THE PROCESS OF EDITING:
FOUR VERSIONS OF A PARAGRAPH
When Susan Gourley invited me to contribute to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, I started thinking about the idea of security, and wondering whether it is a good quality for a writer to develop. Security can sometimes have you writing what you’ve already written. Security doesn’t want to try a different genre or write something that people won’t agree with, while remaining insecure is what helps a writer invent, elaborate, and produce.
But that’s no way to live. Instead, even if we can’t achieve security in our content or our current level of success, I think we can find security in a process. To that end, I will present here four versions of a paragraph from my most recent book: Finish Your Book in Three Drafts. I’ll focus on how the concept of my paragraph changed, provided I was open to new inspiration and help from others. From the title of my book, you might think there would be only three versions of this paragraph—all will be explained.
Here is the first draft. At the time it was placed just under the subhead, “A Word on Wordsmithing”:
You probably haven’t been able to help yourself from fiddling with perfectly good sentences to make them even better by this point — even though you were supposed to be focusing on the one thing your book is about… A lot of time when I work with clients, they ask me: When are we going to talk about the actual writing, you know? By that, they mean the word choice, maybe improving the vocabulary, or the syntax (i.e., the flow.) Part of me hopes the answer is: never. The idea that everything we’ve been doing thus far isn’t writing, and that we are going to get to the writing, strikes me as a set-up for pretension.
I typed (like, actually) the first draft of my most recent book for two reasons: because I had just inherited my Great Uncle’s 1963 Hermes 3000 Typewriter in mint condition, and to force myself to have to retype the second draft into the computer. Not every time-saving device encourages creativity.
When you’re retyping, push comes to shove a lot quicker. Some useless phrases like “by this point” were dropped (consult your Strunk & White for other likely candidates), but more than that, retyping caused the ideas to evolve. When I wrote my second draft, I didn’t want to write this twice: “By that, they mean the word choice, maybe improving the vocabulary, or the syntax (i.e., the flow.)” The second time, I wanted to write: “By that, they mean maybe improving the vocabulary, or importing some metaphors, or redesigning the syntax.” One of my second draft mantras is: “Make it better.” That’s all we’re doing in the second draft; no need for insecurity. We’re just making it better.
Another second draft mantra is, “Believe it, or Change it.” Keeping that in mind, I changed the end:
You probably haven’t been able to help yourself from fiddling with perfectly good sentences to make them even better – even though you were supposed to be focusing on the ‘one thing your book is about’… Sometimes when I work with clients, they ask me: When are we going to talk about the actual writing, you know? By that, they mean maybe improving the vocabulary, or importing some metaphors, or redesigning the syntax. Part of me hopes the answer is: never. The idea that everything we’ve been doing thus far isn’t writing, and that we’re going to get to the writing, strikes me as a set-up for pretension, or at the very least an overly complicated surface.
Ending on the word “pretension” seemed harsh, and I jotted this note to myself in the margin of the original typescript: compassion. Meaning, try to find some empathy here, don’t be so heartless. Some of us have to try, you see.
Your second draft is the one that I recommend you send out to beta readers, those early readers who see your work before it is ready for the literary marketplace. Talk about insecurity! Nonetheless, such feedback is immensely valuable. I followed my own advice, and was happy that I did because so much new inspiration flowed my way. For example, one of my beta readers, Windy Lynn Harris, recommended that I give each draft a name. The first draft then became “the messy draft,” the second draft became “the method draft,” and the third draft became “the polished draft.”
Those kinds of ideas don’t come along very often, and the ripples extended far. Windy’s suggestion enabled me to situate the paragraph we have been reviewing within the context of the book I was writing, which should happen to every paragraph, ideally. To accommodate this, it actually grew to two paragraphs:
In the method draft you probably weren’t able to help yourself from fiddling with perfectly good sentences to make them even better – even though you were supposed to be focusing on the ‘one thing your book is about’… In the polished draft, the individual words likely became even more important. Using the right word, the one that you can pull off, is important. I just learned the word compassion like last week, what it means.
But a word on wordsmithing: Sometimes when I work with clients, they ask me: When are we going to talk about the actual writing, you know? By that, they mean improving the vocabulary, or importing some metaphors, or redesigning the syntax. Part of me hopes the answer is: never. The idea that everything we’ve been doing thus far isn’t writing, and that we’re going to get to the writing, strikes me as a set-up for pretension, or at the very least an overly complicated surface.
Another reason it grew to two paragraphs, besides increasing the context, was the fact that I was still chasing the concept. Now the word “compassion,” from the margins of the typescript, made it into the actual text and augmented the idea. This feeling that you are still moving toward what you want to say is a crucial condition for finishing strong — and why the subtitle of my new book is: “How to write a book, revise a book, and complete a book while you still love it.”
Then these paragraphs (and the rest of the book in which they were contained) went to copy editing. Deep breath, everybody. I work with three copy editors, and I respect each of them wholeheartedly. That said, copy editors bring out the insecurity in even the most confident writers because having your work copy edited is often its own tug of war: between correctness and voice, between convention and style.
For Finish Your Book in Three Drafts I worked with Louann Pope (you can ask her here how much of an irritant I was to work with). Between the two of us we came up with this as the final version:
In the messy draft, you likely experimented with a few different tones of voice until you figured out who your audience members were, and what tone of voice would reach them. In the method draft, you probably weren’t able to help yourself from fiddling with perfectly good sentences to make them even better—even though you were supposed to be focusing on the “one thing your book is about.” In the polished draft, you considered the individual words even more carefully. Using the right word, the one that you can pull off, is important. I just learned the word compassion like last week, for example, what it means.
