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One of my bugbears about writing is the editing process. I'd much rather get it right first time, rather than chop this and change that afterwards.

Other industries would not tolerate the rather curious approach writers have to the craft. Imagine a car manufacturer saying to their workers 'oh, just build the car - we'll fix it up when you've finished.' No - there are rules, systems and procedures in place that ensure that when the car reaches the end of the conveyer belt, it is ready to be delivered to the customer.

But don't get hung up on the example (every metaphor breaks down somewhere). I'm asking here for positive steps we can take to make it more likely that our 'first drafts' are good enough to be published.

Edit: Just to be clear - I'm not trying to change the amount of work, or the reduce time it takes, I'm merely asking for ways to avoid excessive editing (something I don't enjoy) by doing other things such as (thanks to Amadeus for his suggestions) 'planning, detailed outlining and world-building and character building' (things I do enjoy).

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    That car that comes off the assembly line is the result of countless concept sketches, some trial-and-error aesthetic design, lots of models, and several prototypes. What makes you think that somebody just sketched it out on paper once and then it rolled out of the factory in customer-ready condition? Once they've settled on the precise design, yes, it's easy to make another one, but that's analogous to photocopying a book rather than writing one. – Nuclear Wang May 18 '18 at 13:21
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    Re: Edit: Fair enough, but writing can be much like coding: Trying to write a program with zero syntax errors that compiles and runs correctly the first time would typically take far longer than writing reasonably good code and then debugging it. I think writing is much like that, too, the planning to have the first draft publishable will far exceed the time to edit and revise several times. – Amadeus May 18 '18 at 13:55
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    @robertcday My point is not that there is no reduction in time, my point is that you will multiply the total time, several fold. For example, being careful enough to never rewrite, you may spend three years writing a novel instead of nine months. If you are willing to do that, go for it. Personally, I would rather produce three times more publishable work, by doing what I do: several passes of rewrites, which are mostly just reading I don't mind doing, and having a finished product in six to nine months (except for editorial suggestions / requests). – Amadeus May 18 '18 at 14:47
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    The other path out of your dilemma is finding a way to enjoy editing. I personally love editing because I look at the next iteration and see how much better it is. In addition to planning the first draft, try a concrete plan for your edits. EX: 1. Identify the purpose of each scene. Identify if it moves plot. 2. Examine the consistency and complexity of each character. 3. etc 4. etc <- this approach may or may not appeal to you. Structure like this appeals to me, and improving is a nice feeling. So, find a way to enjoy editing? – DPT May 18 '18 at 15:11
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    You seem to have an unrealistic view of how cars are made. I had a part-time job in high school and college as an "assistant proofreader for engine blocks" (ie. auto manufacturers would send samples of their latest engine blocks to us for testing, and we'd send back a detailed report of what was wrong with this iteration.) By the time a car rolls off the assembly line, the design has been through several years of editing. – Mark May 19 '18 at 1:14
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I'm a research scientist and professor at a university. We tolerate exactly this "rather curious approach" to research, of multiple refinements until we zero in on something interesting. We do experiment after experiment to find it.

Do you realize how many different takes on the internal combustion engine were tried before Ford invented the engine block? Innumerable, by garage mechanics everywhere. Do you realize how many refinements it has had since then?

The only thing fitting your metaphor in writing is publishing, and we can indeed spew out innumerable identical copies of a finished book very quickly.

Writing is much like research and inventing something new. The first draft is the first experiment, to see if the story works or does not. The refinements are to make it work better. With practice you might be able to do something in one draft, but really that is just going to load most of the work into planning, detailed outlining and world-building and character building before you ever begin writing. It isn't going to change the amount of work it takes to invent everything.

12

Building a car is a repeatable process. It happens on an assembly line and each step is the same. There are some small, intentional variations in the process to accommodate customization like paint color and optional components. But for the most part, the assembly line implements repeatable steps which produce the same output every time. There are entire industries devoted to identifying and reducing variations in manufacturing processes so that every produced part is the same. Writing a book is nothing like that.

Writing is generally an act of discovery. As you write and flesh out the details of the story, you often have to go back and rework earlier scenes to incorporate and set up those details so that the whole work becomes cohesive. Writer's tend to group themselves into "pantsers" and "outliners" but it's much more of a continuum than two distinct groups. Even the most dedicated outliners seldom plot out every detail of a work before they start writing. The more detail you put into an outline, the more closely it resembles the finished product. At some point, creating an insanely detailed outline becomes equivalent to actually writing the story. You can put more work into creating the outline so that there are fewer changes to make to the first draft, but that doesn't really reduce the amount of editing you're doing. It just shifts the work from one stage to another.

