1. Good Writing is Rewriting
Rewriting ripens what you’ve written.
— Duane Alan Hahn
I love the idea that rewriting “ripens” what you’ve written. Even though, in a burst of creative fire, the words that pour through you onto the page feel like the greatest work of fiction or nonfiction that has ever been written, that juicy, joyous, feeling of utter brilliance is merely the afterglow of inspiration—not proof that your words will never need to feel the touch of an editor’s pen. Your first draft isn’t the masterpiece it may feel like, it’s the block of marble from which your best-selling work of art will be carved—word by word.
Books aren’t written — they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.
— Michael Crichton
To be a well-written book, you have to also be a well-rewritten book, which is a multi-layered process. You review, re-envision, and rewrite. You also clean up your typos and correct your grammar. Your revising and editing efforts enhance clarity, and make sure your ideas are communicated as clearly as possible. And, as you go through your book time and time again, with each pass through you strengthen your words’ ability to engage and empower your readers.
Revision is one of the true pleasures of writing. I love the flowers of afterthought.
— Bernard Malamud
While it’s true that a great deal of editing is the skillful use of scissors and the removal of all that obscures clear communication, it’s also true that during the editing process you’ll make connections that needed time and space to arise, which will add details that will give more depth, color, and power to your prose, whether fiction or nonfiction.
2. Make Peace with Editing
Easy reading is damn hard writing.
— Nathaniel Hawthorne
I certainly understand being resistant to editing, it’s hard work. But it makes our writing better. It makes our writing sparkle and shine—and that sells books. The more eloquent and impactful your writing—the better your book is, the more it will benefit your readers (whether by entertaining or teaching them), and the more it will benefit you. People write reviews of and talk about the books they love and then go out and buy more books by that author. They also want to take classes from and work with nonfiction authors who’ve solved their problems or changed their lives. So, it’s time to make peace with editing.
There is no idea so brilliant or original that a sufficiently-untalented writer can't screw it up.
— Raymond Feist
In order for a great idea to soar, it has to be held aloft by great writing. Creativity without craft is disappointing for the reader and disastrous for the writer.
The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.
— William Faulkner
Inspiration is as much a feeling as an idea. No matter how good your idea may be, once committed to paper, it rarely lives up to that Godlike feeling you had when you were creating something out of nothing.
You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside of you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.
— Arthur Polotnik
Editing is the soul of clear communication. It takes our initial creative output—which, in places, is only clear to the writer whose mind gave birth to it—and through a careful application of the rules of grammar and the craft of writing makes sure that what the author is trying to say can be seen as clearly as possible by readers, as well.
3. Write from the Heart, Edit from the Head
Write your first draft with your heart. Rewrite with your head.
— James Ellison
This advice is from the book (and movie), Finding Forrester. It’s an attempt to differentiate between the “heat of creation” and the “clear chill of analysis,” which is why people have often replaced “rewrite” with “edit.” Either way, it misses the mark. While it’s true that rewriting is often logical and precise, it can also be a work of great heart—inspired, intuitive, creative, and fun. It’s important to stay open to the creative process while editing, because if you don’t you can miss many opportunities to add nuance and color, or even something magical, by being too analytical.
Write drunk; edit sober.
— Ernest Hemingway
This is a variation of write with your heart and rewrite (or edit) with your head, but I like it a lot better (and not because alcohol is involved). Sometimes creativity can feel like being drunk—you’ve let loose and are having fun, your inhibitions are safely tucked away out of sight, and you’re writing down every crazy thing that comes into your head. And yes, publishing a truly great book requires that editing be addressed soberly, but an extra splash of creativity while editing adds a layer of sparkle and shine to your writing. It’s important to respect the editing process, but drawing a firm red line between creativity and analysis—between the left and right hemispheres of the brain— and saying that you’re only supposed to inhabit one of those at a time hurts your writing more than helps it. A whole-brained, whole-person, whole-hearted approach to both writing and editing will result in the best book possible.
Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.
It’s often said that if you can speak, you can write. And that’s true to a point. But if you want to write a publishable book that has at least a reasonable chance for success if you market it well, you can’t just put words on paper. You have to learn the craft of writing and be merciless toward what you’ve written in pursuit of clear communication and quality content.
