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In Praise of Editors: from first draft to last it is always a blast


I write pretty good prose first time up, but I want my finished work to fall somewhere between pretty good and perfect.

Pretty good, ain’t good enough. And perfect ain’t possible.

And that is where my editors come in.

First up strike the beta readers, who aren’t editors as such but people who read the first draft and go: ‘Did you really mean that?’ ‘What is all that about?’ ‘I like this guy?’ ‘Is this even English?’

So I collate the comments and sigh and grin, and redo it, rework it, retype it all again. That is the end of the first draft and off it flies to my structural editors, who are skilled story-tellers.

They proceed to tear my story apart: ‘Cut this scene.’ ‘Move this to here.’ ‘Use her flaming name.’ ‘This flows like a puddle of water drying in the sun, get it fixed.’

So I rework the whole thing, cut and paste, make the story drive straight from the page into the reader’s brainpan. Then I read it all through, aloud, for flow and shift and change and make it work. That is the end of the second draft and off it goes to my copy-editor, who is a professional of many years experience.

She proceeds to tear my prose apart: ‘That sentence is so convoluted I can’t even see where the thread begins, let alone ends.’ ‘The rule of three is a powerful rhetorical tool, but you don’t have to use it every other flaming paragraph.’ ‘I have not a clue what this thing you just mentioned is doing. What is it for, can you clarify it a bit.’ ‘All that fighting is lovely and all, but should I be yawning?’

So I take the prose apart, make decisions, fix clarity issues, and then read it through, aloud, for flow, again.

And I enjoy every single moment of the process. From first draft to last I am grinning and nodding — and wincing and scratching me poor benighted head as I work out how to fix something that I didn’t even know was there.


As a writer, I am always reaching, stretching, taking a wild leap into the dark. I am pushing the boundaries of story and structure, of prose and rhetoric, trying to make the work the best it can possibly be.

And my editors, all of them, are my safety net when I fall short.

Editors are not just there to catch your mistakes, they are not just checking for typos, a freaking machine can do both those things.

Editors are there to make your story fly and your prose sing. If you don’t enjoy being edited then either:

You have the wrong editor.


You should pull your head out of your arse and smell the coffee. Film-makers say that they make their film in the editing suite, because that is where they make the choices that define the flow, the mood, the feel of the movie. Writers make their stories in the edits, in the drafts, where they define and clarify, rework and retype, fix and polish.

And without editors to shine a light you may as well get a trained monkey to do the job, because you is working in the dark, old son.


Image attribution: Every stock Photo 


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The Value of Retyping

There’s a danger with word processors. They allow you to fiddle around forever: change a word, go back and change another one, go back change the punctuation, take this story beat from this scene and cut and paste it in to this one. Constant messing around at the margins of the story.

And in the process, you kill the flow of the words. It is no longer this smooth, well-paced, linear flow from one idea to the next, from one scene to the next. You mess around so much that you lose the rhythm of the work. I should imagine pretty much every writer has done this and then spent hours, days, weeks, months, messing around trying to get back what they have lost.

Stop. Print it out. Type it back in. (Using the print out, lets not go crazy and try to remember every word).

That’s my advice.

Make all the changes you need to make for structure, pacing, character development, plot — whatever you need to fix. Make the changes as rough or as fine as you want. You need to change that bit of dialogue, change it. You need to cut and paste that story beat from that scene to that scene so the sequence works, move it. You need to make that sentence work better because it’s bugging the hell out of you, make it work.

Then print it out and type it all back in. The real hard core method is to print it out, delete the original, and then type it back in. The reason to delete is so you are forced to retype even the scenes that work with no cutting and pasting them over; the reason why you retype the scenes that work is because the flow goes straight through them and you need to follow the flow.

I came by this method while reading an old interview with one of the greats of the SF Golden Age (I forget which one, which is unfortunate but it took a while for the message to sink in). He used to type his first drafts on the back of old bills, envelopes, scrap bits of paper, anything. The idea being that he could not possibly submit that to an editor, so he forced himself to retype the second draft.

We have word processors now, so what constitutes a second draft these days? A complete start at the beginning revision, where you fix all these things on the screen. I don’t think so. That’s revision not a draft. That can lead you down the ‘ten years writing the same damn story’ syndrome, because you’re not seeing the story as a whole anymore. You’re seeing it as separate scenes, sentences, punctuation marks. You can drive yourself crazy doing that sort of thing.

A complete retyping of the entire story, the way most writers had to do it before the advent of word processors, that’s a second draft.

Obviously,  people will say that it’ll take too long to retype the entire thing, that it’s quicker to just revise. If you have a good strong first draft, then you’re probably right. Not much point retyping the whole thing if all you need to do is clean up a couple of sentences. But if you have to do anything structural, anything major, retyping takes less time than fiddling and will produce a better story.

You decide (or discover for pantsers like me) that this character is in love with this other character, for instance. You can go back and drop in stuff, work out beats within scenes, play the foreshadow card for all it is worth, but the interactions of every other character will be off too. This sort of emotional involvement affects everybody around the two people engaged in the flirting, moon-eyed glances, sighs and all the other things that people falling in love do.

It affects all the dynamics, all of them. It might even affect the dynamics (at a story-telling level) of characters who never even meet the moon calves.

You can of course go through the whole thing, shifting, adjusting, making decisions, altering this word here, and that word there, and so forth. But it doesn’t alter the fact that, when you wrote the original draft, you didn’t know about the lovers. If you retype it with the full knowledge of this plot point then you automatically adjust everything as you go and as a bonus you smooth out all the bumps in the flow caused by pratting about word-fiddling.

And it takes less time because you are writing free and easy again. You know the story, you know the characters, you have the first draft in front of you and you are reading it. You don’t have to remember anything, you just have to type it in. No better way to spot a truly dodgy bit of writing than when you type it back in again. The damn things leap off the page at you.

Anyway, just a thought. It works for me, it might well work for you too.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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