow and settles in chair to work on outline.

Nicola Morgan said...

MAry - erghhhhhhh, I'm with you there. :(

Andrea - ooh, can you tell me about the how-to books you read on POV / characterisation etc? I need to add things like that to a list of resources. Which ones did you like? can you email me? n(AT)nicolamorgan.co.uk Thank you!

Fran Hill said...

Great advice. My favourite 'cutting adverbs' thing is putting 'ly' into the 'Find' tool on Word and seeing just how many extra adverbs I have inadvertently or deliberately but in either case foolishly used. It's such good fun. (Not that every adverb ends in 'ly', but many do. Fortunately.)

Janet O'Kane said...

Phew, what a relief to discover I'm not alone in underwriting. Great advice as ever, Nicola.

sheilamcperry said...

All this goes very much against the grain for me as I prefer to deal with things really quickly and then never see them again! But I now know I have to pretend to be a perfectionist for the sake of writing better. It's good to see all this so well summarised. I feel I should print it out and carry it everywhere with me!! (except that would be a bit odd)

Debi said...

I think of this as a right brain/left brain thing ie using the creative side of our brains for the 1st draft and then engaging the analytical side for the editing.

I often find I have skated over crucial aspects in the 1st draft in my race to see what will happen. So as much gets added as subtracted ... A vital part of the process, as you so rightly say.

Kay Tee said...

Great post, great comments. I love reading this blog :-)

My secret weapon for editing is to use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard. It helps me with the cutting and the adding and the general 'fixing up' -- I love it!

Kath McGurl said...

Great post, thanks. I'll be back here when I get to the editing stage of writing my novel. Currently I can't tell whether I'll be needing to cut more or add more when I finish the first draft. As a great believer in editing (done plenty of editing of shorts) all I know is I'll undoubtedly need to do both, to different parts of the novel.

OSMWylie said...

Haha... I constantly need to be beaten over the head and forced to do hardcore editing. I'm really bad at it.

I think the main problem is I don't fully understand where my own pitfalls are. I know what's 'good' and what's 'bad' in the basics of every book, but I'm still not sure what I need to watch out for in my writing (over explaining, I suspect! HA).

Anyhoo, very good post! As bad as I am, I agree. Edit, edit, edit!