It is often said that all writing is re-writing. But when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of how to get from draft zero to polished oeuvre, there are hundreds of possible routes, and we don’t talk enough about how navigating these, including finding oneself at dead ends and losing swathes of hard-won text to the ‘delete’ button, is all part and parcel of the writing process. We live in a world that celebrates writers’ success stories, sharing their brilliant cover letters and serendipitous meet-cutes with the perfect literary agent, then publisher, with a glittering deal bringing the writer’s debut into the world – and onto bookshelves – soon after. What we don’t get to see is the hard graft, the failed drafts, the books that ‘didn’t make it’. Most writers will have one or two behind them, and have, through the process of trial, error, and persistence, become both better writers, and, critically, better self-editors along the way.
In his (excellent) LitHub essay on the drafting process, the novelist Joseph Scapellato talks of some of the possibilities the drafting process brings; from creating with each draft a ‘renewed wholeness’, to drafting as an act of ‘discovery’, or as a mechanism to facilitate a change, subtle or radical, in the ‘sense of intention, identity, or momentum of a text’. The idea of each of these as possibilities strikes me as extremely positive, a counter to the idea that (self-)editing is drudgery, or that it is somehow the un-creative part of writing. Creativity doesn’t stop simply because we have stopped inventing; and indeed, re-drafting is in itself a kind of re-invention.
Perhaps it’s time we re-framed the idea of re-writing, self-editing and drafting. I am interested in the idea of re-writing as containing somehow several hypothetical versions of the text. Each editorial choice you make has an effect. I imagine these choices as architectural shifts. A small change to a single window will change entirely how the light falls; shifting a wall over to the left by a metre will affect the load-bearing capacity of the whole. What glorious possibilities there are here. As writers, then, how do we create opportunities when we sit down to approach the redrafting process?
Write your draft zero, and turn off the inner critical voice to finish
Thinking of the first draft not as a first draft but as a ‘draft zero’ may help you to do the thing that stops a huge majority of writers from flourishing beyond an initial attempt at literary creativity; completing a project. Draft zero is your fuck-it draft. Anything goes. It should have a sense of intention, and you might want to make sure you have a plot to avoid complicating the editing process later. But don’t intellectualise it. Insert place-holders where you aren’t sure. Write quickly and without tweaking. Reward yourself every 10,000 words with a gift (I saw a brilliant post on Twitter recently by a novelist who had wrapped gifts for herself that she was allowed to open at particular landmarks in the writing process. Genius!) Just get it all down on paper.
Creating the conditions to write: truth or myth?
There are no perfect conditions for writing, but there is a state of mind for writing, combined with the usual (necessary) discipline. Having an understanding of your natural rhythms is important not just for your writing but for your overall wellness. There will be periods in the day when you feel more inspired, more creative. There will also be times when you feel more efficient, but not necessarily creative. Try to keep a diary to track when your magic hours are, and use them appropriately. You don’t have to write every day, you don’t have to write X number of words, but you should commit to turning up at the page. Everything you write, you owe a debt to. When it comes to editing, you’re paying that debt. You’re saying, OK, I can make this better. Because I value it. Because I believe I have something to say that matters.
Keep a scrapbook, and learn how to ‘scrap’
If you write longhand, take a Proustian approach and add in bits of paper on top of your draft to help you contextualise your story. Write character bios, diary entries by characters confessing a secret, interesting phrases that strike you through the day that might be inserted later. Creative writing exercises aren’t just prep, they can become part of the drafting process. And when it comes to actually ‘scrapping’…
Cut big, not small
This is a trick I learned at an editing workshop. We had been set a task to get rid of X number of words from a journalistic article. Only a few of the participants had suggested cutting three whole paragraphs, rather than tweezering words out of each sentence. The texts had lost nothing in meaning from the surplus paragraphs. That really stayed with me. Start a new draft as a new file, to help you be ruthless. Try cutting whole sections. Often at TLC we encounter writers whose early drafts have either an under-cooked opening chapter (they have by the end of the draft evolved as a writer and the level of the writing feels more amateur or includes unnecessary set-up or exposition) or it’s over-baked (they have read somewhere that the first pages are THE ONLY THING THE AGENT CARES ABOUT and have over-worked them, leaving the rest of the story, and novel, to sag).
See re-writing as a process of interrogation
Even though I work in the business of editing, editorial maxims (cut all adjectives and adverbs! show don’t tell!) make me uncomfortable. The best editorial assessments see themselves as set up to challenge the text (is it deploying narrative techniques effectively?) and the writer (are you writing at your best, and are you clear in your creative vision and how you communicate this through the story you are telling?). Generally, when self-editing, all areas will focus around a few key elements of storytelling. You’re looking for clarity, cohesion, and a sense of creativity with all of these. As I see it, they are:
Plot → Is there a plot? Does the plot (the mechanics of structure including conflict, pacing, plot-points, sub-plot and resolution) move the story (the emotional beating heart of the book) forwards?
Character → Are your characters well-developed, are their motivations clear, are they sufficiently differentiated from each other, is there a clear protagonist (if not, OK, but why? Is your intention clear?) what do they say (and not say) and what does this reveal (and conceal) about them? How do they interact with others? When they speak, does the text approximate real speech (effective) rather than transcribe it (generally unreadable)
Voice → The style and tone of the book, its cohesion, a kind of pulling-together of sense and intention, the authorial vision in which the author has been made invisible and the text becomes art.
It’s a magical process, really. Enjoy it!
Aki Schilz is the Director of The Literary Consultancy, the UK’s longest-running editorial consultancy for writers, providing editing services, mentoring and literary events. The TLC Press Mini Guides, on craft and creativity, are due to launch in April 2019 and include a Self-Editing primer for writers as well as guides on Voice, Character, Plot, Structure and Dialogue. Aki is a judge for the Bridport First Novel Award and the Creative Future Literary Awards. In 2018 she was named as one of the FutureBook 40 list of innovators in UK publishing, and nominated for an h100 Award for her #BookJobTransparency campaign and her work to improve representation and accessibility in the literature sector. Twitter: @TLCUK @AkiSchilz