You don’t write as well as you would like to;
And you keep trying to improve by writing more first drafts, each time hoping they’ll be better;
And they mysteriously don’t get much better;
… that’s because you’ve misunderstood the problem.
You don’t need to learn how to write, you need to learn how to edit. But then, editing is writing; writing is editing. The separation of the two is FAKE NEWS.
Editing is the second (the hidden, unglamorous, yet vital) half of writing, just as digestion is the hidden, unglamorous, yet vital second half of eating. (Which would make reading… hmmm… Let’s stop that metaphor right there…)
When writers talk of ‘learning to write’, they mostly mean how they slowly learned to edit their own lousy first drafts.
So this is a guide to that.
(An aside: all first drafts are lousy just as all newborn babies are terrible at sports. Writing takes time and multiple drafts. You’re not doing it wrong.)
IF YOU WROTE IT, WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT WHAT YOU GET
And the key to editing your own work? Learn to read it like a reader. Like a first time reader. Someone who has never seen this piece of work before. Someone who isn’t you…
This is way harder than you’d think. When writers reread their own work, there is a tendency to see the story not as it actually is on the page but as it is in their head. That is the inexperienced writer uses the words on the page as triggers, as reminders, of the original vision in their head.
GETTING HIGH ON YOUR OWN SUPPLY
So a writer might, for instance, have a specific house they remember from their youth that triggers specific memories for that writer. To capture this, they might write: ‘She stared at the old house. Her head filled with memories…’ Later, going back to edit this, they reread their own words: ‘She stared at the old house.’ Ah, yes! The words trigger the impulse that led to the words. They can see the specific house they have in mind; they see the dark green ivy covering a high window entirely, so the house looks one-eyed and piratical, they see the saplings and small bushes sprouting in the long-blocked, leaf-filled gutters, they see the ancient elm in the garden, leaning against the side of the house as though drunk. ‘Her head filled with memories…’ They read that, and, oh yes, they remember the first time they kissed someone they loved, in the shed out the back, and how amazing it felt. The sharp smell of cut grass and petrol rising from the still-warm lawnmower… They are having a marvellous time when they reread their draft.
But a reader who isn’t the writer just has the words provided on the page to go on: ‘She stared at the old house. Her head filled with memories…’ The reader has to fill in all the details. With nothing else to go on, they will tend to see a generic, rather featureless house. They might not give the house a garden at all. They will assign some vague and nonspecific memories. No colours, smells or sounds.
What has happened in the reader’s head is nothing like as good as what has happened in the writer’s head. The writer’s vision was not transmitted to the reader by the marks on paper. The telepathy which is at the heart of writing has failed to occur. But the inexperienced writer is often oblivious to this failure.
HOW DARE THEY REJECT MY GENIUS!
This is one reason why so many writers, starting out, are wounded and hurt by criticism, by rejection. They can’t understand how anyone could reject the amazing story that is in their head. They are unaware that what they have actually put down on the page isn’t the amazing story in their head—it’s a groping towards that story, a blueprint, a very rough sketch or outline of that story.
And this is natural and normal, this is OK, this is an early draft, this is fine, this is what most of us do when we write. But the process of becoming a writer is the process of learning how to convert the amazing story in your head into marks on a page that are capable of triggering something very like your original story in the reader’s head—the reader who isn’t you.
And so most writing isn’t first-draft writing. It’s rewriting, again and again, trying to bring the story into focus. To show, not tell. To get the reader closer to the action, to the living moment. Your job is to make something interesting happen in a stranger’s head.
This is hard, but it’s not impossible.
WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?
Normally, when we read, we are unaware that we are reading. We don’t consciously notice the astonishing thing we are doing: recognising, one by one, black marks arranged in lines on a page or screen, and converting them (in a complex process of memory-triggering and invention) into a coherent, flowing stream of internal mental pictures.
