Should you edit already published work?
As a writer, or even an artist, a filmmaker or any other creative type, there is a temptation to look at your previous work and wish you could have done it slightly differently.
The general rule is that you should keep moving forward and not dwell on the past. Improvements in your craft will be evident in your latest work.
But is there an argument that you should go backwards to move forward?
This is an argument I have been grappling with recently regarding my first novel, Leg It. My fourth novel, Troll Life is currently out for critique and my team of reviewers have commented on how my writing has improved over the years which is great. The problem I have, is that people don’t tend to jump in with my fourth novel then revisit my earlier work, they will start with my first one and judge me on that.
That’s not to say Leg It is a bad book, far from it. It’s my bestseller by far, the vast majority of reviews are five star ones. It’s the book people always talk about and I know that the characters are strong, it’s funny and the plot is well thought out; readers love it. I just know that because I wrote it sixteen years ago, there’s a lot of mistakes in there that I wouldn’t make today.
Making the decision.
It’s an itch I’ve been wanting to scratch for years and with a little bit of spare time whilst waiting for the critiques of Troll Life, I decided to have a look at what was feasible.
I talked it over with some writing friends about whether it was ethical. If people have bought it, read it and loved it, is it fair for me to change it?
They described it as a ‘Director’s Cut’ which made me feel a bit better about it and the only question left was how far would I go. I also needed to check with Amazon (where 90% of my sales are) to see what their rules were. Very lenient as it turns out.
The editing process.
I’ve written a number of blogs on the editing process and ran a workshop on it during the Sunderland Creative Writing Festival. My process is constantly evolving and I have an ever expanding editing checklist (currently standing at 62 items).
I decided to work through that checklist and see where it took me.
What has changed?
It is important to point out that it is the same book, with the same plot and the same characters. I have merely attempted to make it a better read by tightening up the writing.
Chapters – It may surprise people who have read Leg It that it didn’t have chapters. I’d tried to write it by going backwards and forwards between time periods and at the time of writing, I thought chapters would get in the way. I was wrong. This was the biggest complaint I had about the original version so I took the feedback on board and decided to change it.
There are now chapters, and each one has the year the action takes place in clearly labelled and there’s a lot less chopping and changing between time periods.
Character traits – One of the characters had a stammer and it took me reading somebody else’s brilliant portrayal of a character with a stammer to realise how badly written mine was. It added nothing to the story and it was that bad it was borderline offensive. I’ve removed it completely and I think the character works much better without it. (He appears in my second novel, Idle Threats, and I’d already decided he wouldn’t have one in that book.)
Speech identifiers – Writing friends will know that unnecessary speech identifiers are a personal bugbear of mine but I was as guilty as anyone with my first novel. At last count I had 29 different ways of saying ‘said’ from ‘murmured’ to ‘interjected’. I may have allowed a couple to remain but the majority have been removed.
Character names – I couldn’t mess too much with these, especially as the main characters appear in later books, but a couple of minor characters were merged so there weren’t so many confusing characters.
Sections that lead nowhere – I had to be careful here. Whilst it was tempting to chop out anything that didn’t drive the plot forwards, I could have been chopping out someone’s favourite comic moment. I only chopped out 500 words in big chunks although the overall trimming and tweaking reduced the word count by over 2,000 words.
Formatting – In an attempt to keep the cost of the original Leg It paperback down, I messed about with fonts and paragraph indents etc to save space and therefore overall pages in the finished copy. Whilst it didn’t massively impact people’s enjoyment, it wasn’t the most professional look so I have reverted to Times New Roman and reinstated the original indents etc. With the word count saving, it actually came out at almost an identical size.
Spelling and grammar – It doesn’t matter how many times you read something, you’ll always miss blatant typos. I’ve put Leg It through various spelling and grammar checkers and made hundreds of changes. All minor ones but they all add up.
A special mention to my friend Clair who has been carrying a copy of the original Leg It around the world for years and only just started reading it this week. At least she now has a collector’s edition and if you have the paperback with the original cover, you are going to be rich one day.
Get a free copy.
For a limited time period, I am offering a free Kindle copy of the new version of Leg It to everyone who signs up to my mailing list.
Click this link and enter your email address and a free copy will be emailed to you.
I hope my efforts have been worthwhile and if you do enjoy it, please leave a review as it makes a huge difference to authors.
I’d welcome comments from both authors and readers on whether they think it is a worthwhile process.