We write, right? Go ahead and take a minute to think about why you write. Go ahead…
…got it? Good. I can guarantee you that absolutely no one answered that question with the answer, “Because I love to edit!” And yet, editing is as integral to the process of writing as are those blissful hours we carve out to first put ideas to paper (or electron). Editing is that time when we step back and remember that though our story has taken shape, it is not necessarily in shape:
We might have problems of proportion, giving too much weight to the wrong events or characters. We might have broken out of voice, or not settled into a voice until some midway point. We might have structural concerns. Or thematic concerns. Or flow… or…
Whatever the element, it is important to remember the end-goal and then, through editing, steer the work toward that finished product. Hopefully your goal is to produce a tight, well-written piece that recruits the reader into an emotional journey — because there is a lesson to be learned, a comment to be made, or just because it is a helluva fun ride. If you’re not doing that, you are at the very least shorting your reader — who is putting an investment of time into reading what you’ve written and expects (quite rightly) some sort of payoff.
More likely, you have no reader.
Readers must have a connection to your story. They have to feel the arc of it even if they can’t see how things could ever work out. They have to sense the point of things (theme, plot, and structure). If they don’t have this sort of connection, if they feel you’re wandering, very likely they’re going to put the piece down and move on.
Without a reader, you might as well be writing for your own diary. Of course, it bears pointing out that journal writing is about the only writing that doesn’t feel the lash of an editing pen. I find that correlation (no editing, no readers) interesting. I do not find it coincidental.
Writing a first draft is like teeing off in golf. Chances are, you haven’t made a hole-in-one. You’re going to have to turn to your other clubs… and edit. You’ve left yourself a 7-iron of dialog mechanics. Or a 3-wood of unnecessary back-story.
We make choices all the time about what makes it into our writing. The point of editing is to go back and make sure that we made the right choices. Go back, read the whole thing, and see what themes emerged. Boil things down to one or two sentences that answer the question: what is the point? Any way you can arrive at the core, what you’re looking for is the story — not the story you told in your first draft, but the story you should have told:
That tangent into a side-plot might have been fun to write, but it really doesn’t fit into the point of the story. Or maybe it does, but you have to draw the connections more strongly so that it feels like it belongs.
Your themes and reasons for writing the story become a sort of lens on each component, filtering the reader’s experience of events in such a way that each scene contributes to the central premise of the story. Once you’ve answered “what’s the point?” you examine the various pieces of the story to ask, “why this? why here?”
There is a writing aphorism (from Chekhov, I believe) that goes something like, “if there’s a gun on the wall in Chapter 1, by Chapter 3, it should have gone off.” Everything in its place, and everything with a purpose. The different parts of our stories have multiple duties… telling the story, yes, but also supporting the premise, reinforcing theme, etc. Whatever we choose to tell must also give the reader a reason to hear the story.
Guess where/when during the writing process that happens?