If you’re just starting to write seriously, it can be a little daunting to look at all the components of an excellent work. No matter the type of writing, it’s overwhelming to try to juggle realistic dialogue, transitions, solid sentences, character development, rhyme schemes, or keeping the reader’s interest. There are many suggestions for how to improve in a particular branch of writing, whether it’s crafting poetry or an essay, but there’s one technique that holds for every form. I don’t claim to be expert who’s reached writing “enlightenment,” however, there is a tool I keep returning to time and again to help me progress. Editing.
I know, it seems anticlimactic. Bear with me. The number of writers who I’ve heard declare they don’t edit is a little surprising. The reason editing is the most important tool in an author’s toolbox is not so a comma splice can be corrected or a rough sentence tweaked– it’s precisely because there is so much to keep in mind when drafting. Going back over a first draft allows you to coax out some of those elements of a great work you missed the first time. It also gives invaluable insight to your specific weaknesses as a writer. I didn’t realize how many filler words snuck into my writing until I went to eliminate unnecessary “that”s from the first chapter of my first novel.
Drafting is a vital step, since it’s impossible to edit without a written piece. Its impact on improving a person’s writing, though, is naturally limited, and the synergy between drafting and editing is what propels a writer’s progress. Re-working sentences and the structure of a piece to be its best trains your brain to think in that ameliorated pattern, meaning your original drafts will eventually start to look more like polished drafts. It’s a self perpetuating cycle that minimizes plateaus.
The hard truth is that a first draft never reaches its full potential right away. There may be better ones and rougher ones, but I have yet to encounter a first draft with nothing to edit. The resentment towards editing seems to stem from three things– laziness, boredom, or feeling vulnerable. Finding the polishing process too much work or too boring can be overcome by simply sitting down and doing it, knowing it’s worth it to make the work excellent. And once you switch into the analytically creative type of thinking required, editing can actually be pretty fun. If the reason you avoid going back over your work is due to a feeling of vulnerability, a dislike of being confronted by weak writing despite your best efforts, then remember what editing is for. It’s to improve your writing, not an excuse to berate yourself. Wait a few days before looking over your work again, and remind yourself of what the goal is.
This exercise of editing takes the pressure off the drafting process, allowing the author to breathe and know there will be a chance to modify it later. Your writing doesn’t have to be perfect the first time through, or even the second. While there are plenty of other tools to employ– especially as one gains experience– editing is the best and most consistent way to improve. The toil of reworking and polishing a written piece is what transforms it (along with the writer) from merely good to excellent.