Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lick, Spit, and Polish

Every writer has her or his own way of writing a story or book. The same is likely true for polishing that short story or book. I know people who leave polishing until the very end, until everything else is done, which both astonishes and horrifies me.

I start polishing with the very first draft.

One reason is that I've spent more than twenty years as a professional copyeditor. Typos, awkward sentences, and not-quite-right words jump off the screen. They distract me so much that I can't focus on the story. Thus, even as I'm writing sentences for the first time, I'm checking the dictionary to make sure words have the nuances I think they do, looking in a thesaurus to find le mot juste, and checking the Internet to see whether such-and-such a food or technology existed in my time period. At the very least, I put a green bar over a word or phrase that I need to come back to.

But I also think revising from the very beginning leads to a better book and that most of the reasons apply to every writer.
  • People get used to mistakes if they see them often enough. If you've read your manuscript more than three times, you're probably no longer seeing most of the mistakes and they'll stay in the story forever.
  • If you have a critique group, mistakes can throw your readers off track. For example, if you type "Mali" instead of "Bali," your readers will be baffled when your protagonist goes scuba diving in the ocean or sees an orangutan in the forest. Similarly, convoluted sentences and unneeded words can mistakenly lead your readers to think your story boring when in truth raw writing is hiding the great story underneath. I believe the cleaner the manuscript, the better your critique group can focus on your storytelling.
  • I edit better than I write. My first drafts tend to be self-contradictory and repetitive, overuse certain words, and have characters named A, B, C, and D.  Given I need to copyedit my first draft before I give it to anyone anyway, I might as well strengthen the verbs and nouns, smooth out obvious bumps in rhythm, and untangle sentences. 
  • I want my finished manuscript to be perfectly clean and every sentence to be beautiful. Of course, I'll never achieve that level of quality; we all have to settle for good enough because our lives are finite and we want to publish many things. But the level of quality I'm willing to settle for usually requires ten to twenty rounds of polishing. Doing those rounds at the end would drive me crazy with boredom. Spreading them out keeps polishing fun and also lets problem words, sentences, and paragraphs marinate long enough for good solutions to arise.
  • It's easy to forget what you've worked on and what you haven't. By checking spellings, connotations and denotations, and facts right from the beginning, I rarely have a story fall apart because I made an erroneous assumption at the start that affects a crucial plot element.

How do you polish your book, and why do you do it that way?

I'll be back at Novel Spaces again on September 6. I hope you enjoy the end of your summer.

—Shauna Roberts


KeVin K. said...

Depending on your definition, I either never revise or constantly revise. (Though I have heard my method -- which is not all that uncommon -- referred to as "rolling revision.") My editor and my writer live right next door to each other and they chat all the time. It is not unusual for me to stop on page 27 and go back and fix something on page 4 that's been bothering me. Or to realize an event on page 107 needs foreshadowing and set-up and to go back to pages 19, 42, 87, and 103 to put the requisite pieces in place. I never have a first draft or second draft or complete draft of any kind in place. In my writing process sections and scenes and pivotal dialogs and settings and characters' names are always fluid and in different stages of "doneness" until the piece is done. Then I type "the end" and move on. (I should note that I edit only for story; copy editing is all but impossible for me. When you have to check adjacent letters to determine whether the one you're looking at is a p, d, q, or b, it's best to leave the copy editing to others.)

G. B. Miller said...

I edit as I go along.

Usually I'll write in spurts, then print out what I write. Usually whay I'll do next is when I have some down time, I'll go back to the printed version (either novel or short story) and make edits and write notes.

Then before I start fresh writing, I'll input the edits and the majority of the notes. If I have a note that requires either an extensive re-write to make the remaining pages of the scene coherant, I'll either wait until I hit a particularly thorny patch in my story (and thus having a built in excuse to take a break) or I'll wait until I finish the story.

I'm always editing and taking notes of my stuff, even during my break times at work or whenever I'm getting ready to writi again.

At the very least, it has become a necessary routine for my writing.

Charles Gramlich said...

You and I are sympatico writers. I'm exactly the same. I can't leave glaring things behind, and sometimes even non glaring things and still be able to focus on moving forward.

Sandra M. Odell said...

I have an over active inner editor, to the point where I second guess myself constantly and can't leave a piece until it is "perfect". I've found that by pushing through these compulsive editorial moments and getting the words on the page helps with the eventual polishing because now I have something to polish.

Terri-Lynne said...

I am very much with you on this, Shauna. I start every writing day by polishing up yesterday's work. It gets me back into the story, like a running start, AND it smooths things out now rather than later.

I also rarely write THE END before I've gone back to the beginning to get all my ducks in a row. I feel like I can't write an effective ending otherwise. By the time I'm done with a full DRAFT, it's already been polished about four times, so my first drafts are really no such things, even if they are, kind of.

Liane Spicer said...

I edit as I go, and when I get to the end I continue to polish and refine then print, send to my critique partner and put it out of my mind. He writes a report which we discuss and then I start work on a final version. That usually involves several re-reads and I find things to refine every time, until I get to the point where I decide it's good to go.

My second, third and fourth drafts aren't drafts in the usual sense of the word; they're progressively more refined versions of the first draft rather than rewrites.

Anonymous said...

I write the first draft of a scene with no editing whatsoever. However, before moving on to the next scene, I read the previous one through and apply light editing, just to correct the real clangers. If I edited any more during the drafting process, then I'd never get to the end.

Writing scenes out-of-order helps me with this method, as I may have left some time between rough draft and first read-through.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I edit as I go. It's hard for me to write and leave errors or awkward sentences in. But even then, when I do my final pass at the end of the manuscript, I always find more things that need revising. It is never final until I receive the galleys.