Saturday, 19 November 2011

Editing: writer’s bane or necessity?

One of the things that has always challenged me as a writer is the daunting task of editing.  I look at some of the revisions of past work and see the version numbers climbing as high as 80—I say to myself, there’s got to be something wrong with this picture!

But surprisingly, no.

It takes dozens of rounds and sometimes more to capture the compelling flow of a piece of writing, to hone the prose to the quality that satisfies.  But at the same time, one realizes that even after all that, it’s probably not perfect.

The other frustrating point, is that something that was ‘perfect’ two months ago, just doesn’t seem to sit so well now.  A tough scenario, but that is part of the process too.

I think that as the writer changes internally, so the way s/he writes also changes.  In any case, most of the time spent on the author’s part, entails re-writing, re-visiting and re-vamping certain key sections and sharpening the prose.  I thought at first this was just a beginner’s phenomenon, but then after reading the testimonies of writers and studying a wide variety of stories, I realized that this is a shared experience.  Writing is a difficult task.  To get the excellent result in the end requires an immense amount of work—and ‘immense’ is even not strong enough a word.

As for testimonies, I remember reading the author’s forward to the Grafton edition of the Lord of the Rings:

“Then when the ‘end’ had at last been reached, the whole story had to be revised, and indeed largely re-written backwards.  And it had to be typed and retyped: by me, the cost of professional typing by the ten-fingered was beyond my means.”

And another excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien, which I cannot help but quote here, even though it may deviate from my point:

“Some who have read the book, or at any rate reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”

I was thinking—all that work, ten years of it, for that response?  But again, happily, Tolkien’s critics are few, I would safely say.  The success of the films have cemented his literary genius in the eyes of the world.  I did actually read some of Tolkien’s earlier versions of the Fellowship of the Ring (which happened to be available in the local library), and I noticed that there was quite a difference between that rough version and the final one I was so familiar with reading and rereading.  Still, the characteristic Tolkien style was present, but the author had moved whole sections, and the text was a lot cleaner.  So, my ultimate conclusion is, that even if a master like Tolkien had to go through such hoops, what of the rest of the world?

A thought has crossed my mind.  What makes a novel endure over the years?  Is it that the prose is so absolutely creative and rich with compelling characters and original, engaging plots that it becomes a classic?  Or, is it that if some writing catches the public eye and is considered entertaining enough by popular standards to receive a long list of rave reviews, it ‘endures’?  Because of these reviews, the book gets attention, and more people read it, since they’re influenced by reviews, and say ‘well, it must be good’.  Considering the huge wealth of fiction written throughout history, one may ask what is it that really makes a book exceptional—that it is remembered decades down the road?  Whatever the answer is, it makes all the more sense for authors to put in that extra effort to write the story as creatively as possible, if their goal is to make it endure the test of time.

A lot of professional writers hire editors, but there is a big difference between proofreading and editing for style and content.  I don’t know how effective editors can be beyond their own skill as writers.  Certainly a proofreader can spot grammar mistakes, punctuation, and points of rough confusion (eg non-sequiturs), but to take the story beyond the first beta draft, and go the step further—this requires a special effort and I think the editor has to be on an equal level or beyond the writer, and I’m not talking about superficial edits here.  I’m talking about fine-tuning nuances of theme, pacing, character development, the order of scenes, conflict resolution, story line, dialogue, etc.  I think this type of analysis is almost as hard as writing original content itself, and it is no wonder authors hate editing so much.

Somewhere, I believe, the writer has to develop the editing skills to be able to get a manuscript to a 80-90% phase—a place where there is only a manageable portion of revisions left to do.  The danger of too much editing by outside source(s) brings in the problem of the story starting to deviate substantially from the original author’s work.

To compound this situation, there is also the dilemma of receiving diverse and constructive feedback.  Invariably readers and reviewers will have their own opinions of a story, many of them conflicting.  So then, how to decide on what to pick up on and what to leave behind?

Such complexities make one wonder that any author can produce a viable novel from beginning to end, taking into account all the variables.

My own personal editing process consists of first finishing the rough draft with a beginning, middle and end.  This is the easy part, if ‘easy’ can be used to describe the process.  After that, I engage in two rounds of rigorous editing—slow, methodical rereads.  The first round is the most gruelling.  The pacing is generally horrible and the rhythm is wrong, but at least there is the basic essence of the story, however crudely rendered.  The second round is directed at cleaning up the last edits and streamlining the story line.  I pass it on to a good editor and proof-reader then, usually my mom who has amazing skills in this area.  After going through a series of rewrites and repetition of the above process, I am ready to pass it on to any beta readers I can find.  I sit on it for a while, collecting comments and making appropriate changes.  Fresh eyes make a big difference.  If necessary, I start the process over again.  This loop continues for as long as necessary until I’m happy that the story is in readable form.  An overkill perhaps, but the time taken in doing this is well worth it, I think, even knowing that a few rounds of this rigour is enough to make a hardy soul wince.

The good news is—despite how much energy is required to pull it off and the understanding that there are no short cuts in the game—I think writers gain tremendous benefits from the time-consuming exercise and thereby strengthen their writing skills, with the happy result that they become better writers.

I welcome any comments on the subject.


  1. My favorite grammer book is 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' but I have so much to learn. Great post.

  2. The danger of too much editing by outside source(s) brings in the problem of the story starting to deviate substantially from the original author’s work.

    I agree.

    To compound this situation, there is also the dilemma of receiving diverse and constructive feedback. Invariably readers and reviewers will have their own opinions of a story, many of them conflicting. So then, how to decide on what to pick up on and what to leave behind?

    I've encountered this in local and online writers workshops. At some point, the author has to decide if said feedback jibes with his/her vision of the story or not. Meanwhile, politely thank everyone for their input. When you return to your desk to edit the story, keep the helpful advice and ignore the rest.

    I'll give you an example, I wrote a short story that involved time travel. Several well known political figures (from 70's, 90's and present) were mentioned to give the reader a clue as to what happened. One reader didn't know who the politicians were so he felt the story was confusing. Should I have altered the story to accommodate this ignorant reader? No. It would've meant saddling the story with excessive exposition baggage and dragged the flow to a halt.

    A writer shouldn't expect to reach everyone with his/her story. Some people just won't get it. However, if 4 out of 5 people tell you something's amiss in a certain section, then it behooves you to go back and revisit that section.

  3. DED: Yeah, the whole thing about a certain % of readers not getting it regardless of how the writer handles the story strikes hard to the mark. The writer has to seriously ask, what am I trying to convey? and who is my target audience? Do I feel comfortable making changes along particular lines given reader feedback, and 'for the greater good'? Negative feedback is always hard to take particularly on the topic of writing style, esp if the writing is more experimental or off-the-wall. Of course, comments are very welcome when there are glaring errors or plot holes that need to be addressed. Thanks for the reflections--you have a really cool blog, by the way...

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