Monday, August 8, 2011

Except to Editorial Order (When You Should Rewrite)

I am a proponent of Heinlein's Rules of Writing, including his rule about not rewriting except to editorial order.

But I admit to you that I do rewrite. And that many, happy, healthy successful writers also rewrite. And I have wanted to blog about that for a while now, but I couldn't get a hook into what I wanted to say, until the other day when Dean Wesley Smith wrote his post about how writers must practice.

One big thing he points out is that rewriting is not practice. I've said this before; you don't learn from rewriting. You learn from writing anew. Except....

Dean pointed out one more thing that is important about learning: You need a goal. Practice doesn't work without a goal. In some ways, you could even say that practice isn't about actual learning -- not about the "discovery" side of learning anyway: It's about taking what you've learned and mastering it.

Rewriting is something that comes late in the mastery process, if not after the end of it. It's for when you know what you need, for certain. It's also something which requires a specific goal.

Don't Be Your Own Bad Editor

Junior editors, especially new junior editors, are famous for pissing on a writer's manuscript. Sometimes they are trying to be creative, but most of the time, they're just trying to prove that they're doing their job by using up a lot of red ink. If they didn't cover your manuscript with "corrections" they might be accused of not doing their jobs. If those edits were really justified, the head editor wouldn't have accepted your manuscript in the first place. I've never had a problem restoring the manuscript.

Top editors, on the other hand, usually have a concrete reason that has nothing to do with creativity -- house style, clarity, length, reading level. If they want something changed on a creative level, they leave it to the writer. After all, that's your job.

When it comes to rewriting, most writers act as though they are that junior editor. "It's a rough draft! It couldn't be good! Fix those errors!" And so we go in without any goal but finding errors whether they are there or not.

Unless you know there is something wrong, don't mess with it. And don't edit because you have some fuzzy emotional belief that it could be better. If you don't know, leave it be.

You Should Be a Good Editor

As writers we're used to fixing up any little problems you see as you read through the manuscript. That fine, that's a tidy work habit... but it's not editing. Editing is a job, distinct from writing. When the time comes to make a real editing pass, you need to know what job you're doing. Proofreading? Copy editing? Line Editing? Story Editing? They each have different goals. And if you try to bunch them together, you will miss things. Edit with a purpose.

For proofreading, the goal is a clean manuscript. This is something even beginners can do and understand. Fix the mistakes -- at least the ones you know about.

And that's a lesson beyond proofreading, btw: If you have problems with grammar and spelling, you can't fix what you don't know, right? You've got to study and practice first. What makes you think any of your other writing skills are any different?

With copy editing the goal is a consistent manuscript (i.e. making sure your more optional grammatical and spelling choices are consistent, story continuity, time line errors, things like that). For the advanced writer, this may also involve clarity -- just as long as editing for clarity doesn't mess with the voice. That's when it moves into the creative stuff.

For the beginning writer, though, I think clarity does get into the creative stuff, and so maybe should be treated as line editing. And line editing is where people start crossing into that hazy undefined area which gets them into trouble.

Line editing is about voice.

And you can't edit for voice if you don't have one, don't know the purpose of your "voice" choices, and can't identify the elements of your voice. When you have a voice and the skill and knowledge to understand how it works, line editing kicks in to support it. And for that matter, so do the larger matters of story editing.

Editing and rewriting is not writing well. You have to learn to write well first. Then, yes, higher levels of editing may take you to another level -- but it won't get you there before you actually do write well.

Quick story: I heard an interview with a young violinist who studied with Isaac Stern. When she started, she told him that she didn't want to be a "mere virtuoso." That is, somebody who showed off a lot of fancy skill and didn't display real sensitivity to music. And Stern told her, "If you want to be more than a virtuoso, then first you have to be a virtuoso."

It's like that.

Writing Well

We think of line editing as being about "writing well." But consider this: Good writing is not generic. It's not something which has to do with black and white rules the way proofreading does. Or even the relatively universal rules of copy editing. Writing well is about voice.

Voice flows from the story. You can't edit it in later. It doesn't adhere to rules; it makes its own, and they are there and internally consistent, and you have to be able to recognize and discover them.

When you first write, your voice may be fuzzy and inconsistent, like a photograph which is out of focus, and has one part over-exposed and another part under-exposed. Editing that is like trying to fix such a photo in Photoshop. Yes, sometimes you can make it look a little better -- if you really understand exactly what is missing and what is wrong with it in a technical sense -- but you can't actually fix it. You're better off taking another photo, if you possibly can. Sometimes you can't and that's why you use Photoshop.

You CAN always write another story.

Which isn't to say that you can't learn from looking at the previous story. Studying your mistakes is not a bad idea. It won't help you fix that story, but it helps you identify things to work on. That's how you set your goals for your next writing project.

