The Lifecycle of an Edit; or, When to Drop that Draft and Walk Away

Unsolicited Opinions / Thursday, July 5th, 2018

If you’ve followed me at all on here, you know I’m chiseling my way through the rough drafts of a three-book series that I wrote over the course of a year. It was a good year for writing: I wrote 800 words a day, regardless of circumstance; I let my narratives go any which way; I told myself it was all well and good as long as I was writing. 

I’m really, really grateful to have experienced that golden year of writing-without-restraint. In my brain, I’ve catalogued that year in the Writing is Fun folder. It’s an oft-referenced brain-folder, especially since I started wading through these rough drafts. Because editing has been…difficult. It is a lengthy, potentially endless process.

And sometimes you need a break.

Interested in my process, from read-through to drop-draft? No? Well, here it is anyway:

1.  Read through

This is all pretty new for me, but I’ve realized I follow a general pattern while editing. The first thing I do is re-read the rough draft, from the first word to the very last. A first draft, though warbly and incomplete, is a fully fledged thing. If you write without outlining, LIKE I CLEVERLY DO, that fledgling is often a monster.

It’s always painful to see that your first draft is an absolute catastrophe. Luckily, the first read-through is as inspiring as it is devastating. You see the shape of your story and it’s beautiful. As Stephen King says in On Writing, “When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” 

So during this phase, I look at the forest. Though I think of it less as a forest and more, like I said, like a sort of mutant monster; I just spent months writing it down, laying bone after bone, and now I can look at the entire animal. As I read, I very quickly jot down notes on things I know I need to develop in the narrative. Often, these notes are extraordinarily vague, like “give this chapter a purpose.” Sometimes I write myself sassy little notes: “Who wrote this dialogue? And why, God why?” Just the act of writing something like that gets my subconscious brain working on the problem that the chapter presents.

2. Rewrite 

After the re-read, I start my first phase of editing (read: rewriting). To do this, I reference the notes that I initially created but also allow myself to stay loose in the process. And then I basically start rewriting. Sometimes an entire chapter changes. Sometimes I keep a paragraph, sometimes just a sentence, sometimes nothing. At this point, my book is a grotesque skeleton of an ill-formed creature created by mad scientists. I take it apart bone by bone. I disassemble the monster and analyze its bones. I replace them with sensible, normal femurs and phalanges that make sense. The resulting skeleton is closer to a normal, functioning creature.

I then repeat this process. Again and maybe again, I re-read the full book, restructure and rewrite. I do this until I have a skeleton that makes (adequate) anatomical sense.

3. *Edit*

And then I start what many people probably think of as editing (the previous process, honestly, is just rewriting the bones of the story), which is where I start to think about THE WORDS. The specific descriptions I’m using to conjure place or feeling. The nuances of dialogue between characters. The subtle shifts in characters’ relationships with the world, their friends, and themselves. Details that give the story greater dimension and depth.

I start to think about how paragraphs are structured, and why. I find creative ways to weave expository material throughout the narrative, once I’m sure what the narrative actually is. It’s surprising how you can have all the bones of your finished story set in place, creating an acceptable animal, but until you start filling that in with muscle and heart and skin, you don’t have anything people will want to read. To me, this phase of editing is fun and terrifying, because it reveals the depth of your underlying story; it shows how much substance your frame can handle.

This is the part I always want to linger on. This is the part where I occasionally have to step away.

4. Walk Away

Because I’m trying to rewrite and edit an entire three book series, it would be awfully easy for me to get stuck rewording passages for more emotional impact; fine tuning passages; capturing intricacies of characters’ arcs. Over the past few weeks, this is exactly what happened to me.

I kept re-reading passages and feeling frustrated. I’d get stuck on characters’ dialogue. I’d wonder about certain details, and how they’d fit into the arc of the series. At these points, one’s mind can get a little traitorous. You’ve held the magnifying glass a little too close, and you run the risk of taking apart the ligaments and tendons that hold your bones together. At some points, you veer dangerously close to restarting the rewriting process from scratch, even though you’d recently decided the story, as a whole, was complete.

Last week, I started to sort of hate my book, to feel like all the little tiny elements I want present in my final product will never come together. Maybe I should make the book into something else entirely….

Stop stop stop.

You don’t just wanna step back and see the forest, like King says. You want to vacate the fucking forest. 

When you’ve already comfortably reorganized the bones of your story and your editing process starts to devolve into a constant and unrelenting process of picky editing, LEAVE. Drop that draft. If you’re like me and you’re editing a series, move onto the next book. Or even the previous book. Move onto a short story that you’ve written, or a non-fiction subject you’re really fascinated by. You will not help yourself by continuously ripping your story apart further.

When you get into this late stage of editing, you run the danger of taking out bones, one by one, from your story’s skeleton. This is a short-sighted endeavor, and it will inevitably weaken the structural integrity of your narrative.

So walk away. Let it breathe a little while, maybe a month or so. Let the bones settle.

When you return to your draft after a month or so away, you’ll be able to re-read the entire thing with a certain degree of distance. At this juncture, analyze whether or not you REALLY need to change major aspects of your book. You probably don’t. Or maybe you do. But I guarantee you’ll be approaching the structure with much-needed perspective, distance, and clarity. 

I realize this is a highly individualized process, and what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you (I’m not even totally sure that what works for me, works for me tbh). What’s your process? How to manage the stages of editing? At what point do you know it’s time to step away?

11 Replies to “The Lifecycle of an Edit; or, When to Drop that Draft and Walk Away”

  1. I’m currently also working on what feels like the millionth draft of book one of a four book series and I’m really struggling with not messing it up. I’m very much at the stage where I should probably get out of the forest for a bit, so thank you for this post and putting into words exactly how the editing process can feel.

    1. Thank you for this comment – as much as it sucks that you’re grappling with editing frustrations, it feels good knowing I’m not alone. Editing is a beast. We’ll get through this!

  2. I really agree with this – I notice the need to step away a lot, especially when I’m writing essays. It can really help you come up with a fresh perspective and thus realise where you have gone wrong.

    1. Yes, exactly! I even find it shows me where I went RIGHT – as in, I’ll come back to the draft and find myself excited by details that really work well in the narrative. Thanks for reading!

    1. I’ve done that too! I’m really trying to hold myself back this time, and get through the whole thing so that I don’t drown in the first couple pages! The first draft can be truly heartbreaking to behold…

  3. I think stepping away is essential. Partly because we start dreading picking the monster up, but also because it’s essential to have fresh eyes at least once in the process. I’m an outliner, so I don’t have to do quite as much rewriting (maybe) as pantsers, but I still do rewrites and plenty of editing passes. Yes, it’s individual, but there is a method to some of the editing madness, and letting a story rest is always a good idea. 😀

    1. Thank you for your comment! And yes – before I started editing my first novel, I’d never heard of stepping away as part of the editing process. But like you said, it’s absolutely essential. I think that for my next novel or series of novels, I’m going to try to outline first. I love my books, but writing the way I did has made the editing process infinitely more difficult!

      1. Outlines still can be Very loose and leave lots of room for creativity. I’m constantly having to negotiate with characters and adjust the outline as we make changes. And for me, an outline cuts editing time in half – that’s a good thing!

        1. Yes – I need to find the balance between structure and still letting myself make creative and spontaneous decisions. I have an idea for a book currently (even though I don’t have time to write it!) and I’m going to experiment with setting up and outline and seeing how that feels. Thanks, as always, for your wise advice !

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