impossible to build a house without a plan, and most architects need
more than one pass to get the results they and their clients envision.
The same is true for writers. Nobody can accomplish everything—story
arc, proper word use, accurate spelling and punctuation—in one try.
When a writer says she wrote her
story in one sitting, what she usually means is that she did little or
no revising, rewriting, or restructuring. Okay, that’s a blessing if
the result is good, but it’s rare. Even in these situations, it’s wise
to at least run a spell-check. For writers whose work doesn’t come this
easily, one way to consider the editing process is the way an architect
plans a building: with a series of drafts.
Sketch or rough draft: This
stage is called the rough draft for a reason. For a master builder
constructing a home on a Tuscan hillside, the goal isn’t to draw each
detail of the rooms he’ll design, or to inventory every nail. It’s to
capture the concept emerging from his imagination while the creative
fires burn hottest. For the writer, the focus is to capture the overall
story and the basic shapes of the characters, and to do it as quickly
and single-mindedly as possible. At this point, you’re developing the
people in your story and the landscape they will inhabit, using broad
brushstrokes here, details there.
Editing at this stage is mostly
developmental, largely done in the back of your mind. While you work to
get everything down quickly, you’re making lots of mental notes, like
whether the characters are believable, the dialogue is realistic, and
the plot rings true. Jotting down essential concerns is fine, but get
them down quickly and don’t dwell. This way you avoid distractions,
especially because many issues won’t resolve until further in or at the
end of the story.
Where you’re stuck for words
along the way, explain to yourself what should happen. Then when the
rough draft is done, whether for a novel or short piece, give yourself
time and distance—emotional and physical. Write something else. Read
other things. Move away from the work for a while.
Floor plan: Once you’ve gotten
the story down, read what you’ve written, preferably all in one sitting
and not in the same place you wrote it. Taking drafts to public
locations like libraries and diners casts the work in brighter light,
making it easier to see problems you might otherwise miss. As you read
through the manuscript—paper still works well here—note what you’d like
it’s time to whittle
dialogue to its essence, polish scenes so they shine, tease out plot
problems using what-if questions and answers, and peel back the layers
of your characters. It’s at this stage that revision and reconstruction
live. Many a house, even one that’s new, needs work before it’s
livable. When your manuscript reaches this point—where there’s a
certain comfort level—give yourself time and distance before moving to
the next stage.
design: At this stage, a planner considers what the house will feel
like to live in and how it will look to the family, friends, and
guests. What kind of lighting works best? What fixtures and flooring?
What about window treatments?
This is the time to retain what
works in your prose and to remove everything else. It’s the time to
reword what’s good to make it better, and to exchange imprecise wording
for clarity to make the work your best. As always, to know what to cut
is to ask yourself whether the scene, dialogue, character, or chapter
advances the plot. Give yourself an honest answer, and make sure to
resolve any questions that arose in earlier drafts. As with a house,
especially one that’s yours, the overall impression should be
With all the writing and editing
tools available, it’s easy to fix font, spelling, punctuation, and
formatting at any stage. It’s imperative to do so at the end, after
everything is done. You may even consider working with a professional
editor before trying to sell the manuscript. As a primer, editors come
in various flavors, but there are three basic types: development, line,
and proofreader. (We followed the same progression in the drafts.)
Writers should consider hiring a copyeditor because mistakes, simple or
complex, are easy to miss.
So, if you’re thinking along
these lines, development editors scrutinize writing for big ticket
items: character, plot, theme, transitions. Line editors look mostly
for whether the writing flows, scenes make sense, and the story works.
Proofreaders get out the magnifying glass and check for mechanical
errors and grammar, and they query inconsistencies.
It’s impossible to build a home
without a plan, and it takes more than one pass and one set of eyes to
achieve the desired result. For lack of counselors, and attention to
detail, plans fail, but with a multitude of wisdom plans succeed.