A friend at the writers’ group I go to asked me a question at our most recent meeting: at what point do you stop editing your work?
I know this is something many writers struggle with. Every first draft, and sometimes a second draft, will need editing of some kind, but there comes a point when editing changes from a productive activity into a procrastinating one. And it doesn’t help when there are quotes attributed to (several) famous writers who claim to have spent all morning editing, taking out one comma and then spent all afternoon editing, putting it back in again! Those are the comments of a writer without a deadline!
For me, the amount of editing varies depending upon the project, however, generally, when I’m writing articles, I go through a three-stage process:
Stage 1 - Having written the first draft, I then go through and check whether I’ve used the right structure. Sometimes in the first draft I just need to get down the essence of what I want to say. Articles can be structured in many different ways, and, sometimes, I’m not always clear which is the right structure when I’m writing that first draft. Changing the structure can require a heavy edit, even completely rewriting the text! If I’m not changing the overall structure, I consider whether paragraph five might work better as paragraph twelve, or whether the first paragraph is my true opening paragraph, or whether I’d be better deleting paragraphs one and two.
Stage 2 - This is where I go through the text to see if the information now flows well, in a logical manner, and my message is easy to read. Does the point of my article come across? I’ll also aim to get my word count to within 50 words during this editing stage.
Stage 3 - This is my spelling, punctuation and grammar check, and also the point where I consider word count more closely. This is the stage when I think many writers lack confidence about whether they have completed this.
I occasionally dabble in short stories, and the editing process follows a similar format there, although sometimes I may rewrite the story three or four times if I’m playing around with viewpoint. I’m not always brilliant at picking the best viewpoint first time around, and sometimes it’s not until you rewrite a story from someone else’s viewpoint that you realise whose story it really is.
For longer projects, such as non-fiction books and novels, I can go through several editing stages getting structure sorted and word counts adhered to. My next book has a specific maximum word count of 25,000 - and the first draft ended up at 32,000 words! It took me three editing processes to cut that down to the 25,000 words. Then I began my punctuation, spelling and grammar editing process.
One of the best ways to bring your editing process to an end is to have a deadline. This is easier for commissioned pieces, but for those without a hard commission there are still ways of giving yourself a deadline. Whilst self-imposed deadlines don’t always carry the same weight as an externally set deadline, there are ways of making your deadline important. List the consequences of failing to meet your self-imposed deadline.
For example, if you’re writing an article about kick starting your life in the New Year, then for monthly magazines you need to be submitting your text by the end of this month to be in with a chance of having your work considered. The consequence of failing to meet this deadline is missing out on the opportunity to be published in this coming January, and having to wait until January 2015 for your next opportunity.
Similarly, short story writers targeting the women’s magazine market can increase their chances if their stories are themed in some way. Setting your story around St Patrick’s Day means your piece needs to be used in March issues, so you need to be submitting those stories within the next six to eight weeks.
Of course, a good deadline is a competition deadline!
Editing is a fine balance. Every writer needs to edit, but if all you do is titivate with your text, deleting a comma, and then later putting it back in again, you are most definitely entering the world of never-sending-anything-off!