READING IN SLOW MOTION
A great way to see your own work afresh (to read it like a reader) is to deliberately reread your own stuff in slow motion; intensely aware of the order in which the words arrive, and of what they are making happen in your head. This isn’t, quite, reading – it’s paying attention to yourself reading. It’s watching yourself read. In doing this, you will be much better able to see those moments where the words fail to deliver the necessary information in the right order, and thus cause a break in the flow of internal mental pictures.
ORDER OF INFORMATION
I am OBSESSED with the order in which information is released in a story. You need to release the information to the reader in the order the reader needs it, so they can see the scene. That is often not the order it occurred to you while writing the first draft.
That means, for example, if you walk your character through a door in a new location at the start of a chapter, don’t have loads of exciting stuff happen to the character before telling the reader what kind of room they are in. The reader may well have imagined they are in a kitchen, or a warehouse, long before you tell them it is in fact a submarine, or the Sistine Chapel, and they will resent you for putting them in the wrong.
If your point-of-view character (the reader’s stand-in) walks into a small room with a dead bear in it, don’t be all cutesy and not tell us about the bear until we’re two pages in. Unless there’s a good reason not to, tell the reader what the point-of-view character would be struck by, as they’re struck by it.
This applies to everything. Remember, the reader can’t just leave things blank; if you hold back some vital piece of information too long, the reader will have already filled in that blank. It might feel smart to hold back the information that a character has only one arm, and to make it a shocking reveal in chapter ten, but the reader, oblivious to your cunning plan, will have automatically given them two arms in chapter one, and will resent not only having to lop an arm off the hero halfway through the book, but also having to go back mentally through the entire book, rewriting all the earlier scenes in their mind.
That moment, where the reader realises they’ve imagined the fictional world wrong, and have to fix it, jolts the reader out of the story, and ends the dreamlike flow of images. Fine, if you want to do that. But don’t do it by mistake.
Such a glitch doesn’t just spoil that line, and damage the reading experience so far; it shakes their faith in your writing, which has implications for how they read the rest of your story. They will withdraw their consent a little; they won’t invest as deeply. They’ll hold back emotionally, and be on the alert for other mistakes. They won’t allow themselves to be as fully immersed in your world. They don’t want to get fooled again.
THE SENTENCE IS NOT THE SMALLEST UNIT OF INFORMATION.
Young writers, new writers, tend to think that, if all the information needed for a particular moment is packed inside a sentence, the job is done.
Often a sentence, in an early draft, has the information in the wrong order for the reader. Beginners think of sentences as single units of meaning that happen all at once in a reader’s head. But sentences unfold, word by word, over time; and the information in them therefore arrives in a particular order. Make sure it is the right order. And if there is too much information for the sentence (often the case in a first draft, where you’re adding things as they occur to you), then break up the sentence. First draft sentences are often over-compressed; the writer has kept adding ideas to the sentences, and they don’t have room to breathe.
A FIRST DRAFT SENTENCE
I’ll invent an example of what I’m talking about.
First draft, written as it occurred to the writer: Flip you, she said, spitting her gum into the gutter, having rolled down the windows of the BMW to shout at Harry, whom she had just seen standing outside the shop.
I have exaggerated slightly for comic effect (and toned down the swearing, so children can use this valuable guide), but sentences almost this banjaxed often turn up in early-stage fiction (and, indeed, still do in my own first drafts). You can see the writer thinking the scene into being on the page. (Which is fine! We all do this! That’s why we learn to edit!)
Now read that, in slow motion, as a reader. See what happens? She swears, and spits gum, and now a window is being rolled down, oh wait that window would have made that gum spit impossible, fix that—swap the order around in your head, window then gum, OK, back to the story—oh she’s in a car, a BMW, go back again and visualise her in that as she spits, oh she was swearing at Harry, fine, go back AGAIN and aim her swear word at Harry, where is he though, oh he’s outside some kind of shop…
Ugh. It’s impossible to see the scene unfold in your head. All the information you need is in the same sentence, sure, but it’s all in the wrong order, plus it’s over-compressed—it has no room to breathe. So the reader has no place to stop, if they needed a moment to see something clearly.
