The Nameless Horror

Lessons In Plotting 4: Editing

They say you can’t edit an empty page, that it’s best to get words down first and then hack them into some semblance of readability afterwards. And to an extent, both are true.

And also untrue.

You see, you can edit an empty page. Imagine you’ve just written a page of total balls. Utter garbage. It’s a scene, but not in that, “Hey, what an awesome scene!” way you want - in that “Sir, you’re making a scene” way you don’t. If you know, before you write that scene, that what you write will be such balls (because you don’t have the mechanics of the thing clear in your head, because it ties to something earlier that you’re not sure you’re going to keep anyway, because OMFG YOU HAVE PSYCHIC POWERS DUDE YOU SHOULD TELL ME THE LOTTERY NUMBERS, etc.), and if you know what’ll be coming after, you might as well skip it. It’s rubbish. Pretend you have written it, and that you’ve deleted it. Move on to the next one.

So long as you’re not skipping too much, it’s like you’re pre-editing your writing. Yes, you’ll have to do it from scratch at some point, but it’s less work than doing it badly to start with and then rewriting half afterwards to get to the same level. 50% better, in fact. By the time you’re done with a book, your voice is usually there and your post-written material is likely to be stronger than its earlier brethren.

If you get the hang of recognising ahead of time when you’re about to go typing up Shit Alley and avoiding it, it’ll also greatly improve your first draft standards. Kiss goodbye to deleting and redoing 30,000 words at a stretch. Yes, it will probably stretch out the writing time a little to begin with, but you’ll save more in editing time after.

I vaguely recall, through a haze of opium and Taiwanese prostitutes, Alan Moore talking about his early days in comics when deadlines were exceptionally tight and there was no time whatsoever for anything more than the most cursory tweaks to a script. Your first draft, effectively, had to be your only draft. The notion gives many writers the shudders, but I’ve some (less pressurised) experience of the same thing waaaaaay back in my brick shed shipping journalism days, if some dipshit work-for-hire freelancer couldn’t cough up the thing they’d promised on print day and muggins here had to crank out 1,500 words on comparative marine paint technologies without any time for oversight at all. Get it right first time by knowing when you’re about to fuck up.

This, therefore, shall be referred to as the Comparative Marine Paint Technology Rule. Or the Alan Moore Rule, if you’re weird.