In addition to editing for plot, there's editing for flow and smoothness of the text. I know of no author who can sit down and write pages of perfect copy. The serene, effortless flow that you get in a great novel is the product of rewriting and editing:

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 is a labor of love for most authors, but that doesn't make it any less a labor. This thought isn't original to me, but it's one I've found highly relevant:

Do you want to write, or do you want to have written?

Writing is hard work. There are no short cuts. You can improve on some things by practice and repetition, but you will never eliminate the need to edit and rewrite. It's part of the process.

  • If you're going to use an analogy in manufacturing, a good one is oil drilling or mine prospecting. With each drill and each prospect, you can use past experience to help guide the process, but each one will be different and most will not give you something worth building an operation around. – corsiKa May 18 '18 at 19:11
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    @corsiKa, a better manufacturing analogy would be the design process. Do you have any idea how many rough drafts the 2015 Ford F-150 went through? (Hint: it took them at least five years.) – Mark May 19 '18 at 1:08
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If you are not primarily an "exploration writer" (or even if you are), there is a lot of advance work that can make your first draft better. This includes worldbuilding --coming up with rich and expansive details and backstories about your characters and settings (even knowing not all of it will feature in your final work), outlining, which is structuring your overall plot, the relationships between the characters, and the major actions before starting writing, and visualization, which is picturing the characters' interactions, dialogue and settings before writing.

Is all of this enough to skip the rewriting process? There is one successful longer work I know of that --at least reportedly --was published largely in the form of its first draft, Keroauc's On the Road. And, personally speaking, I do only first drafts when I'm writing poetry (because editing seems to ruin whatever magic they have).

But, in general, if you do only a first draft, you are putting yourself at an extreme, quite possibly insurmountable disadvantage versus any other writer. More of what makes any successful and respected artist, of any kind, is hard work than it is either talent or inspiration. This means that avoiding hard work ("things I don't enjoy") is never a pathway to success. (I've learned that to my own sorrow.) It has been noted that authors can write characters who are smarter, wittier, and quicker than they are, simply because a lot of author work --invisible to the end reader --can go into a single character action or quote. To put this another way, the reading public generally demands a high level of polish, sophistication, clarity and lack of bloat from the writing they spend time with --a level that is nearly impossible to achieve without at least some rewriting and editing. (On the other hand, there are successful authors who do only two drafts.)

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    Please note, even with this small piece of informal writing, I've revised it six or seven separate times since posting it --to catch typos, add and remove parentheticals, and so forth. That's typical for me for SE answers, and I also usually additionally revise if I get comments. – Chris Sunami May 18 '18 at 14:55
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Anne Lamott again... she has a very dry sense of humour...

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third, drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.

The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time. Now, Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morning -- sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.

There are things you can do to avoid too many drafts though. Planning really helps. Doing all your research, taking photographs of your settings, gathering photos and backstories for your characters, mapping out your plot, mapping out every chapter until you know exactly what will go into every one. Getting people to review your outline for plot holes you may not have spotted. Basically, not writing anything until you're dead certain what needs to go on every page. But to be honest, that's as exhausting as redrafting.

And even after all that planning, what you actually write down probably won't sound as good as you thought it did when you go back and re-read days later.

My first novel I redrafted easily a dozen times, the first three chapters maybe twenty times.

My second novel, I only wrote three drafts though. As DPT says ... practise ... you get better! But my agents have put me through another three drafts and I have no doubt (if I'm lucky enough to find a publisher for it) they'll probably put me though at least another three. There's NINE drafts right there.

I have a friend whose publisher made him write twelve drafts before it went to print. I don't know how many he did with his agent, or how many he wrote before he found his agent.

I would say you need to find a way to get zen with editing. Find a way to enjoy it. If you don't, eek... you may be in the wrong job/hobby, and as Dan J says, wanting to have written instead of wanting to write.

