As the new year begins I thought I’d finally write something I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. As an emerging author, without any experience in discussing my work critically with anybody professional, I found the editing process daunting, scary, concerning. So, even though my own experience is still fairly limited, I thought I’d show you all what life looks like behind the editing curtain.
A few things to begin with:
- This book has been through roughly eight substantial edits (not including the small, section by section stuff) so what you’re about to see is only a small smattering of changes.
- This experience of mine is the norm, not the exception. In reading I found, time and time again, how valuable editors are in crafting final drafts. There’s the famous example of Harper Lee handing in Go Set a Watchmen and her editor suggesting she rewrite the story, set in the past, from Scout’s perspective (which went on to become To Kill a Mockingbird). And I recently read this account of editing Michael Chricton (one of my early favourite authors – still love the Lost World). Read that here.
Anyway, onto the edits! I’m going to show you three versions of the same scene, as they’ve progressed over the years. This is not a full and complete look at all the changes, but an overall picture.
The First Draft
This was my very first draft of this book. I started writing first in July 2014, so it’s been worked on for a while. This entire draft was written in the present tense, only because it was what I was most comfortable with. This is fairly rough, and you can see that in the language, but the ideas and some of the phrases are all there.
There’s some good stuff there, but overall it’s still pretty rough. There’s repetition of ideas, and the language itself is a little dead. It’s not as visceral as this scene needs to be.
The Third Draft
The biggest change actually came between draft two and three. After writing the first draft, then editing that, I went and saw an author speak at Avid Reader. This author, Rohan Wilson, really inspired me to write using my own voice. I think I’d been trying to write what others wanted to hear: not what I actually wanted. So I did a page one rewrite. I had the current document opened on the left side of my screen and I completely rewrote it on the right hand side. I changed from present to past tense, and I changed a lot of the language. It became much terser. Notice, too, how different the page number count is. This section has mostly stayed the same but man, there’s been so much story change in this book. Entire chapters cut, entire chapters written and inserted.
I like a lot of what’s here, but again, it’s fairly fresh, and needs tightening up. There’s even some tense problems (They kicked at the newly dead and held none of the fear they once had). I think this draft is much stronger, though, in projecting an image. The first draft was a bit weak-sauce – this one is tough.
The Professional Edits
I’m going to finish by giving you a look at the current state of this passage. There’s no guarantee it will stay this way, but it’s been through so many stages now I think it’s just about done. I’ll talk about this after you’ve read it.
So, a few things here:
- An entire subplot involving a guy named Harry has been added to this section of the book. It actually worked really well to have him be the one shooting the shark – it helped convey his overall menacing image.
- All the parts in red are professional edits: I don’t actually have to accept any of these changes. My job now is to go through them and decide if I like them. In my mind: I’d be a fool not accept such professional and thorough feedback. They know what they’re doing much more than I.
- Notice now how much clearer the tone of this is. The edits have taken away some of my frilly language and inserted, clear, precise language instead. I much prefer this. It can be difficult to see the forest when you’re stuck within the trees. An editor, or any outside eye, really helps with this.
- Notice the red in the second last sentence. The editor has changed the word it to the carcass. This is to make sure the subject of the sentence is clear for readers. Again, something to keep an eye on when I’m writing new books.
- In the third last sentence the phrase, he struggled to saw and wrenched the thing and has simply been removed. This has already been established earlier and doesn’t need to be repeated.
- Some of the details have been removed for the sake of pace – it can be easy to get bogged down into too much detail. A lot of the time a reader will simply skip over description to get to meat of the scene. Elmore Leonard said, “I try not to write the bits people skip over.” – good advice!
Overall the picture of this shows me just how invaluable editors are to the writing process. There are very few musicians in the world who are fully capable of writing and recording albums of quality – most often they need other professionals to write parts, change dynamics, and craft an overall song. If I wrote this song, the numerous editors and early reader feedbacks have been the other musicians, helping me make this song into the best version of itself.