One, Two, Three — Many Learning Curves

I just came from a PM chat where we were talking about the woes of revising and editing, and I had a revelation. Okay, maybe not a Revelation, but an insight. So many people have a real problem with that part of writing, and it occurred to me that maybe the real problem for some of them is that they don’t see the revising and editing as part of the writing. They see it as an entirely separate thing, and that separate thing is a chore, because it’s supposedly all about correcting mistakes according to a set of rules.

Or maybe they don’t see writing as a learning process. They write a book, take a good look at it and say “My bad,” throw the book away and write another one. But writing is a learning process, and it can probably go on forever. You get better and better at it, but it’s never quite as good as you hoped it would be (unless you have an out-of-control ego), and that’s a good thing. Because there’s no such thing as perfection. If you write a bad or mediocre book and refuse to look at it again, you’re not going to learn anything from it. You think the next one will be better, but it won’t, because you didn’t learn a damned thing from writing the first one.

There are days when I’m ready to throw in the towel with a third or fourth draft. I’ve worked so hard, and I’m still finding, not just typos, but sentences that don’t sing, plot points that are as clear as mud, too many repetitions of the same word in a sentence or paragraph . . . The potential for finding and correcting problems seems infinite. And I say this after having written three complete novels and two more that are almost finished. Question: Where does it end? Answer: It doesn’t.

Revising and editing isn’t just about making this novel better. It’s also about making the next novel better, the one you haven’t written yet. And maybe that’s the most important part of it–making the next one better. Think of revising and editing as an organic process like growing a plant. It needs to be watered, fertilized–and pruned. None of that is separate from putting the seed in the ground. Think of yourself as a gardener. You can have a black thumb and produce books that can’t survive the light of day because they don’t get any care, or you can have a green thumb and produce books that look better, grow faster, and bloom more beautifully with each generation.

And I can tell you something from my own experience about those frustrating third and fourth drafts. There’s a load of satisfaction to be had in making that book even a tiny bit better than it was before.



7 thoughts on “One, Two, Three — Many Learning Curves

  1. As usual, my approach is just a little different. When I write a book, I write a chapter or a chunk of a chapter, then I have lunch, go to bed, watch TV, or whatever. Then the next day I revise that chapter when I’m not tired and the material feels fresher. The I go on to the next chapter. After I finish the book, I will probably go through it one time. Then I think it’s done. But I would never rush right out and publish because I’m too close to it by that time and I can’t see the forest for the trees. So I go on and start the next book and after maybe six months I go back and look at the first one, and lo and behold! the solutions for many of those “sentences that don’t sing and plot points that are as clear as mud” pop right out at you! This process can be repeated many times. Like you said, Catana, you’ll never get a perfect book that satisfies you completely, but you’ll probably get a decently written, readable book.

    And something just struck me after I ordered the proof of “The Termite Queen” – I can never revise it again! If I accept the proof, the text will be sealed in stone for all time, barring issuing a revised edition! I was sad! I’ve sent my child out into the cruel world and I can never do anything again to improve that child! Isn’t that a funny bit of whimsy?!!

    1. I enjoy hearing about how other people write and edit. Everybody develops different methods, which is one reason why I hate those articles that tell you how you should do it. When I talk about mine, that’s my experience, and it may not work for anyone else. On the other hand, it may trigger a better way of working for somebody. And you’re right about distance often being the one thing you need to see how to improve something. So many times, I wonder why I didn’t see the solution before, when it’s so obvious now.

      As I told you, I don’t really have the patience to deal with turning my books into print, but that’s another reason not to do it, at least right now. I’m still learning. I bet that if I go back to my first two books in a year or so, I’ll wish I’d done a better job. But I don’t think I’d ever put out revised editions. That was me, then, and I’d rather my books show a progression in skill than try to cover up how amateurish the first ones might be.

    2. Lorinda’s process sounds very much like mine: I have a revise-as-I-go approach so that when I do get to “the end” the first, second, and third drafts have already been done in smaller chunks.

      1. I usually write straight through, without bothering about chapters, except to mark logical points where the breaks might come. But I also go back and forth as I write, editing previous sections. Though I may have three or four numbered drafts by the end, a lot of the editing has already been done. I can’t imagine how many drafts I’d go through if I waited until the whole book was written. I don’t even like to think about it.

  2. Really? Editing and revising as a separate process – I wonder how that would work? Well, it wouldn’t work for me because my process is somewhat similar to yours, Catana. I’m always learning when going through my drafts and yes, it’s exhausting but it works.

    1. I can’t say for sure that’s how some people may look at it, Samir. I’m going by how they talk about the problems they have once the novel is written. And given that people do tend to compartmentalize, it seems likely.

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