A SECOND DRAFT
Now rearrange it, into the right order, and let it breathe:
Sally was driving home from work when she saw Harry standing outside the shop. She pulled in quietly beside him, and rolled down the window of the BMW. He didn’t see her. She spat her gum into the gutter, hard. Harry looked up. “Flip you,” she said.
Now the information is in the right order; but is it enough information for the reader to construct a vivid scene in their head? Go back over it slowly. What can a reader, who isn’t you, build in their head from these specific words, in this specific order? What questions are they going to be asking? Can you answer them?
Well, what kind of shop is it? Why doesn’t Harry see her pull up? What’s Harry doing? Nobody just ‘stands’, waiting for the real character to turn up. Everybody in every scene must be real; must have a reason for doing what they are doing.
Do it again. Make it more specific, more vivid, easier to see in full, and therefore more believable. If you move from one character to another character, maybe put in a line-break, to help the reader see the jump. A useful trick is to imagine the words are directing a camera through the scene: zooming in, pulling back, cutting away. Do these words, in this order, show the reader everything they need, to build the scene in their head as it unfolds?
A THIRD DRAFT
Sally was driving home from work when she saw Harry standing on the vomity pavement outside the kebab shop. His stubbled face almost touched his new iPhone, as he swiped.
She swung the BMW into the kerb, alongside him, and rolled down the window.
Oblivious, he kept swiping; paused for a moment to study a topless Latvian from a distance of two inches; swiped.
Sally spat her gum into the gutter, hard.
Harry looked up.
“Flip you,” she said.
The phone slipped from his fingers and landed, face down, in the bright orange vomit.
I’m not saying this is great literature; but it’s a lot easier to see in your head than the first version. What have we changed?
The information arrives in the right order.
The sentences have room to breathe.
The action is vivid, and specific.
IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU
This is the secret to editing your own work: understanding that it’s not about what’s in your head. In some ways, it’s not even about the words on the page. It’s about what those words are making happen in your reader’s head.
Once you’re able to read back your own words, and see, not the perfect thing you originally intended to say, but, instead, the actual experience those precise words will trigger inside a stranger’s head, then you have become a good editor of your own work.
Just go over your work again and again, more times than you thought possible, making it a little clearer, a little better each time; and eventually you will have achieved a miracle. You will have mastered a form of telepathy, or magic, that no other species has ever achieved (and 99% of your own species still can’t do well).
You will have a superpower. You will be able to make your visions appear in someone else’s head…
I COULD WRITE A BOOK
I could happily write a book on editing, but I’ve run out of time, and space. But, here are a couple more important notes.
(UNIMPORTANT NOTE: Ten drafts and two months later, those important notes are now longer than the article. I could take the line out, but I’ve left it as a reminder that editing is often an exhausting, messy business.)
1. DON’T FIX COMMAS WHEN THE PLOT IS BROKEN
When you are editing, fix the story at the most fundamental level at which it is broken. If the plot doesn’t work, don’t faff about with the commas. If you’ve told the whole thing from the wrong character’s point of view, fix that before you worry about the accuracy of the Jamaican slang in the dialogue.
If you are building a house and it still needs a roof and floorboards, it is a complete waste of time to do the dusting.
2. GET CLOSER
And in general, get closer; closer to the characters, closer to their actions and thoughts and feelings.
Often we think we have written a scene when, in fact, we have merely written a description of the scene; a blueprint for the scene we need to write.
Often we’ve got a main character who is too far back from the action. A totally passive main character—acted on, but not acting—is a real giveaway. Literary writers in particular have a habit of creating a main character who observes the story unfolding, without actually taking part in the story. That is, their hero is essentially the writer, but inside the story; adding nothing to it, and usually stinking the place up with their opinions.
A lot of literary fiction does this; personally I think this is a lousy way to write a book. (If Jesus resurfaced in modern day Brooklyn, the Gospels of Matthew, Marsha, Lukas and Joan would tell you an awful lot about Matthew, Marsha, Lukas and Joan and how they felt about stuff, but not a lot about Jesus.)
Find the character who ends up changed the most by the plot. That’s the main character. Kill off the writer character who watches their rise and fall.
