“All first drafts are shit.” So said Hemingway back in the day.
I’ve never been one to place the man up on a pedestal, but in his frank, no nonsense observations about our craft, I found him an unrivaled guide and comfort to me as a young writer. Where I cringed at the quality of my earliest rough drafts, fearing it to be an indictment of my inferior skills, he viewed his own efforts matter-of-factly. My first drafts are shit? Then this must be true of everyone. He never burdened himself with the fatal assumption that he alone was a hack.
As to Hemingway’s acerbic observation, I have no doubt he was getting at what is to me the most important literary lesson of all. Editing. Editing is writing, and if not fun for you, should at least be rewarding.
Time and experience have done nothing but encourage that impulse in me, such, that I truly don’t understand some writers’ aversion to this task. Editing is when we decorate a story with all the warts and hairs on the end of a nose that make it come to life. It’s when we hone our manuscripts into something worthy of publication. Especially with the advent of the word processor, there is little excuse not to make an effort. Imagine, a la Hemingway, having to scribble notes on a page of handwritten script or a typed, double spaced piece of paper.
To state the obvious, we’re all pretty much lost as fledgling authors, out there alone in the wilderness, searching for our voice, clueless about where we’re headed and desperately in need of validation. Tricks of the trade that would eventually become second nature to me, I wouldn’t have recognized had they hit me over the head. For instance, no one ever said, hey kid, there are no fixed rules in writing prose. As long as the reader can grasp your meaning, you’ve done your job. You can make a declarative statement without including a subject, etc., etc. What a great joy it was over the years to dispense with the training wheels and venture forth without fear.
Here’s a vignette from my early days that I hope will be instructive. I had decided for my very first submission to enter a literary contest and went about polishing what were the first three chapters of a novel in progress. And doing so solely while reading from my computer screen, mind you.
Having come to a point where I believed the manuscript was ready for prime time, I spent a long morning preparing a submission package ─ final editing, final formatting, printing up the document, printing up address labels, etc., etc. ─ before heading off to the post office. This was many years before the age of electronic submissions.
Finding myself in a long line at the post office, I impulsively started to reread the submission and my hair stood on end. The first page read like shit. I kept reading and found that the entire first chapter read like shit. I continued thumbing through the manuscript with increasing horror. The whole thing read like shit.
Humiliated, I backed out of the line and hurried out to my car. Well, here’s to the world’s greatest hack. Ready for prime time? I wasn’t worthy of writing up obituaries.
In the weeks to come, I fought my way back to some semblance of self-confidence, and, in so doing, came to a conclusion about writing and editing that followed me around for the next twenty years. In order to have a truly polished manuscript, you must edit from paper. It wasn’t entirely bad advice, but not entirely accurate, either. More on that in a moment.
Over the course of the ensuing years, as a career in ghostwriting blossomed, I would religiously print up a client’s first draft and edit from paper, then print up the second draft and edit from paper again in order to arrive at a third draft. There were times when a client would request additional drafts, but no matter the circumstance, I always edited from paper.
As my focus eventually turned towards my own literary efforts, I dispensed with this ritual as an unnecessary expense, in terms of both time and money. You can go through a boatload of ink cartridges, repeatedly printing up a 300-400 page novel.
I can’t really say when the light went on in my head but it was clearly a function of me now having all the time in the world to edit my own manuscripts. As a ghostwriter, you must agree to a set number of edits as part of your contract or you’ll go broke. Without that preset framework, it became obvious to me that I could read through and edit my work twenty times before I was entirely satisfied. Editing from the screen versus editing from paper was not the primary issue. The issue was rushing a manuscript to market before it was ready.
I speak only for myself, of course. I don’t expect anyone else to share my level of obsession. I will have edited this blog dozens of times before posting it. I even edit my texts and emails!
Editing can be likened to sculpting in stone. A sculptor may soon have the rough outlines of a figure appearing out of his block of marble, but it is only with repeated efforts that a truly polished image is revealed.
What is the editing process like for me on a practical level? Well, for starters, somewhere along the road, I realized that a foolproof way of getting my head back into my work each morning is to reread what I had written the previous day. It naturally follows that I’ll find myself editing as I go along. If you can read what you wrote yesterday and think, perfect, nothing needs to be done here, you’re a better wordsmith than me.
