Good Writers are Good Editors


Consider this scenario.  The first novel of writer John Doe has landed on the desk of a leading literary agent. Attached to the title page is a post-it from the agent’s assistant: “Good writer!” it says. The agent eyes the note and sighs. She has meetings lined up back to back all day, fifty calls and emails to return, and a three-foot pile of manuscripts waiting to be read. But she has ten minutes before her next meeting starts, and so she reaches for the manuscript.

The first couple of pages are enough to tell her the writer has talent. She takes the manuscript home, reads a few chapters, and stops when she determines that the writing is not quite good enough. The next day, she hands it back to her assistant. “Close,” she says, “but no cigar.”

Potential isn’t enough. Talent doesn’t equal execution. Either it’s on the page, editors say, or it’s not. Back the book goes, and in all likelihood John Doe will never know why or how close he came.

The only fictional part of this scenario is the writer’s name. The event itself  happens all the time. One could write a whole book on Why Bad Things Happen to Good Writers, bemoaning the impersonal, bottom-line state of publishing, but such a book would be of little comfort or service to writers struggling to break through.  Rejection is part of the writer’s world, perhaps even a functional part of the artistic process. (See “What if JP Rowling Had Self-Published?”) What’s really unfortunate (though unavoidable, given the volume) is that most rejections come with little or no explanation or guidance. Writers are expected to master the craft on their own time, which means learning not only how to write but also how to edit.

As the comment section of my last post revealed, there’s a lot of debate about the value of outlining for fiction. But there’s virtually none among professional writers about the value of revision…probably because they couldn’t have become professionals without learning  it. In my experience, including 15 years as a literary agent and editor, most writers spend as much time editing their stories as they do writing them.

Here are a few thoughts on revision from some writers you may have heard of:

“My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike


256px-Roald_Dahl“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl


“But why must writers edit their own work?” I’ve been asked by aspiring writers.  “Writers write and editors edit; isn’t that the way it works?”

Well, no, that’s not how it works. Writers do need editors to see what they’re too close to see, but that’s at a later stage. To get to that stage, they first need the ability to edit their way toward the heart of their stories.

Imagine Rodin sculpting “The Thinker.” Does he simply envision the finished work, grab his chisel, and sculpt it fluently in all its detail? Of course not; such a thing is inconceivable. The vision must be there, or nothing will happen, but we understand instinctively that the artist must first produce a rough version, which he then goes on to refine and perfect.


So, too, with fiction. No matter how impeccable writers are, their first drafts will be but a rough approximation of what their stories could become. Editing is not just a matter of chipping away excess bits or changing a word here and there. It also entails building up, shifting emphasis, adding or omitting characters and subplots, clarifying theme. Many writers do not fully understand what they’re writing about until they’ve written it. Only after they become conscious of their underlying themes can they go back and enhance their expression.

Good writers are good editors.

Disagree if you dare; or share some of your own tips on editing.


In my Next Level school of writing, I offer a 14-week online workshop called “Revising Fiction,” which leads participants (who must have a completed draft of a novel) through a series of edits. This workshop is intensive and requires a significant commitment of time. But the reward is commensurate with the effort, as students come out the other end with a greatly improved novel and tools that they can go on to apply to everything else they write. The next workshop will be offered in the August 2015. A couple of spots are left. For more information, or to get on my emailing list  (most classes fill entirely from that list), drop me a line.



20 thoughts on “Good Writers are Good Editors

  1. James Mitchener agrees. “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”

    I don’t have any suggestions…yet. I’m still working on drafting, so I’ll be interested in everyone’s suggestions. ; )

  2. Wonderful post. I had no idea what editing really was until my agent’s assistant took me through the process. Now I like editing almost better than writing, but it’s gotten really hard to turn off the internal editor.

    • Sometimes I don’t recognize my underlying themes until a reviewer or editor enunciates them–at which point I take full credit, naturally. But it goes to show: themes arise from the work, they aren’t (or need not be) deliberately implanted.

  3. Argh, editing takes so much work… Barrelling through a first draft is so easy, so free, so fun. But then forcing the description to say what I want it to say, the characters to talk properly, the mood and tone and dialect to be accurate… all that takes twice – no, thrice – as long. And I never feel I’m moving quickly enough!

  4. You’ve already got me down for that class I hope? I’m already applying the One Good Scene approach to it, but it needs a bit more in terms of balancing tension etc. Is this the right class for that?

    • Glad to hear that, Jill. And while I don’t preregister anyone for my workshops, because too much can change in the interim, I’ve got you on my emailing list to be notified the moment I set a date. Thanks for your interest–and I’m thrilled that your using skills you learned in ONE GOOD SCENE.

  5. My mantra for years has been, “Rejection is part of the journey. Dejection is a choice.” I believe this to be true even though I fully realize how disappointing it is when a writer, or anyone, really, is rejected.

    There are times I think, “Just shelve it and start on something else,” but I start reading the story again and I realize there is something special there. It’s not ready yet, but it will be if I just don’t give up.

    I’m one of those people who can do about anything craftwise if I see directions and even better can see someone do it. Even so, nothing I have ever done is perfect the first time I do it. The first attempt is usually acceptable, but the beautiful pieces are after many attempts. So it is with writing.

    • Urgh, I’m still asleep. Thank you, Barbara. This is really good advice. Also, to anyone who has not taken one of Barbara’s courses, they are well worth it.

    • Very smart, Julie. I LOVE the mantra. It’s true—rejection is part of the process, and those who can’t take it won’t persist to the point that they’re not getting rejected any more. I really think that self-publishing is problematic on that count. If it’s so easy to self-publish a first draft, a lot of the impetus for repeated revision is lost—but that revision is what brings us great books.

      Also love your reference to craft. Crafts are learned through observation, instruction, and practice. The more you practice the better you get. It ain’t rocket science.

      Good to see you here, and thanks for the shout-out on my workshops.

  6. You’re right! (Or write?) One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got as a writer is: Puke it up now, clean it up later. Obviously this demands a LOT of rewrite!

    Also, I find that editing your own work is a good way to break thru writer’s block. 🙂

  7. Pingback: Editing: Brain Surgery for Writers |

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