Words of Wisdom: Self-editing by SJ Smith

2021672445_114afa0b5c_z (2)When thinking about creativity it has always been my belief that there are two separate components which come together to make up the whole – there is art and there is craft. The art side of it is the vision, the explosion of ideas and the passionate outpouring, while the craft side is the slow, meticulous and often repetitious attention to detail. Creative people may be dominated by one aspect or the other, but they need skill in both areas if they are going to function as someone who produces an output. A sculptor needs not only the concept of what his finished piece of art will look like, but also the craft to know how to carve the piece of stone. A painter needs to understand how to create shades of colouring and how to draw perspective. A composer needs to understand what effect a certain note floated over a certain chord sequence will have. Art and craft are different sides of the same coin, but both are of equal importance.

As far as an author is concerned, the art side of their vocation is the dreaming up of the story, and the craft side is the writing of the book. I have been making up stories and writing them down for many years, but until recently I couldn’t really call myself a writer, and that’s because I was all art and no craft. I could come up with the wildest, most audacious plots, the most fascinating characters and wonderful settings. But could I turn any of that into a book? Nope. I lacked the ability to edit my work, and was therefore lacking in the craft department. It’s a craft I’m still learning as an ongoing process. It doesn’t come naturally to me. My artistic temperament is one that demands excitement, not precision; adventure, not grammar.

I dread to think how many lifeless unfinished novels are sitting in my computer hard drive. It’s always the same; I have a flash of inspiration, go at it like a bull at a gate, get three quarters of the way through and then lose interest. And if – and this used to be a very rare occurrence – I ever actually had the self discipline to go back and revisit a story with the idea of making it better, I’d end up reading two pages of my work and realise with dawning horror that everything I’d written was utter pigswill. Disheartened, I’d give up and go do something else instead, and another unfinished project would join the pile. That’s why I never made it as far as getting a book published.

It took me a long time to learn how to do things properly. I read every piece of advice I could lay my hands on and forced myself to follow it. I committed to actually doing it rather than merely paying lip service. I now realise that a book is like a house; it starts with the foundations and is built from the ground up. You can’t build a house in a day, and neither can you write a book in one sitting. Your story – your wild flash of inspiration – is only the very beginning of the process. You’ve got a first draft and a whole bunch of edits to get through yet. So calm down and make a cup of tea. Let the artist become the craftsperson – like Dr Jekyll becoming Mr Hyde, only in reverse.

What is the best way of editing – of refining your story into a book that other people can follow and enjoy? Hell, I don’t know. I’ve read a million different opinions on the subject, and while many of them overlap, none of them seem to entirely agree. The majority of writers say that you should never read back while you are on your first draft – that you should keep going until the bitter end and get it all down, and not allow yourself to get distracted by a sentence from three pages ago that’s still bugging you. I would argue that it depends entirely upon your mood; if your mindset is bent on perfecting that one sentence, then go for it. Do an instant rewrite. Begin editing, even while you’re first drafting. Do whatever feels right at the time, but make sure you keep chipping away toward the ultimate goal of getting the book finished.

Once your first draft is done, the consensus of opinion is you should forget all about it for a while and work on something different, so that you see it with fresh eyes when you revisit and the editing begins. I agree wholeheartedly with this. A two week break from the story that has consumed your soul for the past few months will allow you to view it as words on a page, rather than your impassioned life’s work. What you have to remember is that a book is a translation of the thoughts in your head into something other people can understand; just because you are familiar with the story and know the characters so intimately, that doesn’t mean the words you have written will convey your sentiment. You have to become someone else when you edit – someone who is new to this journey and isn’t blessed by the foreknowledge of where it is going to take them. Read your work back with a critical eye and continually ask yourself, does any of this make sense?

Never be afraid to use the delete key. Quite often you’ll struggle with a section, and no matter how you word it, it still sounds awful. This is the time to ask yourself does that paragraph really need to be there? If the answer is no, then bin it. Get rid of it and see how the rest flows in its absence. And don’t waste time worrying about your word count; there’s no point clinging on to rubbish simply because it makes the numbers add up. Once you get to grips with editing your work, you’ll find that cutting out crap doesn’t mean you’ll automatically lose ten thousand words from your total, as you’ll ultimately add the same amount back in by fleshing out parts you skated over in your first draft.

Editing an entire seventy-thousand world novel in one hit is an overwhelming proposition, so find a way of breaking it down. I personally write each chapter as a separate document on my computer and don’t put them together until it’s finished. A five thousand word chunk is far easier to deal with, plus you don’t have to do it in strict order. The key is to find a way of working that you feel comfortable with.

So you’ve now been grafting on your novel for six months, you’ve been through it time and time again with a fine toothcomb, and you think it’s ready to submit. Here’s my last tip. Your book looks wonderful on your computer screen in your spare room with all your familiar and comforting possessions around you. What will it look like somewhere else, like on a smart phone at the railway station? The way to find out is to email it to yourself and read it back one more time on a different device in a new environment, so you get the ‘fresh eyes’ again. You’ll be amazed how many mistakes you never saw before are suddenly showing up so clearly.

Writing takes time, and there’s no way around it. If you try and cut corners or speed things along, chances are you’ll end up with drivel that no one will want to read. So if you think the story in your mind is worth committing to paper, then be prepared to put the work in. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all. And don’t ever submit anything to a publisher until you’re absolutely one hundred percent convinced it’s as good as it can be. Take this piece I’m writing right now as an example. It’s finished, right? Nope. I’m gonna turn off the computer and go chop some firewood, and I’ll read through it again later on tonight so I can edit it into better shape.

Okay, it’s now six hours later. I read it back and I hate it. I’m editing live as we speak.

I’ve done some edits. I’ve read it back again, and I don’t hate it quite so much. I’m going to have another look in the morning. Goodnight, all.

It’s now the morning. I confess, I’d had a few ales last night and was convinced that all the really bitching stuff I’d added would be awful. But fair do’s – I only had to delete one paragraph.

Twenty-four hours and three edits have now passed, so I’m going to send this piece off to Lisa and hope that she likes it.

Being a ‘proper’ writer is eighty percent editing. Got that?


You can find SJ Smith at Amazon or Facebook

Photo attributed to Quinn Dombrowski

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