Editing is the most labor-intensive part of the writing process. It takes discipline, stamina, and the ability to divorce yourself from your writing. Rewriting is its more agonizing cousin, and takes all that and the fortitude to keep banging your head against the wall until the dent looks even.
It goes like this: go line by line through the entire thing, marking what you don’t like, then do it again, then rewrite, then edit again, and maybe after five cycles it’s ready to be shown to other people.
Is Rewriting Necessary?
The basic logic of people who don’t think rewriting is necessary is that they think everything they do is gold, and everyone who thinks otherwise just doesn’t get it, never mind the thousands of professionals who live and work by the opposite maxim. There’s a lot to unpack in this mindset, and this isn’t a psychology article, but it is necessary to say why editing and rewriting are a vital part of the writing process.
Nothing you do is going to be perfect the first time you do it, and this is true for everything you have ever done. The simple fact is that people get better with every time they do something over and over — therefore, every version of the same work is bound to get better with each iteration.
Rewriting something ten times will make you a stronger writer than writing ten separate things once. To get it right, you must edit, rewrite, edit, and rewrite again.
And it all starts with the first draft.
How to First Draft
The way to write the first draft is to just get through it. Everything in the first draft is intentionally expendable, so don’t get precious about it. Don’t agonize over the wording, don’t go over what you wrote to punch it up — do it in Hemingway mode. Not only does this amplify speed, it gives you the freedom to change anything you want later on. Put this limitation on yourself: when you’re done writing a paragraph, you’re done with it. You don’t go back to change anything, even if it’s a typo. Move on, you’ll get a chance to get it right later on.
Whether you’re using an outline or not depends on what you’re writing and what kind of writer you are, but this isn’t supposed to be a freewriting exercise. Freewriting is what you do before you put together a concrete outline. The first draft is the first full expression of that outline.
Here, all you have to worry about is finishing it. Zero pressure.
If you did the Hemingway thing while writing the first draft, you won’t have a problem finding stuff you’ll want to change in it. So get to work: print it out (more on the benefits of this later), get a red marker (teacher mode: on), and go through it. Line by line and paragraph by paragraph, cross out what you want chucked, mark up what you want rewritten, and make little notes for yourself in the margins. Then rewrite.
Or, if you’re feeling brave, chuck the entire thing and re-do it from scratch. This is not a huge risk, since the entire structure and intention of the piece already exists in your head, and those are the only two things you can get right in the first draft, anyway. Draft number two might well improve from not being tethered to the original.
Every draft you do from this point to the point of publication is supposed to improve the text in a concrete way. Before starting a new draft, set a specific goal: get a sense of what problems you want to fix, and have an idea of what the outcome is supposed to look like.
Fighting Editing Goggles
Editing goggles is that thing that gets in your way when you’re trying to see the mistakes you’ve made. Fighting them involves removing yourself from your writing in a way that is difficult to achieve for first-timers, but ultimately necessary to do good work. There are a few methods that can help you achieve an objective view:
Take Some Time Off — Take some time to recharge your batteries after finishing a draft. You’re probably sick of the writing by now, and now that you’ve hit a milestone, it’s the perfect time for a breather. Taking this break isn’t always possible (due to starting too late, perhaps?), but it will help you get some distance from the work, and make your editing process more effective.
Edit Hardcopy — Print out the draft, and go through it with a marker and a keen eye. Putting restraint on your ability to change something right away will help circumvent a number of issues. First off, when you’re not doing two things at a time, your productivity improves. Writing and editing are two different modes of work, and constantly switching between them affects efficiency. Second, it guarantees you are distraction-free when marking things to edit — going analog is one of the few ways to do it now. Plus, do you know how cool you will look sitting in a coffeehouse, making notes in the margins of a manuscript? So cool.
Read it Out Loud — Because your readers will. Nearly everyone has a little voice going on in their head when they’re reading. Read your writing out loud, and you’ll know right away what’s clunky, and what shines.
Don’t Rush — Yes, you know what happens next. You wrote it. That doesn’t mean you have to rush ahead to get to it. Speedreading is a great skill, but this is not the place to deploy it. Give every word, sentence, and paragraph the consideration they deserve.
There’s no one true way of editing, just the same there isn’t one true way of writing. The true method is the one you’ve developed for yourself, and keep returning to because it works. Lots of writers don’t edit and rewrite in a traditional way — Joan Didion rewrites as she goes, which is the first thing creative writing teachers tell you not to do.
Don’t tether yourself to any one method, find what works for you, and do that. But one thing is for sure: