Many years ago I came across an interview with the late James Michener, the Pulitzer Prize winning author whose forty books have sold tens of millions of copies. In the interview, he was asked about the secret to his success. The essence of his answer, which has always stuck in my head, was this: I am a better editor than a writer.
A prior blog post discussed the often formidable writer’s block that can prevent us from creating a first draft. The blog offered four suggestions on how to overcome the block: spend enough time thinking about your subject before you start writing; forget about your intended audience and write the first draft for yourself; set aside any formal requirements and approach the project as an unconstrained creative writing assignment; be cheerful about how bad the first draft might be.
But once you have that bad first draft in hand, how do you turn it into a finished product? It is, as James Michener said, all about being a better editor than you are a writer.
Here are a few pieces of advice, some borrowed from successful authors and some derived from my own experience, to help you become a good editor of your own work.
Put it away
In his marvelous book, On Writing, Stephen King explains that he would set aside the first draft of a novel for at least six weeks in order to get some distance from it, and then come back to it with a more objective editorial eye. For most things that we write, we don’t have the luxury of letting the first draft sit for six weeks. But I find that letting a draft sit for even just one night makes a huge difference in my ability to edit objectively.
Let someone else read it
Author Anne Lamont devotes an entire chapter of Bird by Bird, her exquisite treatise on writing, to the importance of allowing someone to read your work and give you an honest critique. For most of our writing, we don’t have the luxury of employing a professional editor, but we almost always have a colleague, friend, or family member who can take a quick look and offer some feedback. I often have my wife read my essays, and she always gives me useful suggestions to improve clarity and finds typos that I can’t see because I’m too close to the text.
Edit, edit again, and keep editing
Robert Caro, who has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, explains in Working that he never stops editing: “I do so much rewriting…I rewrite the galleys…I rewrite in page proofs…I’d rewrite in the finished book if I could.” The point is that a quick once-over editing job won’t do the trick. The more times you are willing to take a fresh look at your writing (after letting it sit overnight, of course), the better your final product will be.
Print it out
Our computers are powerful tools that make it possible to produce an entire manuscript without ever using a single piece of paper. Yet I find that it helps immensely to print a draft, grab a pen, read line by line, and make edits on the paper before returning to the computer.
Read it out loud
When I read aloud slowly and deliberately, my ear picks up awkward constructions that my eyes may have missed. Reading every word aloud also helps me spot missing punctuation and spelling errors.
I know this sounds silly, but it works! I find that I tend to gloss over errors when I read from start to finish because I know what to expect as I’m reading. So I will often read from the back of a document, working paragraph by paragraph to the front. When I do this, I tend to see each individual paragraph more clearly and I’m a better judge of whether the paragraph makes sense and accomplishes what it is supposed to.
None of these tactics will turn you into the next Anne Lamont or James Michener, but they will go a long way towards helping you get from that really bad first draft to a polished product you can be proud to share with others.