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Editing – a verbal amputation

In this rather hectic world of ours, now and then one will hear parents talking about quality time with their kids.
“Yes, I only see them for like one hour before they have to go to bed, but it’s quality time, you know?”
Hmm. As an experienced mother, I’m sorry to tell you it doesn’t work that way. Quantity is, at least with kids, a prerequisite to quality. Actually, that goes for a lot of things – it’s back to the basic fact that practice makes perfect. If you bake 100 apple pies, chances are pie number 100 will be of a much better quality than pie number one – unless you have a very, very bad recipe. Or take knitting; that first sweater looks anything but perfect when you look at it with the eyes of an experienced knitter with 26 sweaters under your belt. It also goes for writing. The more you write, the more you trash, the better you get.

I am presently close to completing my present WIP. The first editing session is therefore looming. I rather like doing the first rewrite – that first completed version is like a skeleton that needs a lot of finessing, some padding here, some paring there. While I have no problem with rewriting, I do hate it when I sit down to read my first draft only to conclude that not only do I need to rewrite, I need to slash – brutally.

It’s a painful exercise, to cut down your text. (Which is why I am so glad I’m not into writing poetry. I admire all those who do, as this is an art that requires a surgical attention to nuances and constructions – and a horribly sharp paring knife to go with it.) It’s even worse if you’ve fallen in love with the cadence in the particular piece of prose that’s up for slashing – every single syllable you delete is like tearing off a finger nail. And yet there is no was around it, a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do …

Nowadays I try to do this as quickly as possible. I take a big breath, mark out the paragraph(s) that have to go and hit the delete button. I stand up, take a little turn  and say something invigorating like “Right!” before sitting back down again. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! It’s gone! That beautiful sentence that began with “Everything sizzled…” is forever erased. (Ha! Of course not, it’s saved in an earlier draft version, but when you have like 78 draft versions it’s going to be hard work remembering in what precise draft I had that particular wording.) Unless you’re into masochism, this is probably where you should turn your editing efforts to another scene in your fantastic Work In Progress, this to allow the pain of the recent amputation to recede somewhat.

I guess I’m not the only writer to reflect on the fact that the actual writing takes much less time that the editing, rewriting, rethinking, re-everything. And I’m certain is not only me that spends far too much time pondering whether or not to add a comma. Most readers will never notice – or care. Hopefully, most readers will be so engrossed in your STORY they won’t really care if you’ve left in an excessive adverb. (Phew. I can hear a collective, relieved sigh from all the writers who’re reading this.) And not one single one of these our future readers will heft the book in their hand and think “I wonder how many words he/she cut out during editing?” – well, unless they’re writers too.

The other day, I amused myself by trying to calculate just how much I slash – this counting rewrites as well as passages that are deleted. After a review of my various draft versions, I’ve concluded that for my first novel, I wrote somewhere around 300 000 – 350 000 words. The final version was less than 120 ooo words. This means that at a minimum 60% of what I wrote never ended up in the final, published version. That’s a LOT of words that are essentially waste.

Renoir: Woman at the garden

Had I been aiming for a streamlined writing process, it is evident I have my work cut out for me. I mean, how many hours do I spend writing stuff that I then exise??? Nope, I am nowhere close to an ISO certification, peeps. But you know what? I’m not striving for efficiency. For me, writing is a comfort zone, a bubble in which I can allow my creativity to flower however wildly it wants. Yes, prior to publishing I do some serious pruning, but for a while, my WIPs resemble giant, overgrown gardens, with huge rosebushes dripping petals all over the place, while slender lilies strive upwards and a veritable jungle of fragrant herbs scent the air. And in the midst of all that, my protagonists can spread their blanket and unpack their picnic while I concenrate on the hard slog of spinning their story. Except, of course, that my protagonists refuse to lie back and relax. They meddle – a lot – which adds to all that wild greenery.

My editing sometimes become the equivalent of a session with a machete. The wilderness has to be tamed, and it takes hours and hours to bring it all into shape. I polish. I re-polish. I do some more polishing, and yet I already know that when I read this my creation in its final, published, form I will immediately zoom in on the (only?) semi colon that should have been a comma.

On a somewat more positive note, it is apparent that in my later novels the quantity/quality equation has changed somewhat. It’s no longer 60% that is deleted, but perhaps somewhere around 30-40%. Major progress for which my sore fingertips are eternally grateful. This just goes to prove my point; with quantity comes quality, and with even more quantity comes more quality making the editing a walk in the park.  I hear experienced authors snort. Editing is never a walk in the park, no matter how qualitative your texts. True, but at least it will be less painful with time.
“You think?” I hear someone jeer.
No, of course I don’t. Amputation always hurts, no matter if you’re chopping off a whole leg or a foot. Even worse, at times the determined editor swings the machete and chops off the wrong foot! Now that really, really hurts!


2 thoughts on “Editing – a verbal amputation”

  1. Lol, I don’t mind the amputation bit, but it’s the reading and realising my ‘crappy first draft’ is WAY crappier than I gave it credit for. Then I start to doubt my choice of being a writer. And that always sucks. Anyway, thanks for this post!

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