Why editing is essential for even the best writers

Tony Spencer-Smith

By Tony Spencer-Smith

When we read the work of gifted writers, it is easy to get the impression that they write effortlessly, perfect words pouring in impeccable order onto the page.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Those words will have been edited or even rewritten repeatedly by the writer, or sometimes an external editor.

Many famous novelists wrote draft after draft before they were happy. Let’s hear it from two of them:

  • ‘I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.’ — Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1966
  • Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do? Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied. Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you? Hemingway: Getting the words right. — Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Writing with both brains

Editing is an integral part of writing; two sides of the same coin. And the important thing is not to edit too soon. If you do, you could stifle your creative energy.

We really have two brains in our heads. The creative, holistic right brain, and the logical, analytical left brain. We need to write with both those brains.

You need to get a first draft down without letting self-scrutiny grind you to a halt, or drain the life out of your words. Trust your right brain to generate interesting material.

Once that draft is done, let it rest for a while before starting the editing process. That way you will come to it with fresh eyes.

Once you start editing, be bold and unsentimental – look fearlessly at what you have written with the left brain’s cold, critical eye.

Mind you, you will still need to call on the big picture insights of the right brain during the initial structural editing process. As Stephen King wrote in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: 'When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.'

During the structural editing, you might find that even some of your best writing has to go, because it gets in the way of your main theme or slows the pace.

In the terrible, immortal words of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in his 1916 book On the Art of Writing: 'Murder your darlings.'

When you move onto copyediting, one of the things you’ll be looking to do is pare down the words, cutting out redundancies and repetition, excessive detail and so on. You’re going for lean and mean.

Here’s how the children’s author Dr Seuss put it: 'So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.'

When you have been through those first two stages of editing, your copy will not be perfect yet. You still need the third stage: proofreading. This is the final, quality-control level of editing, where you are trying to hunt down any last typos, grammar errors, incorrect word choices etc.

The last stage is exhausting, and you might need a good proofreader to do it for you. But the result of all this editing will be that the promising rock of your first draft has turned into a shining gem.

Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Newcastle and its employees.

About the author

Tony Spencer-Smith is an award-winning novelist, a former Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest Magazine and an experienced corporate writer and writing trainer. His book The essentials of great writing was published in Sydney in 2009.