Unless you can become Muriel Spark and start dictating from God?! ;)

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    One definite (potential, at least) upside of planning ahead of time what will happen in each chapter is that you're in a much better position to jump ahead a little and write a later chapter when you get stuck on a scene for whatever reason. – a CVn May 18 '18 at 14:22
  • I'm curious what got you an agent if the book needed three or six more redrafts. I'm curious b/c I don't know when to know if my ms is ready for the agent. I'm reaching the 'moving deckchairs' stage. Maybe time to plunge. – DPT May 18 '18 at 15:14
  • @MichaelKjörling You're ABSOLUTELY right. That's why I'm a planner. For a chapter I know is going to pose challenges, I have to be in just the right frame of mind. If I'm not in that frame of mind, I skip ahead and write a much less challenging chapter. It really works for me. Also, I wrote my first novel by the seat of my pants. Changes ripple. So, I'd get to chapter 20 and think... ahh... the novel should go in this new direction now. Then I'd have to go back to the beginning and rewrite all the chapters that change had rippled into. A horrific waste of time. Planning is the way for me now. – GGx May 19 '18 at 9:34
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    @DPT This is something I’ve only found out recently myself, as I’m relatively new to this business too. My first book bombed. It didn’t have a clear target audience, a clear spot on a bookstore shelf, it had an extremely complex and scientific plot and there was nothing like it out there. It was a VERY difficult sell. It bombed so big, I only got one request for the full. So, I learned from that mistake and wrote a book I knew would be an easy sell. – GGx May 19 '18 at 10:26
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    And this is why I said to Robert that you should try to get zen with and enjoy the editing process. Because when you get to the publisher submission stage, the chances of succeeding with a first draft are slim to none. You really need to be dictating from God. Now, if I could do that.... :) – GGx May 19 '18 at 10:31
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Just to be clear - I'm not trying to change the amount of work, or the reduce time it takes, I'm merely asking for ways to avoid excessive editing (something I don't enjoy) by doing other things such as (thanks to Amadeus for his suggestions) 'planning, detailed outlining and world-building and character building' (things I do enjoy).

Editing is planning, outlining, world-building, and character building.

What you will find is that once you've finished your first draft, there will be (at least) two serious problems: Your characters are not consistent throughout your story, and the ending does not call back to earlier events as much as it could have. This is simply because you won't have a real chance to look at your story as a whole, with all of the details in place, until you've finished your first draft. This is impossible to avoid.

Once you've finished your first draft, you're not going to go over it with a fine-tooth comb to make sure all your commas are in the right place and your words are spelled correctly. I agree that's boring, tedious work, but it's not second-draft stage editing, either. Instead, you're going to think about things like how you can foreshadow the ending better, how you can use symbolism to tie the most important points of your story together, how you can make your characters stronger and more consistent throughout your story...

This is very much still world- and character-building! Now that you have your entire story in front of you, you'll be aware of the weaknesses in the planning you've already done and be in the best possible position to address those weaknesses. I think you'll find that, although challenging, it still scratches your itch.

At some point, your story will not only have a strong foundation, but work as a complete whole. When you reach this point, editing will become focused on removing parts of the story that don't contribute enough to justify their inclusion - purple prose, verbose descriptions, scenes that don't move the plot forward, character interactions that can be tightened up. This part is probably the most challenging to your ego, because you have to be willing to throw out entire scenes that are excellently written on their own but don't contribute to the whole. But you're still working on this with an eye towards character- and world-building and your overall plot's outline.

Only when you feel that your story is tightly structured, with every part of the story pulling its weight compellingly, do you tediously dot your i's and cross your t's. Compared to the amount of time you've already invested, this won't take as long as everything else you've already accomplished.

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I see two.

  1. Practice. Eventually you'll go from needing six drafts to three. One? I don't know. I don't believe anyone does it in a single draft.

  2. Artificial intelligence. I suspect we'll see blockbusters written by computer within twenty years. Just ... write the code for that ... and you'll be set. :-)

Of course, that second one begs the question of why we write in the first place...

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    We write to provide a training corpus for our new computer overlords. – Nuclear Wang May 18 '18 at 13:24
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    "I suspect we'll see blockbusters written by computer within twenty years." Considering some of the blockbusters we see today... – a CVn May 18 '18 at 14:19
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"How can I make my 'first draft' good enough to be published?"

You can't (and your question means that you are a neophyte writer). It is an impossibility (unless you are a "lusus naturae" genius)

I write (technical stuff mostly) and moonlight as an editor (which is often harder than writing!)

I start with an outline and then gradually put flesh on it. The article (or book) changes as you write it and you have to go back and rewrite sections to fit the changes.

When I'm "done", I get my brother or my son (both writers) to review it and suggest edits. They always find redundancies or bad passages that need to be rewritten. As the author you inevitably become blind to these shortcomings - that is how the mind works.

Editing is hard work. Thomas Wolfe dumped 330,000 words of "O Lost" on Maxwell Perkin's desk. Minus about 90,000 words it became "Look Homeward, Angel". Authors hate you when you slice great chunks of garbage out (and always try and sneak bits back in).