And by looking and then writing more, and writing more, you will slowly start to understand voice. But alas....

With Understanding Comes The Dreaded Internal Editor

You will know exactly when you start to get a handle on voice. It will be obvious, because something bad will happen.

Your internal editor will go into hyperdrive.

You won't enjoy reading like you used to. You'll start to see "flaws" in everything. On the rare occasions you don't find flaws, you're so busy noticing how well the story is written that you no longer actually experience the story.

Don't worry about it. It's normal and natural. This will pass if you persist.

The key is to learn to get a rope on that pesky internal editor. When you hit that state, that's the signal: Go Zen. Stop judging. Stop thinking about errors and right and wrong. When you see passive voice, don't let yourself think "that's wrong, I hate it!" and start thinking "why did this author use passive voice here?"

Accept what is, and think instead what it means. Here's the reason:

When you have strong rules in your mind -- like "don't use passive voice" -- you're operating in a Generic Voice. You need to move to your own voice. And to the story's voice.

So how do you get there? Well, you don't get there by consciously saying "My voice will be bright and perky" or "My voice will be stark and harsh." You develop voice by gaining control of it.

You got this far by practicing. Okay, keep that up. But now you have acquired a pesky internal editor. That editor is trying to be a teacher or authority figure. You've got to move him to a more of a support and enabling role. Like a librarian. Your editor is there to observe stuff and help understand it: not just know the rules, but how the rules work.

Think of it this way:

A dozen years ago I had a co-worker who was a highly competent, neat, efficient kind of guy. He was the perfect guy to lead our team, and though I'm more of the messy sort of person, we got on great. One thing he used to do is go through our storage areas and clean out old junk -- adapters, cables, records. And when he'd do that, I would always comb through the trash and pull a few things back out and put them in my office. And he would watch me do it, and he'd scowl thoughtfully.

It was never long before we had a technology crisis, and I saved his bacon by supplying the exact right adapter which I saved from the trash. This only had to happen twice before he started bringing junk to me and asking my permission to throw it away. I would explain to him what uses I could see for the item, and leave him to decide for himself whether we needed that item or not.

Now, the reason I could give him that information was not because I was smarter than he was -- I most certainly wasn't -- but because I had been around longer. Every crisis that came along -- whether it was technological, a problem with the aging building, a cheating vendor, a misunderstanding, or simple bone-headed decision-making on the part of those above us -- I had seen it before. Multiple times.

And in the end, he still threw most of the junk away. But we were all more prepared to deal with the crisis for having talked about it, and we had critical stuff on hand when we needed it.

Now, here is the kicker: I'm not the muse in that story, and the co-worker is not the internal editor. We're BOTH the internal editor. Our team was in a support role for the faculty who did the real work.

You need an internal editor which supports your muse: which knows when to stand back, and knows that there is always a circumstance in which junk is not junk, but the exact right thing you need. But also knows when to dismiss things and not hang on to them because you always have before. You need an editor which can come up with a solution when your muse needs it, whether that solution is an old tool, or a new innovative idea.


If you're starting out, don't worry about rewriting, because you don't know enough. Learn the basic stuff -- grammar, clarity, copy editing -- and do that kind of editing. Gain experience by writing more. Sure, look at your old work and get feedback on it, but don't worry about fixing it. Just move forward.

If you're in the state where your internal editor is messing with your ability to read, then you have to move past the "judgmental" stage. You're ready to start developing your voice properly. Go zen. Forget good and bad, and start working to master the principles. Have the control to be as bad or good as you want.

And when you have enough control to define what you want out of a rewrite, then yeah, maybe you should play with that. But do it with a purpose, not out of habit or because you think you're supposed to.

"No rewriting" is a rule, after all. Rules are meant to be broken.

See you in the funny papers.


Anonymous said...


I observe that in my earliest stages I found it was easiest to develop skills one at a time. So, if I was writing and had the slightest doubt about which of two telling details was the one that I really had room for -- I wrote them both down. Then later I revised one out. That way, I didn't have to juggle the "inventing details" skill and "selecting the right detail" skill at the same time.

Once I got better at them, I managed to juggle them, but not until then.

The Daring Novelist said...

The truth is, in the end, Heinlein's third rule is just a way of reiterating the second rule: finish what you start.

All of it is a "Your mileage may -- and will -- vary" situation. You've got to do what you can to keep moving forward. There are so many techniques. So many paths.

For all that I thing most people need to hear the "keep writing and don't stop to rewrite" mantra, I think I need to talk about revision more just now.

It's not always rewriting -- sometimes it's a part of the envisioning process. Which is a part of the learning and developing process.

In some ways I'm writing this to review the past for myself, while I move on to newer levels. Learning so often is a repeat cycle.