4. Never Edit While Writing Your First Draft
I don’t fiddle or edit or change while I am going through that first draft.
— Nora Roberts
This is pretty standard writing advice: write first, edit later. So, not only should writing and editing be done differently, they should be done separately. Wow, that’s a whole lot of “shoulds.” The danger of editing while you write is that it can seriously slow down your creative process, or even bring your writing to a complete halt. So, it’s not that you can’t do it or shouldn’t do it, but that you need to stay conscious of your writing process, and progress, if you choose to do it.
Here are some questions that can help you ascertain if editing too soon is interfering with your writing:
- Whether you’re writing a novel or a nonfiction book, is editing while you’re working on your first draft interfering with your ability to fully capture your ideas? Do you get stuck on perfecting a word, sentence, or paragraph and then forget where you were going?
- Do you ever get frustrated with, or feel disconnected from, your writing project because you’re trying to perfect your prose before you’ve completed the section, scene, or chapter you’re working on?
- Has editing while writing your first draft ever caused you to lose your energy or focus to the point of abandoning that writing project?
I’ve been writing for decades and constantly edit while I’m working on my first draft. What I’ve noticed is that it slows me down—sometimes quite a lot—but it’s such a habit now that it no longer stops me. I used to get stuck in beginning paragraphs and have trouble moving on, but now, if I see that happening, I stop editing, get what I wanted to say down, then come back later. I often start a writing session by editing what I’d written the day before, and that actually gets me excited about moving forward and energizes my writing. So, find out what works for you, and if you do choose to edit through your first draft, stay aware of how it’s affecting your writing.
I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged...I had poems which were re-written so many times I suspect it was just a way of avoiding sending them out.
— Erica Jong
In addition to editing too soon, there’s also the possibility of editing too much. In either case, writing projects eventually get abandoned, allowing the writer to avoid having their writing judged or rejected (or possibly accepted, as well). I spent many years stuck there, myself, and it wasn’t the safe haven I’d hoped for. I ended up judging and rejecting myself, so I really didn’t escape the pain I was afraid of. The biggest lesson I learned: No rejection is as painful as sabotaging my own dreams and abandoning my potential.
5. Terrible First Drafts are the First Step Toward Terrific Books.
It is better to write a bad first draft than to write no first draft at all.
— Will Shetterly
Perfectionists… Beware!!! It is better to have written and been rejected than never to have written at all. The only way to become a better writer is by writing… and writing… and writing. Through continuing to write and edit over the years—no matter the missteps or disappointments—you learn, you grow, and you become a better writer.
I enjoy rewriting much more than I enjoy first drafts. First drafts are really hard. Rewriting you’ve at least got something to work with.
— Robin Hobb
Staring at a blank page is hard, because there are 1,000 things you could say, and the more choices you have the harder it is to choose what to say and how to say it. But when you’re looking at a page full of writing, the most difficult choices have already been made. Now, it’s time to polish up what’s been written—to tighten, clarify, go deeper. Even if something isn’t working and needs to be replaced, it’s easier to do that now because it’s in context, because you’ve got the flavor of what should go there even if you haven’t got the right words, yet.
It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.
— C. J. Cherryh
Now, don’t panic. Like everything else, learning to edit well takes time. Nobody’s born a brilliant editor. So, if you’re not quite there yet, you’re not doomed. I think all that C.J Cherryh was trying to say is don’t get discouraged if your first draft sucks. Because—as I’ve said before—and will say again— your first draft is simply the raw material you’re going to sculpt a brilliant book from.
6. Feedback Gives a Perspective You Can’t Get on Your Own
Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.
— Franklin Jones
Criticism hurts no matter who it comes from. It’s hard not to take criticism about our writing personally, because there’s nothing more personal than who we are, what we think and imagine, and how we see the world—and that’s what’s on the page being critiqued. But to be a great writer, you have to learn to have some distance and objectivity about your own writing. You also have to understand that someone’s criticism of your writing is as much, if not more, about them than it is about you—what kind of a day they’re having, the mood they’re in, their preconceived notions about the genre you’re writing in or the subject you’re writing about.
Listen, then make up your own mind.