Get one step closer: just tell the interesting character’s story.
3. NO ORNAMENTAL FERNS
In real life, people want stuff, and do stuff. But in fiction, characters will sometimes just hang around, like raincoats on clothes hangers, until the writer needs them to do something. They haven’t been fully imagined.
At WonderCon, in 2014, comic book writer and editor Kelly Sue DeConnick came up with The Sexy Lamp Test. In its original form (and close your eyes, children! I can’t clean this up, because it’s a direct quote, and also a great quote): ‘If you can take a female character out, and replace them with a sexy lamp, and your plot still functions, then fuck you.’
A very useful and necessary test. But I’ve seen so many writers (male and female) have this problem with their major characters (male and female)—often their lead characters!—that I feel a more universal version is also worth stating: ‘If you can take any major character out, and replace them with an ornamental fern, and your plot still functions; then you need to imagine that character more deeply, and rewrite their scenes so that the plot puts pressure on them to make choices that have consequences.’
(That, by the way, is the secret of good storytelling, thrown away casually in those last few words: put pressure on your characters so they are forced to make choices that have consequences. Too big a subject for an aside, it deserves its own article. Meanwhile, if you want to tell stories—as opposed to write clever sentences—then study that line like a zen koan. Everything is hidden in there.)
4. KEEP GOING
It’s normal to be sick of your story before it is finished. You just have to keep going, and get it right.
Towards the end, it’s not about you, it’s about the reader. The people that build airplanes probably get bored before they are finished, too, but that doesn’t mean they deliver planes to the customer with bits missing and the wings on upside down.
Love your story, want the best for it, even if it can be ungrateful and exasperating and difficult, and you think it’s never going to grow up and leave home.
The difference between an unpublishable and a publishable story is often simply that the writer of the publishable story kept going, kept on editing, fixing the big things first, then the little things, until they finally got it right; got down what was in their head in a form that could be decoded by strangers hungry for stories; for connection; for love.
But don’t use this as an excuse to spend your whole life polishing one story. If you’ve worked it, and reworked it, and reworked it, and still nobody likes it, well, maybe it’s just a private story that you needed to write (to develop, to grow), but nobody needs to read. No big deal. It happens. Move on. I have faith in your ability to come up with more, and better, work.
Trust me, I know what I’m talking about here. From age 11, I started and abandoned many novels before I finally finished my first. And my first was OK, but it wasn’t good enough to get published.
5. STOP WORRYING ABOUT YOUR FIRST DRAFTS
But what does all this mean?
It means the quality of your first draft has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the finished work, so you can stop worrying about it.
Some fine writers write accomplished first drafts, that are almost publishable. And some fine writers write first drafts that a profoundly average primary school student would hesitate to hand in as homework. And… it doesn’t matter. This ‘failure’ is normal, it’s not actually failure any more than a pile of iron ore is a failed steel ingot. The first draft, like the ore, just hasn’t been processed yet.
6. MY OWN FIRST DRAFTS ARE SHITE
With fiction, I write an average of 18 drafts and the first one is always lousy. (Occasionally something will come together quickly and I’ll only write a dozen drafts. Some things take 25 drafts.) My early re-draftings are often quite violent: I’ll rip the story apart and start again, I’ll cut out half of it, I’ll change the tense, the point of view, the location. By the last few drafts, I’m just going through an almost finished piece, pretty casually, moving commas, and cutting the odd adjective.
My own first drafts, by the way, have gotten worse over the years, rather than better, as I’ve grown more confident in my rewriting and in my editing of myself. I now know I can make the roughest material better with a lot of drafts and a lot of work; I just need something to work on. So I write first drafts that are full of typos and holes. And when I say holes, I mean actual gaps, where I might note ‘fix this problem later’ or ‘blah blah blah’ for a conversation that I don’t feel like imagining yet. Also, I usually start writing now with no idea what anyone is called, so I just type ‘&&&&&&’ where the names should be. (I’m writing these characters into existence – it’s easier to name them later when I know who they are.) Or I’ll simply write long dialogue scenes in an unbroken flow, with no quote marks, no paragraph breaks, and no attribution to anybody. I know who’s speaking, and I’ll tidy all that up later; what’s important to keep up the flow, to get the gist of it down without standing in my own way.