I also reread my work as it progresses each day, sometimes page by page, sometimes paragraph by paragraph. For me, it has become instinctive. I’ve just tossed a flurry of new script on the page? Let’s go back and see what kind of mess I’ve left in my wake.
Which brings me to one of my major pet peeves. Excess syntax. Excess syntax is clutter and dispensing with it represents a significant part of my editorial efforts. We all do this, forging garbled, convoluted sentences in a first draft, with multiple subjects and cumbersome verb phrases.
I am reminded of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Here is a man ever looking for the most succinct way to express what he had to say. Greater economy equals greater impact. And that harkens back to the adage we all heard in our English lit classes. It’s not what you put in your writing that separates the men from the boys or the women from the girls, it’s what you leave out.
I consider syntax a necessary evil, at best. The Chinese dispensed with it entirely two thousand years ago. In the English language, you can’t live without it, but I’m forever trying to pare it down to its utmost minimum. ‘Jesus wept’ is still one of the most gripping sentences ever written.
Returning to the process, because I’ve significantly edited my first drafts along the way, by the time I arrive to the final page, they are substantially polished. But even with that, I find great chunks of text being moved around this way and that during the course of my first several rewrites, or left as scrap on the cutting room floor. Again, I’m forever trying to find the most succinct and economical way to convey my message.
No sacred cows is another one of my favorite mantras. Who hasn’t become so attached to a particular sentence or phrase that they allow themselves to be dragged through the mud by it for days and weeks on end, unwilling to let go, even though it just doesn’t fit into the narrative? If I really think something is that memorable, I’ll dunk it into my ‘boy, is this ever a zinger’ file of unforgettable phrases. Time will tell if it was that important, and if so, I’ll find a use for it somewhere else.
When it comes to dialogue, I often mouth the conversations out loud. Does it sound natural? People don’t say, “I am going to the store.” They say, “I’m going to the store.” The narrative voice can sound formal but the dialogue should sound exactly the way people talk in the street. Listen for all the ‘yeahs’ and ‘Well, you knows” of those speaking around you.
I’m also forever trying to find the right verb or modifier. The thesaurus is open on my screen, 24/7. Here’s another celebrated Hemingway quote. ‘Don’t use a twenty dollar word when a two dollar word will do’. Fair enough, but we all get lazy and repetitively use the same tired words, rather than seeking out the one that slices with the precise meaning we intended. A rich vocabulary is at the heart of every good writer.
Weeding out redundancies is another thing I do religiously while editing. Let’s say one of my characters says ‘all right’ repeatedly in conversation. I will do a search for that phrase and remove enough of them so that it doesn’t become obnoxious. In fact, if we listen carefully to the conversations of people around us, they often repeat phrases to the point of obnoxiousness. Thus, there are times in my work where I purposefully allow those redundancies to remain, but only as much as they serve to sharpen that character’s image in the reader’s mind. The goal is a happy medium between reality and what feels right on the written page. In a tome set in the sixties, for instance, if you had your characters saying ‘far out’ and ‘groovy’ as much as those phrases were repeated in those times, they would soon become caricatures.
Finally, whenever I start a new novel, I will rewrite the first three chapters over and over until I’m substantially content with the results. It doesn’t have to be perfect yet, but like a house, you want to start with a solid foundation. Especially with the first page or two of the first chapter, I will obsessively rewrite them, even as the rest of the novel moves forward.
As for editing from paper, I’ve come to realize that it simply helps to do a final read from a different medium. Editing from paper absolutely has value, but it’s not as essential as I once thought. I have found that if I upload a manuscript onto Kindle’s platform and read it from their ‘previewer’ screen, I’ll get a slightly different feel to the text that is helpful with my final round of edits.
And how do I know when I’m finally ready to let go of a manuscript? If I can read through an entire 100,000 word novel in three days while making only minor changes, it’s time to give birth. In some cases, it only takes a dozen reads to arrive to this point. With some novels, it does take twenty drafts. The truth is, I could go on editing my work, ad infinitum. Joyce was renowned for having carried Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake around with him for dozen of years. But if I’m patient, and have taken the time to do all of the aforementioned, there always comes a moment when the rewards of continuing to edit are lessor than the relief of letting go.
And then comes a day when I start a new novel, and that is always a day with a smile on my face and a feeling of contentment in my heart.