70,000 Steps Forward, 3,000 Steps Back

I’ve written over 55,000 words in the past six weeks, bringing my current novel up to about 70,000 words in length.  Because I’ve been doing this writing for a write-a-thon, there’s been a certain pressure (mostly just from me) to bull on ahead and not backtrack.  I’ve discovered that I’m not entirely comfortable with this kind of writing.  Sure, it’s invigorating to see the word count build up.  Yet the first thing I did once the write-a-thon was over was go back and delete about 3,000 words.  In fact, I nixed a whole scene involving a terrifying climb over a pile of loose rocks at the edge of a cliff because it was entirely unnecessary, added nothing to the development of the plot or the characters, and brought the actual story to a juddering halt for several pages while the characters spent about an hour of their time engaged in a purely physical activity that allowed them to accomplish something that five minutes of walking could have done just as well.  It can be heartbreaking to delete that much work, but some scenes really just have to go.

A lot of my students skip the editing stage when they’re working on their essays, and I know perfectly well why.  Editing is tedious.  It draws your attention to the glaring flaws in the work you thought you just spent hours or days perfecting; it demonstrates that what you believed were clever turns of phrase are, in actual fact, clunky and embarrassing.  It takes up time that could be better spent sleeping, eating, or surfing the Internet.  If you wrote it that way the first time, didn’t you do it for a reason?  Isn’t editing like second-guessing yourself on a multiple-choice test?

Above all, editing hurts.  Your writing is your baby.  This may be less true for essays than it is for works of fiction, but I’ve still seen students behave defensively when called out on confusing writing or problematic logic.  Your writing is perfect in your head; it may be less perfect on the page, but surely some of the staggering genius of that brilliant story that has lately been seething through your brain has emerged onto the page.  It seems wrong to regard your baby with a critical eye, then hack it to pieces in the interests of “improving” it.  You may also, of course, believe that you are Wordsworth and feel quite strongly that writing is meant to spring full-grown from the head of Zeus.

In my experience, however, editing isn’t just the boring, uncreative process of cutting bits out of what should apparently have been a breathtakingly spontaneous piece of Art.  There’s a certain creativity to editing too.  It allows you to go back over your story and make the connections you missed the first time, adding in the details, the subtext, the references that will cause your readers to weep at the beauty of your words or, at the very least, not throw the book against the wall in disgust.  It allows you to make your story leaner.  It gives you a chance to regret your love affair with the common adverb.  It shows you at least some of your typos, and then it shakes its head at you.

Towards the end of my 55,000-word marathon, I was feeling wretched about those 3,000 words.  I knew they were there; I knew there was no reason for them to be there.  Because of all the obsessive counting I was doing, I didn’t feel free to get rid of them until after the need for the counting had stopped.  They bothered me, though.  They were still there.  I kept having to remind myself that the scene would be gone soon enough.  When I finally got around to editing the offending chapter, it was the easiest cut I had ever made; I didn’t even miss the words when they were gone.

It’s a good idea to remember that progressing towards a writing goal is about more than churning out words.  (This goes for you too, students.)  Getting the words down is a necessary step, but so is laying into them with the pruning shears.  Writing feels like inspiration; editing has its Eureka moments too.

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