One topic that comes up again and again amongst writers is when should I start editing?
It’s said that the first chapter of a novel is the one that is rewritten the most. You want to get it right, you want to hook the reader (or first, an agent), you want the opening to be the best it can be. Absolutely – it should be. But constant tinkering with the first chapter before the rest is written is almost a waste of time. Only by the end of your story, will you be in a much better position to know who your main character is and what needs to be included on that opening page – clues, signs, leitmotifs, hints of personality traits and the conflict.
When you start a project – novel or short story – you don’t really know your characters until they need to DO something, until they are put in a difficult situation, until they have to make a decision.
First chapters can be rewritten. They are not set in stone. They can be changed or, yes really, cut altogether. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But again, sometimes you don’t know where your story actually begins until it’s written. And then it may be far better to start in media res, rather than with description, setting, backstory and character details.
I like this quote from Raymond Obstfeld in his book Fiction first aid:
“Sometimes you have to write long in order to explore all the aspects of the story, so everything is fully developed. Don’t edit yourself too much while you’re writing. That’s what a draft is all about. But editing is where the amateur and the professional differ. The pro always looks to do what’s best for the novel, not what shows off the author’s writing ability.”
Some authors say they re-read yesterday’s writing before starting a new day’s work. It helps them pick up the flow and often highlights any obvious mistakes – typos, misspellings, factual and plot errors. Others will re-read when they finish a chapter or two, again looking only for the most obvious of edits.
Some writers I know say they can only do a proper edit by printing their work out on paper – not relying on any sort of accuracy by reading on the screen. A red pen is always useful in this case, easily seen when transferring the corrections to the computer.
Me? I was given some advice many years ago now that I have always found to be the best – the best for me that is (everyone’s different). At the end of a section, usually between 1000 and 1800 words, I read it out aloud. It’s quite amazing how this identifies obvious mistakes –repetition of a word or phrase, too many adverbs, the wrong adjective, sentences of similar length, no change of pace, no dialogue differentiation. I tend to correct them immediately before going on to write the next section. Only when I have completed the novel do I read it all through, several times: firstly, to see if the story I wanted to write is there on the page; then again, making notes as to what plot points need looking at, facts that need checking (are her eyes blue or green all the way through?); and then, copy editing, often with the aid of a computer programme, to check grammar, spelling and punctuation.
Finally, of course, there’s always the adage that we can’t edit our own writing because we only see what we think we wrote and the cliché that we can’t see the wood for the trees. Quite true. So, an extra pair of eyes is always advisable – friend, a tutor, paid editor: the choice is yours.
But get it written first. No-one can edit a blank page.