Photo by Matthew LeJune
Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, short or long, you’re going to edit your work multiple times.
Writing is like clay modelling. First, you slap a big blob of ideas, facts and feelings onto your table (computer screen). Then you begin pulling away chunks, moving them to other spots, or throwing them back into the clay bin (story ideas file?).
The first draft is your blob, but even it needs structure. To switch metaphors, you can’t find your way through the forest without a trail map. So, if you’re writing long form (novel, screenplay, biography), create a good outline first.
The second draft is about major changes. You’ll likely spend hours on just a few pages, moving, deleting, and re-writing paragraphs, or even whole scenes. The third draft gets more into detail: phrasing, getting character’s voices and mannerisms right, etc.
But the final draft is the real make-or-break stage, and in some ways the most agonizing. Why? Because for the first time, and more and more with each read-through, you’ll begin to get a sense of how it flows. This is when you’ll discover whole paragraphs or even pages that interrupt the story’s narrative momentum—what the reader experiences—and these will need to go, or at least be altered.
And it will hurt.
Here are three key elements you’ll need to focus on:
- Is it clean and clear of clutter (nice alliteration, eh)? Or does it break the flow? This may mean cutting some genius phrases and sentences but, as Mr. Spock taught us, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
- Is it emotionally engaging? Does it make the reader want to stay up past midnight?
- Does it contribute to the narrative drive? The reader needs to sense that every paragraph belongs there. And why. They may appreciate the pretty trees, but they came for the forest, remember?
My current novel, from my screenplay for the movie Healing River, originally had a two-page flashback I was particularly fond of. In it, our protagonist began stalking the teenager who killed her son. “It’s just you and me, buddy,” she told her SUV. “You have to help me find Michael’s killer.” And then she recalled when, at her son’s insistence, she and her husband had bought the 4-wheel-drive vehicle so they could have off-road adventures.
I wrote a lovely scene about the three of them huddling together, snowed-in in the woods, singing goofy songs—their final outing as a family before her husband died. And now the last of that little family, her son, was gone. How befitting, she decided, that the SUV Michael loved should be her partner in tracking down his killer.
The essence was right. But the novel, like the SUV, went off-road at that point, and had to be trimmed. A lot. That hurt. A lot. Still, the two paragraphs I condensed those two pages to in the final draft serve the story better–they contribute to the narrative momentum. So keep reminding yourself…
“The needs of the many.”