Editing: Turning Dreck into Prose

In an earlier post, I talked about writing the first draft … and expecting it to be “pure green dreck.”

No two writers will write exactly the same way. But many writers find it most effective to write the first draft from beginning to end without spending time editing. Changing from creation to polishing can interfere with the flow of ideas and get the writer bogged down in details. All of us probably know people who have been working on a writing project for months or years with little progress. You’ll never finish a novel if you spend all your time trying to perfect the first chapter, and you won’t finish an article or a proposal or a letter if you focus on making the first paragraph perfect.

When I’m writing something that can be done in one sitting, I write from beginning to end for the first draft without attempting to edit. If I’m writing a novel or anything in segments over a long period of time, the first thing I do when I start to work is to re-read what I wrote in the last session. Although I might make minor corrections, I’m not in an editing mindset when I’m re-reading. My goal is to get immersed back into the story to start writing again.

Only after I’ve finished the first draft do I start editing – the process of turning that “pure green dreck” into meaningful words. First, I read the manuscript to evaluate the content. For nonfiction I want to make sure I’ve covered all the important points and the ideas are organized in a logical, understandable way. For fiction, I look for a coherent plot and characters that act in ways that make sense (not that they act logically – just that they act in a way consistent with their personalities, attitudes, and beliefs). On this first editing pass, I may move text, add or delete scenes or paragraphs, and change things that don’t fit. Although I always correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors when I find them, at this stage, I’m not looking closely at details.

In the next pass, I try to improve on what I’ve written – not only looking for errors but also cutting out superfluous words, changing words, or revising sentences and paragraphs for clarity, ease of reading, variety in structure, and style.

The final edit puts the finishing touches on the piece, correcting any remaining errors and polishing the prose.

Depending on the length and complexity of the piece, as well as its importance, the number of edits and the length of time between them vary. Something simple like an e-mail can be written in one sitting with a single review/edit. A full-length novel will be edited many times, preferably with some time between each edit.

If possible, I like to allow a few days or even weeks after I’ve finished the last major edit before I do a final read-through. Since I prefer to read electronically, I put my manuscript into my eBookwise reading device, sit back in my easy chair, and read as if I were a reader who hadn’t seen this story/article before. I can highlight text and make notes in the manuscript to mark any place where anything distracted me (whether it’s a grammar error, a confusing sentence, repetition of a word or sentence pattern, an out-of-character action, or anything else that pulls me out of the story/article). At this point, there should be few items to mark, and when I go back to the computer and make those changes, the manuscript is complete.

But then … it’s time to get another opinion (or several other opinions). Even though I may have edited the manuscript a dozen times, someone else is going to see something (or many somethings) I missed. I was in a critique group with three other writers, and each week we read a chapter of the others’ work and gave feedback. We said, “If one person mentions something, consider it and make a change only if you agree. If two people notice it, pay close attention and consider making a change. If all three comment on the same thing, you’d better change it!”

After getting input from other people, the final step in turning dreck into prose is to integrate into the final manuscript the suggestions that will make your work better without losing your own writer’s voice.

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