— Gay Talese
If you’ve ever been in a critique group, then you know… the same words you’ve written can be praised by one person and torn apart by another. One person might say, “It’s awful, dump it.” Another might say, “It’s got potential, fix it” And a third person might say, “Don’t you dare touch a word. It’s perfect!” The main thing I’ve learned from being in critique groups is to listen to, respect, and seriously consider what others have to say, then trust my gut and do what feels right to me.
No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published.
— Russell Lynes
Now that self-publishing is thriving, you have more publishing options. You can self-publish and retain complete autonomy or you can find a publisher and get a book deal. When you’re working with your publisher’s inhouse editors, you’re not as free to have an “I can take it or leave it” attitude toward their editing suggestions as you are when you’re in a critique group. Your publisher is taking a financial risk by investing in your book and has earned the right to have an opinion about what goes in it. They also have a great deal of expertise, which can significantly benefit your book. When it comes to your editor’s (or publisher’s) suggestions, it’s important to pick your battles wisely. You can still stand up for the content you believe in—whether the suggestion is about your writing or about other creative elements of your book—but you’ve also got to be willing to compromise or even concede for the sake of the book and your publishing contract.
I cannot think of anybody who doesn’t need an editor, even though some people claim they don’t.
— Toni Morrison
No matter how good a writer you are, it’s hard to be completely objective about your own writing. You know what you’re writing about so well that you’re not always aware of what may be missing or needed to help others see what you see.
7. Overwriting Will Sink Your Book
Inside every fat book is a thin book trying to get out.
Being someone who wants to say everything there is to say about the subject I’m writing about, I can truly appreciate the need for thinning out a book. Saying only what’s absolutely necessary to get your point across or tell your story—and no more—is truly an art, and one every writer must master if you don’t want to overwhelm your readers or put them to sleep. This doesn’t preclude artistry and nuance, it simply establishes boundaries within which you can play.
Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.
— Mark Twain
A quire is 25 sheets of paper. So, Mark Twain’s point here is to “be concise.” That he said this in 28 words instead of two is both a paradox and the main challenge every writer faces. When do you simply say, “be concise,” and when is it appropriate to use additional words and ideas to add nuance and depth to your writing? You have to be willing to ask yourself (and to answer honestly), “Will expanding on my basic premise promote a deeper understanding and improve memorability or simply bore my readers?” It can take years of writing, publishing, and receiving feedback to be a good judge of this regarding your own writing.
Removing the excess does take a special kind of discipline: the craftsman’s discipline, which is to recognize that the work is more important than the workman.
— Kenneth Atchity
A book is more important than its author’s ego. There will be times when you have to surrender your desires to the needs of your book and audience. Sometimes that will look like giving up a beloved phrase or idea for the sake of clarity and conciseness. Sometimes that will mean adhering to genre expectations when you feel like breaking all the rules. Sometimes that will mean making changes based upon editors’ or readers’ feedback, even when you like your version better. The book may be your baby, but you’re crafting it to be a thing of beauty for others to enjoy and grow from or as a tool that others can use to transform their lives.
Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales.
— Stephen Hawking
It’s hard not to share the minute details of what you’re passionate about, because to you those details are juicy, exciting, and make your subject come alive. But not everyone is as fascinated by those details as you are. In Stephen Hawking’s case, unless you’re a mathematician, you’re probably more interested in what effect an equation will have on your life or on the world around you than in the equation itself. It’s important to have a realistic gauge of how much information is needed to get your main points across and how much is too much. You don’t want to run the risk of either overwhelming or boring your readers because you don’t want to lose them.
8. Sometimes You Have to Kill Your Little Darlings
No matter how wonderful a sentence is, if it doesn’t add new, useful information it should be removed.
— Kurt Vonnegut
It’s a painful truth of the writing process that no matter how much you may love a point you’ve made, or a scene you’ve written, or a turn of phrase or line of dialogue—what’s best for the book matters more. During the editing process, you will undoubtedly discover several pieces of writing that you dearly love that must be sacrificed for the good of the book. A quick and surgical removal is best. Say goodbye, hit delete, and move on. Appreciate the wonders that remain and know that more brilliant writing is in your future.
What I had to face, the very bitter lesson that everyone who wants to write has got to learn, was that a thing may in itself be the finest piece of writing one has ever done, and yet have absolutely no place in the manuscript one hopes to publish.