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.

That's just how it is.

Mac

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One of my bugbears about writing is the editing process. I'd much rather get it right first time, rather than chop this and change that afterwards.

How can one make draft 1 publishable? I suppose it depends on how you define draft 2.

Maybe, now just maybe, you won't have to start the writing afresh, but you'll definitely have to edit things when you're done. If there really is a way to avoid doing that altogether, it would involve editing as you go, which is discouraged for several reasons:

  • You can't see every problem in the moment (indeed, whether something works or not often depends on what you've not even written yet);
  • "X is a problem" is in some cases subjective, and you have to see what readers think to know what reactions your work induces and how you'd like to change that;
  • You'll find it so hard to be happy with what you're writing it'll slow you to a crawl known as the tyranny of the blank page.

Hereafter I'll assume your aim is "don't start from scratch", which is much less ambitious. I know from experience often even that's not achievable. I'll mention two other things before I continue quoting you:

  • Many writers don't realise that most first drafts are too long (in fact, some would argue even most published novels may be too long). Therefore, editing a draft is often more about what you lose than what new material you write (or old material you tweak, as is often necessary around the edges of anything you may cut). Of course, excising material is still "hard work", albeit not perhaps the kind of hard work self-editing writers first think of.
  • I write in LyX, software that allows me to hide anything I "remove" so it never needs to be gone. This somewhat blurs the line as to whether I'm "redrafting" a radically overhauled work that's still in the same file.

Other industries would not tolerate the rather curious approach writers have to the craft. Imagine a car manufacturer saying to their workers 'oh, just build the car - we'll fix it up when you've finished.' No - there are rules, systems and procedures in place that ensure that when the car reaches the end of the conveyer belt, it is ready to be delivered to the customer.

Before the purchasable car exists, both prototype cars and pre-car ideas such as blueprints exist. The writer's equivalent of R&D includes planning a firs draft, a summary of readers' feedback on it, and planning a redraft based on such feedback.

But don't get hung up on the example (every metaphor breaks down somewhere). I'm asking here for positive steps we can take to make it more likely that our 'first drafts' are good enough to be published.

If I recall correctly, you've read a few books advising people on how to write. Is obeying all those rules (except where you're sure you should be breaking them) enough to make draft 1 shine? Probably not, and it's especially unlikely for an author's first novel. (I mention that for future readers of this page, not the OP.) I know from experience that most if not all of a beta reader's feedback isn't "you broke rule X" (with or without their knowledge there is such a rule), but "Y isn't working in this story".

Luckily, fixing that often means removing things rather than writing a lot that's new. One of my critique partners helped me identify 10,000 words that needed to leave a 90k manuscript, and it was surprisingly easy to make what remained work without them; and when she saw it, I'd already removed a lot of other words whose not belonging was even more obvious. How did I help her? By realising there were whole characters she needed to lose.

0

I'm in a situation similar to yours and I also want to maximize the chance of the novel being good enough right from the start.

I plan to do this:

  1. Design the plot.
  2. Write a shitty first draft as fast as possible.
  3. Improve it through editing yourself. Rewrite chapters or the entire novel, if necessary.
  4. Hire an editor.

Details to steps 1 and 4 follow.

Plot Design

In my opinion you need to get the plot right before you start writing. You cannot improve some plot problems (e. g. too few things happen in the novel, conflicts aren't tough enough) through editing. That's why plot design is the first step. The outcome of this process is

  1. the event sequence (all events that somehow are important for your story),
  2. the scene sequence, and
  3. an idea (mental or written) on who your most important characters are and what people they are.

Usually, a scene corresponds to one event and one chapter. Not all events have a corresponding scenes. Some events (like births of characters) are included in the story (transformed to scenes) only, if this is necessary due to story requirements.

Another difference: The event sequence is linear (events occur one after another). The scenes describing those events may appear in the novel in a different order (e. g. the novel starts with an action scene from the middle, then the following chapters explain what happened before that; all kinds of flashbacks, memories etc.).

Hiring an editor

If there is anyone who knows whether your novel is good enough for publishing, it's a good editor. It's the editors who decide whether or not a novel gets published.

The most natural thing is to hire such person so that he or she will tell you how to improve your work. By hiring him or her you can tap into their experience of reading, editing, and rejecting hundreds of novels. This probably can save you time and make the success on the first attempt more likely.

At least that's what I intend to do with the book I'm writing now.

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