Editing vs Rewriting

Editing vs Rewriting

By: Terri Rich

First draft is all about discovery – following the characters we have created and allowing them to evolve and grow, sometimes in ways we never anticipated. And that is true for both plotters and pantsers. During first draft nothing is off-limits and everything is possible. As the story unfolds, the single mom of six may become a teenage virgin still living at home with her parents. The school teacher with blonde hair and green eyes might turn out to be a red-headed FBI agent with blue eyes.

And then comes that magic moment when we write the final two words: The End.

Now, we turn our efforts to editing. Some authors write such a clean first draft that the only editing required is finding typos and correcting punctuation. I’m not one of those authors. My only goal during the first draft is to get words on the page. I subscribe to the adage that you can’t fix a blank page. So I write trash. Well, maybe not total trash, but I don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, starting every sentence with “She” or using the same word fifteen times on one page. Editing is a large part of my process.

But, I hate editing! As a result, I have seven finished first drafts and only one story that has been edited. And even that one needs a third or maybe even fourth draft. I recently started looking through and studying those completed stories and what I discovered is that I not only hate editing, I SUCK at it!

You see, every one of those stories have several ‘versions’. Instead of editing, what I have done is retold the story with slightly different details. I have a story of loss; a young nurse and mother of three loses her entire family, husband and three children, in a tragic accident, where she is the only survivor. In draft one, she is a nurse who meets the hero when he brings his daughter in to her ER with a broken arm. In version four she is a stay-at-home mom with a penchant for running, who rescues triplets on the beach.

Changing these details is not editing! It is rewriting. My current work-in-progress started in draft one with an agoraphobic, widowed mother of two who witnesses a murder. In draft two, the agoraphobic aspect completely disappeared. Again, this is not editing. It is rewriting.

And yet, often details do change in second draft. Blog mate Lorinda is telling a three-part story of two young lovers who meet originally in high school, again in college and finally ten years later as adults. In draft one, she told the entire first story in the heroine’s point-of-view. In draft two, she realized that she wanted to include the hero’s point of view. That is editing. Blog mates Sandra and Dawn both write first drafts that are so clean that they just need some minor clean up and the incorporation of details they learned as the story developed. Again – editing. Not rewriting.

As is often the case, the first time I started thinking about this issue I was critiquing someone else’s work. She was telling the story of a single mother with a troubled fourteen-year-old son. Two-thirds finished, she started second guessing the story. Maybe there were two children, the fourteen-year-old and a younger sister. Maybe the teen wasn’t really troubled, just misguided. Maybe this, maybe that, maybe, maybe, maybe. She was still writing first draft, so technically – nothing is off-limits. But these changes were not necessary to the story she already had on paper. These changes felt more like procrastination than improvement. My first light bulb moment was the realization that you can change anything and everything as often as you want to, but you’ll never get the story told that way. So, I determined that once I had the ‘facts’ on paper, those facts wouldn’t change.

You might think that would have been enough for me to recognize a difference between rewriting and editing, but no, I’m sorry to say this episode only planted the thought. The true ‘ah ha’ moment came just recently. I had completed much of the first draft of my current work in progress, while working with only one critique partner. Then our situation changed, and two more members were added to our critique group. I started running second draft through critique group to my original partner and the two new ones. This is the story that started with an agoraphobic mother of two who witnesses a murder. In draft two, the agoraphobic aspect disappeared. Week after week, critiques from the partner who had seen version one kept referencing the changes. Finally, she challenged me – why not run that first version through critique group.

LIGHT-BULB MOMENT – I had not been editing. I was rewriting. I had seen this so plainly when critiquing the story of the single mother with the fourteen-year-old son. However, this was ‘different’. After all, I had a complete first draft. And since I was ‘editing’ that gave me permission to make changes to the story. But these changes were not necessary. In fact, they weakened the story. Remember, I hate editing – so these changes gave me the ability to still create – except it was a REcreation – which was actually REwriting, not editing.

My hope is that I have finally discovered the difference between editing and re-writing, and that having made this discovery, I will – perhaps – be able to take a first draft novel all the way to publish ready.

Have you written today?

Terri Rich

Terri Richison (writing as Terri Rich) lives in Clear Lake City, TX with her husband and a giant Great Dane (giant even by Great Dane standards). She is working on self-publishing women’s fiction and avoiding getting a pie in the face if she doesn’t produce pages for every critique session! PIES OR PAGES! Terri started telling stories almost as soon as she could talk – she learned everything she needed to know about storytelling at her grandmother’s knee. Craft however, is something she is still learning – those damn commas give me nightmares!

6 thoughts on “Editing vs Rewriting

  1. Thanks for this, Terri. It’s definitely a valuable reminder to consider the changes we want to make and our motivation to make them!

    I’ve found that I want to tweak a particular detail of my WIP right now, but if I do that, I’ll impact the flow of the story and leave my heroine high-and-dry in the romance department (which might not be the best thing to do in a “romance-lite” sort of story).

    So it’s super-helpful to have your words of wisdom on this one! Am I procrastinating or following my muse or just disorganized? Hmm… Something to consider!

    1. Sandra,
      If you want, I’m available to brainstorm this tweak to help you discover where it belongs – in the book or on the cutting room floor.

  2. Second guessing ourselves is not only a procrastination staple, but the fear it engenders keeps us (well, me anyway) from finishing a story. In fact, as much as it pains me to admit, the last time I wrote a true “The End” was November 18, 2002 – and I have the shirt to prove it.
    For me though, its opposite. I edit my story to death rather than create the Middle or the Ending (the part I hate). We all have our Albatrosses.
    If you want to try and bang out a high first draft word count, join me and others participating in April Madness (structured after a Book in a Month) at http://annemarienovark.com/?page_id=1560

  3. Lorinda, Congrats on participating in April Madness! I’m excited to see your word count jump! Just keep moving forward – you have an ambitious plan with your three-part story, but I’m confident you can do it!

  4. Outing myself here. The mom with the troubled teenager is mine, and Terri: you nailed it!

    My original intention with that story was to make her son the instigator of her troubles (with excellent, redeemable motivation of course) but since, at the time, I WAS a mother of teenage sons, I couldn’t bring myself to make him the bad guy. Adding a baby girl and all those other “what-ifs” were me sabotaging the story because I was afraid/uncomfortable of the material I knew I needed to writer.

    Now that my boys are twenty, I’m going to dig back into that story and write it the way it needs to be written. Lord help us all, because you awesome women are going to have to deal with my skittishness as I work through my own wall of fear!

  5. Dawn – I LOVE this story and I am looking forward to finally getting to find out what happens! Of every book I have ever read – both published and not published – your opening of HI is one of the strongest, if not THE strongest, I have ever read! I’m thrilled that you are going to bring this story to fruition!

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