Two images come to mind when I think of editing: farming and watching my daughter comb her hair.
When I’m working on a story I often imagine that the first time through a scene I’m breaking up the soil. Sometimes the ground is fertile and it’s easy to churn it up, but more often than not it’s unyielding and I have to really work at it to break up the ground. I’m not trying to get things right, just prepare the path for the story seeds to fall into place. So, I’m not trying to force things into place, just trying to get a sense of what the scene might be about.
Some people write descriptions first, but most of the time for me it ends up being dialogue. I hear it play out in my head; I write what I hear, and then I have to work at it later to fill in the descriptions and the narration so I can see the scene as well as hear it.
Next, hair brushing.
My oldest daughter has long hair. As she’s brushing it, the first time she won’t be able to pull the brush all the way through. Rather, she’ll brush it until she comes to a snag or tangle and then, instead of yanking hard to get it out, she’ll start over at the top, gently brushing through all of the hair until that spot to begin to work out the knots.
Whenever I’m stuck or having a hard time with a scene, I’ll go back and reread the previous part of the story, brushing through it until I come to the snag. Usually I’ll be able to untangle a little bit more of the story.
Then, I start brushing through it again.
And little by little the snags come out.
I’m not sure if it’s true, but I heard that Ernest Hemingway would reread his book through from the first word each morning before he would write another word. I can definitely see the practical wisdom in brushing through the whole story like that to get to the tangles.
Whether you’re breaking up the ground as you work on a scene early in your writing process, or you’re brushing out the tangles as you edit it, trust the process. The farmer trusts that his fields will grow when he cultivates them, my daughter trusts that she’ll be able to smooth out her hair, if she’s patient.
Break up the ground. Untangle the tale. Trust the process. And you’ll be on your way to finishing your story.