Editing: The Productive Way To Procrastinate

I have the climactic chapters of a book to write, and I’m not doing it. Yes, I’m procrastinating again, but I’m also working hard.* How? I’m editing, hooray!

image taken from keypersonofinfluence.com

I’ll admit it: I love editing. I recently saw a quote by the author Shannon Hale that summed up my feelings on the process perfectly:

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

That’s exactly why I love editing: the hard work of digging sand is over, so now it’s time to have fun and let my imagination run riot. Yet, for some reason, I get the impression most writers hate editing their own work. Maybe it’s because you have to start looking at the technical structure of your writing: is this grammatically correct, is that the right word to use, is this telling and not showing, OH GOD I’VE USED SO MANY ADVERBS and so on; maybe it’s because it’s time to start looking at your MS with a dispassionate eye and kill off your pet characters, bin your favourite extraneous scenes and cut those oh so pretty paragraphs of description you’ve lovingly splattered across multiple pages. I understand all that, yet I still love editing.

For me, first drafts are like tooth extractions: painful, time-consuming and best achieved whilst slightly numbed. The first lesson of writing is don’t try to make things perfect first time, but it’s one I’ll never truly learn. Stop trying to come up with elegant turns of phrase and get those words down, boy! I’m forever reminding myself that first drafts are dreck and they’re supposed to be dreck. Get the castle foundations dug now and worry about the spires, crenelations, stain-glass windows and plush interiors later.

taken from giphy.com

This is not me, thankfully

I also don’t like planning ahead. Stephen King once said something along the lines of I create characters, create a situation and see how they react, and I’m the same. Apart from a vague ending and one or two major “checkpoints” (sorry, I’ve been playing too much Carmageddon on my phone) along the way, I don’t really know the route my stories are going to take. New ideas, locations and characters make themselves known at random times; later scenes contradict earlier ones, background drones join the main cast and incidental events become world-changing. To be perfectly honest, I only stumble upon the true point of a story once it’s either almost finished, sitting complete in a folder (whispering I’m pish and you know it whenever a mouse pointer drifts by) or after feedback from brave beta readers. I thank those brave souls past and future, and applaud time for providing the objectivity to reread, grimace and start killing one’s darlings.

So, yes: editing turns my incoherent ramblings and half-baked ideas into something resembling sense, and it’s so much fun. I once had to design and construct a model of my ideal bedroom for a Standard Grade art project, and once the basics were done I spent ages obsessing over the tiny details that made it truly mine: stars on ceilings, a cardboard telescope, a ramshackle balsa recreation of Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chairminuscule titles on books and CDs, a perfectly framed magazine cut-out of a Sensible Soccer scene stuck to the telly screen, that kind of thing. Editing feels the same way: I adore paring down sentences to their pithy minimum, perfecting descriptions, trimming dialogue, getting to the point.** Opinions on the finished product will vary, but I can guarantee you it’s a thousand times better than that muddy, misshapen, whiffy lump of dirt I called a ‘first draft’.

Some numbers, if you like that kind of thing: the first draft of my first novel (which remains quarantined for the greater good) was longer than Harry Potter and the Order Of The Phoenix, yet the final draft was barely longer than Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. My second novel took 26-ish drafts to get “right” and will probably be entirely rewritten if current plans work out. I’ve already cut 50,000 extraneous words from the now 100,000-ish count of my fourth and current MS, and will no doubt cull more when I’m finally done. My brain and mouth rarely produces something coherent first time round, in conversation or in writing, but at least I can review, revise, restate (and if necessary) recant the latter!

One of my writing folders. Excessive? Possibly.

Ultimately, editing feels like skiving yet achieves so much, and for me that’s the best of all worlds. I’d love to know how other people edit, favourite methods, hints and tips etc — feel free to comment below and share your thoughts 😀

*Yes, I know I’m procrastinating by writing this post. GO AWAY

**I don’t edit blog posts to the same exacting standard, as you can probably tell…

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