On the first draft, I’m the story’s mother, I just want it to come into the world safely, covered in blood and goo. Whatever it looks like, as long as it’s breathing, I’ll love it just the way it is.
On the second and third drafts, I’m more like a stern foster parent to a troubled child. It needs discipline and hard work. I’m affectionate, but I have some emotional distance. I’m going to do what it takes to help this kid kick its adverb problem, find a better point of view, and get its life back on the rails.
On later drafts, I’m the police and I’m interrogating a repeat offender and not letting it get away with anything. (The three words I write most often in the margins of my own work are ‘Fix!’ ‘Boring!‘ and ‘SHITE.’ I write these words cheerfully, in red pen, as I strike out whole pages, because I know I’m making the story better.)
7. DESPAIR IN YOUR HAIR
Oh yeah, two thirds the way through a project there is, almost always, a moment of despair, where you are convinced it will never come together.
Despair, but don’t worry. You are, after all, a hero on a journey. This is a perfectly normal Dark Night of the Soul. Have a little cry, and carry on.
Triumph lies over the next hill.
OK, maybe the hill after that…
8. YOU’RE NOT A FREAK
It’s normal to be slightly freaked out by your own work.
It’s normal for the middle to stay a bit of a mess for a surprisingly long time.
It’s normal to not quite know how it ends until INCREDIBLY late in the process.
9. A FINAL NOTE
These aren’t rules, they’re techniques, to use or not use, as you choose. I’ve written these ones down, because I know, from personal experience, that they work. But there are other ways of working.
And there are exceptions to everything I have said here. Some writers really are just writing for themselves, yet it can still be fun to listen in. If Beckett had taken my advice here, he’d have totally, er, flipped himself up.
Everything I have said you shouldn’t do here? There are tricksy flippers who have found some brilliant way to do it. Some of my favourite writers totally ignore these techniques.
Use what’s useful to you, dump what’s not.
So, here’s how to write something good, from beginning to end:
Bang down a first draft. Don’t worry about it being any good, it won’t be. Don’t try to edit it on the way out of your head. That requires a different part of your brain, and the whole process will stall. Just jam open the firedoor between your conscious and unconscious mind, and let it all out, uncensored and unspellchecked. Let rip, have fun, you can clean it up later.
Leave it aside to cool. (Days, week, months—whatever it takes.)
Then read it like a reader, and edit it into shape over as many drafts as it takes, which could be a LOT of drafts. It can be useful to do specific drafts for specific problems: a plot draft; a dialogue draft; a draft to fix a major character who needs a lot of work…
No one draft will fix everything. Take the pressure off yourself.
10. ALL WRITING ADVICE MUST END, ON A CAUTIOUSLY UPLIFTING NOTE, WITH A FLOWERY METAPHOR
Hey, see the Mountain of Success, way over there? The only way to get to it is through the Valley of Failure. There is no other way.
It’s a peculiarity of this job that it’s the reader who gets to sit on that mountain, in the sunshine, reading a perfect, finished piece. The writer at no point has that experience. The writer is, always, down in the valley, struggling with imperfect draft after imperfect draft. (That’s not a bad thing; that’s just a thing… Personally, I love that struggle, I find it fascinating, and deeply fulfilling. My relationship with failure is by now very friendly and relaxed.)
And it never ends. With every story and every book, you must re-enter the valley of failure, and set off, again, for the distant mountain.
But, on every journey, with every story, every book, if the writer can make each draft a little better than the last, can stagger a few yards further along the rocky valley floor, the job will, eventually, get done. The journey will, eventually, end. You will fail your way to success.
And, one day, a reader will sit in the sunshine, and have a vision; a vivid, detailed vision that you have transmitted from your mind to theirs. And that moment, that magic, that miracle – that’s worth a lot of hard work.
OK, off you go.
The valley awaits you.