Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Whether or Not to Edit

In the writing world, there is a continual and divisive debate about whether the author should edit their work as they go. Some say yes, some say no. Interestingly, most of the blog posts I've read of late fall into the latter camp, the ones who say you shouldn't even go back to fix a misspelled word. Robert Heinlein, Stephen King, and Brandon Sanderson, all bestselling authors, have all, in their own way, warned against editing. Heinlein said, "You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order." Sanderson leaves spell-check (even the little red lines under the words) turned off until he's making his last pass through the book.

I've tried this, including turning off the spell-check markers, and I can't do it. I'm obsessed with grammar, punctuation, and spelling. I think it goes along with my overall obsession with language, as I also must use all the proper diacritical marks when writing in, for example Español or Français, but I can't handle leaving a word misspelled. I lasted five minutes with spell-check off, and then went back to frantically search out every red line. Of course, I'm writing a fantasy novel, so I also have to add every new name to the dictionary, and because OpenOffice doesn't have the spiffy shortcuts for accented characters, I add names with accents into my AutoCorrect so I don't have to stop in the middle of Ilôzu to hold down Alt while hitting 0244 on the keypad.

In any event, diacritical marks aside, for myself, editing is a necessity because I need to read my writing. I've mentioned before that I have an earlier draft of Daughter, and it's absolutely horrible now that my understanding of writing has evolved from the state in which it resided ten years ago. It's painful for me to read it now, and if I start feeling that same pain in my current project, then something has to change. If I can't look at the page, I certainly can't add to it. The fact that I work for a boss who is obsessive about good grammar and proper use of the English language helps to keep me on track, too.

Of course, grammar and spelling editing aren't the only thing most authors are discussing when they talk about not editing. Some folks feel that you should never even dream of re-touching your story until it's completely finished, or else you may edit yourself into oblivion. And it's true, I've done that in the past. That said, however, you need to have a feel for whether or not the story flows.

I seem to crash quickly if I write my characters into a box, or write a scene that doesn't make any sense. I sit and stare at the screen for a while, but the words won't come. I try to move on to the next scene, and it refuses to appear for me, either. So then, I go back and re-read what I have, and realize...well, maybe this shouldn't happen here. Open Snippets file, cut and paste. Okay, so what should happen? Oh, bingo. That. That's what should happen. And hey, now this scene in the Snippet file should happen here instead. Well, check that out! Oh wait, it needs to stop right here though.

Once I make these changes, the story starts to flow again, and its suddenly clear that either I pushed a character in a direction that made no sense, or I was trying to force a scene that was unnecessary. If I'm bored, my eventual reader certainly will be, too, so I can't have that happening. Every day, especially if I was writing late the night before, I re-read what I did the previous day, not just to check for story flow, but to get myself back into the action. If something doesn't flow or make sense, I change it on the spot.

This doesn't mean I don't intend to make one last, massive pass through the book when it finally reaches its conclusion. It just means that I will always polish as I go. After all, if you're laying a hardwood floor, you don't wait until all the boards are in place before you start cutting them down to the right size. Maybe that makes me crazy, but Lynn Flewelling made an excellent point in her Writing on the Waves workshop. Everyone in the industry can tell you how to write, but only you know what works for you.