Polishing a draft: to nitpick or not to nitpick?


When you’re revising your writing, do you relish the chance to make it shine or agonize that all your polishing may be for nothing when you need to revise the next draft?

I’ve been doing structural edits on my work in progress, a middle grade thriller, and despite the fact that line edits will be next – the nitpicking examination of each sentence – I can’t stop myself from polishing the sentences even at this structural stage.

Over the years I have come to see this not as a waste of time, but as a cleaning of the windows to give the reader the crispest view of the action. My only priority is to keep the reader turning the pages. I don’t want to lose their interest because I’ve used 20 words when I could use 19, or I haven’t spotted a repeated word or character thought.

Structural versus line edits

The structural edits I’ve been doing are big-picture stuff: do Characters A and B become friends too quickly? Is it realistic for Character D to open up to Character C, when they don’t have trust established yet? But once I had addressed those, I still did a final nitpicking to scrutinize details, like how many similes a paragraph could sustain, or whether I included any unnecessary repetitions of language.

Because this book is a thriller, I need to ensure that any repetition is intended, because my reader is going to be hunting for clues about what’s really going on. One of my plotting idols is Sarah Waters, author of the masterful FINGERSMITH, and she talks about the need to strap readers in and send them on a carefully planned but wild ride through her plot, causing the reader to experience exactly the emotion Sarah wants, when she wants. I’d love to achieve the same thing in my writing, one day.

What about your writing? Are you reluctant to do the detailed hand-stitching of a draft just before it goes out, knowing you may have to rip out those stitches later? Or do you find you can’t let a draft go until every word is burnished?

3 Replies to “Polishing a draft: to nitpick or not to nitpick?”

    1. Susan you are totally right – it’s not just an interminable process, it’s an interminable cycle, again and again! Just got to tell myself it keeps getting better. Good luck with your draft!

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