In the final part of our blog series of Creative Writing exercises, Creative Writing BA (Hons) Course Leader Dr Jack McGowan talks to us about Editing and Redrafting and outlines some techniques to help you get the best out of your writing.
Editing your work can sometimes feel like an off-putting prospect. Often, we feel as though our first draft is closest to the thoughts and feelings that first inspired our piece and we worry that changing or altering the first draft might lose some of that initial magic. Don't be afraid of editing. Making even small edits could change the piece, but all writing is a journey, and it's better to tinker with a piece to try and improve it than to do nothing in fear of making it worse. After all, you can always keep a copy of the first draft in a separate document or notebook, that way you can return to the first draft whenever you want to.
The fantasy author Terry Pratchett once said:
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
Editing isn't necessarily going to replace the excitement you felt when you came up with a great story, and it can feel tedious to go through your work, or as though you're going back on yourself. But editing can be fun as well. Think of it like a puzzle that you need to solve to make the work the best it can be, and the satisfaction will come from knowing you've made a real improvement.
It helps to break down your editing and redrafting down into two different types: Surface Edits and Structural Edits.
Surface edits are changes to individual sentences or lines, and can include grammar, punctuation, syntax (or word order), and minor character details or description. These are changes you make that don't have an impact further on in the piece - they're about tidying up your writing and making sure it's communicating at full capacity.
Structural edits are larger: these are typically more significant changes to characterisation or plot or tone that might result in further changes to make sure that your work is consistent. In prose, these might be changes to the sequence of events, or the introduction of new characters and subplots.
In poetry, structural edits might be changes to the direction or focus of the poem, or times when you discover that you haven’t quite said everything that you needed to say to convey your meaning. Make space for both types of editing. They are equally important to the overall success of your writing.
Practical Tips for Editing and Redrafting
To put this in context here are five practical tips that you can use to kickstart your editing and redrafting:
1. Turn it on its head: If you're struggling to work out what you're trying to say in a poem or a story, or a particular scene within a longer narrative, try to see if you can say the exact opposite. Sometimes turning a piece on its head and thinking about the opposite position helps us to get in touch with what we're really trying to say.
If you're writing a poem about a loved one try writing a poem about an enemy instead and see if it helps you to narrow down your ideas.
2. Look out for repetition: particularly moments where you're repeating a description or a specific detail of characterisation. This is arguably more important in poetry than prose, where space is at a premium. Try not to do the same work twice when one image your description will do. However, this can also be a problem in fiction - sometimes we can be too keen to put a particular detail about a character into a story because we think it's a good detail. It might well be, but make sure you're not over-emphasising the point.
3. Have you moved your reader? Good writing will have moved the reader to see a new perspective on an issue. All writing be it poetry, prose, screenwriting, has a ‘narrative.’ This doesn't necessarily have to be a plot, but it should show how an experience has developed. Writing which leaves your reader in the same mental space as they were at the start will be lacking something.
4. Have you broken your own rules? We all know from experience that it doesn’t read well when a novel breaks its own rules and a character does something they had not been able to do before without narrative justification. An example of this is: When characters demonstrate the ability to time travel and then suddenly stop using this for no apparent reason, especially when it would have come in handy, a few books later. It’s fine to surprise your reader but try to avoid moments where you're undermining the principles you've established.
5. Is it still exciting? There will be points in your writing, particularly if you're writing a longer work like a novel, where you'll be so familiar with the piece that it'll be frustrating. But try to keep an eye out for moments, be they paragraphs or lines or even whole chapters, where you feel bored. If you're bored by your writing the chances are high that your reader will be as well.
These are the moments to focus on for surface or structural edits to inject some more excitement into the narrative. So, take a piece of writing that you've completed and try to redraft it with one or more of these tips in mind. Don't worry if the editing process takes much longer than the first draft did!
When studying Creative Writing at Worcester, we encourage you to develop patience and to hone the tools you'll need to be proud of your accomplishments. It is important to ensure that your writing is sharp and professional. A strong and exciting first draft is great, but you want to develop your overall craft to help you become the best writer you can be.
This is the final part in our Creative Writing Exercises blog series to help you improve your writing and to act as inspiration. Want to try the previous exercise? Learn how to write 'Memoir' using our exercise.
Our Creative Writing BA (Hons) course offers chances to explore these ideas and many more in greater depth under the guidance of published authors.
All views expressed in this blog are the Academic’s own and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.