— Thomas Wolfe
In this digital age, scrapped scenes from novels and chopped chapters from nonfiction books make great giveaways and can become powerful promotional tools to help market the book they were cut from. Just make sure, if you’re going to share any deleted passages, that they’re well-written and worth reading. You can publish them on your blog, share them with people on your mailing list, or create a fun giveaway around them.
9. Follow the Rules of Grammar
I hate commas in the wrong places.
— Walt Whitman
Grammar serves a useful purpose—it supports clear communication. If you put a comma in the wrong place it can change the whole meaning of your sentence. That’s why it’s important to know the rules of grammar before you attempt to break them. One little change—such as where a comma is placed—can radically alter the meaning and impact of your writing. It can be the difference between clarity and confusion, between magical prose and a muddled mess.
Instead of following the rules without regard for whether they’re making our writing effective or not, we often need to question the rules. To write with style, we need at times to break the rules.
— Donna Gorrell
Breaking the rules of grammar, if done with understanding and precision, can add style and interest without sacrificing clarity. Grammar is meant to serve your writing, not restrain it. Besides, language and grammar aren’t etched in stone, they’re constantly changing and evolving. So, who knows, rather than breaking the rules, you may be creating new ones.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.
— Elmore Leonard
“If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” That’s good advice. Sometimes we get too caught up in trying to write like a “writer” (or like what we imagine “good writing” to be). When we choose words we think will impress the world with our intelligence and wit, more often than not our writing sounds pretentious and false. And too rigidly enforcing the rules of grammar can at times produce stilted prose that sputters rather than flows. Relax, be yourself, and write like you’re talking to a friend.
10. Every Word Matters
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
— Stephen King
When you catch an adjective, kill it.
— Mark Twain
Adverbs and adjectives modify verbs and nouns, respectively. Hmm… did I emphatically write that last sentence or just write it? And are you really on the edge of your seat wondering which, or am I simply imagining you there? There are times when modifiers add color and nuance, or express character, feeling, or action. And there are times when they’re added simply because a writer thinks it’s her job to give the fullest description possible, rather than to move the plot forward or convey the basic point being made not only precisely, but concisely, as well.
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—‘tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.
— Mark Twain
The right word speaks volumes. Rather than describing how someone “talked” by pulling an adverb out of your writer’s toolkit, and saying that he talked blandly, or excitedly, or angrily, you can choose a from a variety of descriptive words that convey the emotional, as well as decibel, range of speech. He: whispered, muttered, spoke, yelled, snarled, screamed, bellowed. The more detailed a picture each word can paint, the more succinct and powerful your prose
11. Repeated Rounds of Editing Make Your Writing Soar
Rereading reveals rubbish and redundance.
— Duane Alan Hahn
I read a piece of writing over and over and over, again. I love it because every time I read through it, even when I would have sworn the piece was perfect, something new pops out at me that I can polish, making it just a little bit better. And when you add all of those little (and sometimes big) improvements together, they make my writing sparkle and shine—or at least they make it much better than when I started.
I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I'm one of the world's great rewriters. I find that three or four readings are required to comb out the clichés, line up pronouns with their antecedents, and insure agreement in number between subject and verbsYou write that first draft really to see how it's going to come out.
— James A. Michener
When editing your book, it’s helpful to both zoom out and zoom in. You zoom out to look at the big picture—to see your book as a whole. In a novel, you’d look at your overall plot progression, your character arcs, and whether genre expectations are being met, etc. For nonfiction, you’d make sure the content is presented in a logical order, the chapters fit together well, and all the elements needed to help the reader achieve the desired transformation are included. Then you’d zoom in to review details. You’d catch any assumptions you’ve made, any clichés that slipped by, and you’d make sure that any grammar, formatting, and consistency issues were cleaned up.
What is easy to read has been difficult to write. The labour of writing and rewriting, correcting and recorrecting, is the due exacted by every good book from its author, even if he knows from the beginning exactly what he wants to say.
— G. M. Trevelyan
Your final draft will be much closer to what you wanted to say from the start, than your first draft. That’s just the nature of the writing process. You can do separate read throughs for zooming out and looking at the big picture and zooming in to look at details. I find when you’re editing a book that it helps to create a spreadsheet with all of the things you’re looking for, so that as you go through the book, chapter by chapter, you can check off each writing issue that you looked for.