But a word on wordsmithing: Sometimes when I work with clients, they ask me: “When are we going to talk about the actual writing, you know?” By that, they mean improving the vocabulary, or importing some metaphors, or redesigning the syntax. Part of me hopes the answer is: never. The idea that everything we’ve been doing thus far isn’t writing, and that we’re going to get to the writing, strikes me as a setup for pretension, or at the very least an overly complicated surface.
By now, the passage above had become the first paragraph of the Conclusion, and you can’t start the Conclusion of a book about three drafts with comments about the second and third draft only. Each draft allows you to take a further step back and that perspective allows you to see what needs to be done. Some of the sentences became more active, clarifying phrases were inserted and unnecessary ellipses were taken out.
And some lines, I wouldn’t let Louann touch. I know this reads as a fragment: “Part of me hopes the answer is: never.” I also know I left that sentence the same exact way every draft. That’s the music of going inside my mind. I don’t want to change it to: “Part of me hopes that the answer is never.” I was just counseling a writer about how your writing is always your writing. And you may feel insecure about it, but if you feel better about one version than you do of any other expression of the same idea, then you are done. “The end.”
Stuart Horwitz is the found of Book Architecture, a firm of independent editors based in Providence, RI. Finish Your Book in Three Drafts is the third and final book in the Book Architecture trilogy. His first book, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method was named one of the best books about writing by The Writer magazine. His second book, Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula was released as part of a five-year, 100-venue book tour of North America which will run through 2017.
Thanks so much to Stuart for being here today. Check out his website and see if he's appearing on his tour near you. He's a gifted speaker who will convince you to work even harder on your dreams. Did he inspire you today, IWSGers? Did you see how the editing process improved the writing sample?
Interesting how it evolved over the process. It was both simpler and fluffier in the first round.
My test readers see an early draft while my critique partners see a later one. (My test readers aren't writers, just readers of my genre, and if they think the story sucks, no need to polish the prose on something that isn't working.)
I'd stuck with that fragment as well.
Thanks for joining us today, Stuart!
Thanks so much, Alex! I totally agree on not needing to polish -- let alone copy edit -- a paragraph that isn't going to even be in the final version. Good stuff!
If something works, stick with it indeed as when it speaks it has to be left. Always neat to see how things change from beginning to end.
I hand write all of my work first. Typing it inhibits my creativity. The bonus is that entering it into the computer becomes my first round of edits.
L. Diane, that makes perfect sense -- I see you have already discovered this very useful trick!
Yes, Pat -- it is true. And then you need to find the wherewithal to keep that good part in.
Great infor. Thanks for sharing the process. I'll have to check out the book.
Juneta @ Writer's Gambit
You touched on one of my real insecurities. Sometimes I have a sentence that I really like but a beta reader or editor wants to improve it. But it's one I want to keep because it is my voice or expresses the emotion I want. I have to learn to fight to keep it in. Dividing a longer paragraph into two smaller ones is also something I tried to do in a second draft because I've been told readers like more white page.
And those ellipses........
Thanks for being here and sharing.
Oh, my pleasure! It is such a tricky line to walk because we have invited these other people's help and they are likely trained, well-meaning and smart. And we think it is ego to simply "stick to our guns." But it is also a fact that we know our book better than anyone else. So when we encounter those lines or passages or subplots or chapters that hold a key -- then we should abandon them for no one. :)
Fantastic post! I'm lucky to have great critique partners that help catch those weak sentences. It's so neat to see the various drafts of other writers' works.
Thank you, Christine! It sounds like your critique partners bring the right blend of authenticity and personal responsibility to help you make the best use of their efforts.
Thanks for this! Love calling my 0th draft, my 'rough draft', because all it is is words on paper and a plot. I barely knew my characters when I wrote it.
I'm on my 4th draft, but that's because I confused editing and revisions. 2 drafts were clearly just edits. I shied away from the revisions I really needed to make.
Facing them really helps the novel.
I agree. Leave it alone. Sometimes a fragmented sentence is exactly what the story needs. I recently started reading a novel that had technically correct writing and structure and everything else it was supposed to have, but it lacked heart and soul. I stopped reading at Chapter 4. As I've said before, you can edit the life right out of your story and life is too short to waste time on an uninteresting book. Great post! I'll be checking out Stuart's book for additional helpful information. On my way over to check out Stuart's website...
Thanks, Valerie! And good for you for putting down an uninteresting book. Or walking out of an uninteresting movie for that matter. :)
For some years now I've been attempting to narrow my drafts down from 22 to 8. I doubt I'll ever be able to narrow it down to 4. Thanks for this wonderful post, Stuart. You nailed it. We owe it to ourselves to keep trying until another draft would just wreck what we have. Thank you for sharing this.
Terrific advice, Stuart! And very timely. I'm working on first draft pages this week, but I've been getting all second-drafty on them, which has been slowing me down. This is exactly what I needed to read today!
Back on track now. Thanks for that :) And thanks for the shout-out!
Sometimes one can edit something to death. What a simple way to approach drafts. Excellent in fact.
Have a fabulous day. ☺
Drafting, editing and revising...the lines blur and these three overlap. To be honest, I get confused at times. *sigh*
Thanks for sharing your editing process...wonderful post!
It's knowing what to change and what to keep that often stumps me. I often just do nothing for days after a reader comments, then somehow the right thing seems to come. If I had my way I'd still be editing all of my books. Publication hasn't stopped that itch for any of them. Thanks for the very interesting post.
Fantastic post! I love everything about this evolutionary process, though I do get possessive ("No, that's what I meant to say"),only to find the editor was right all along. I enjoyed this so much I'm saving it to read again and again.
Handy tips! I would love to finish my book in three drafts.
It's always about trial and error I think. If it's good then stick with it or improve it and if it doesn't just leave it. Or find ways to make it better.
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