Editing is like dentistry

happy tooth


I had my regular dental check-up last week and with it the dreaded cleaning.  Even though I take good care of my smile, the hygenist always finds something to scrape and poke.  It hurts and I hate it.  Every time I go I’m told that had I flossed more regularly it wouldn’t be as bad. I hate flossing only slightly less than having my teeth scraped.  I’ve tried using a water-pik but frankly that’s worse.  It sounds like a mini jack hammer and I end up spraying half the bathroom in the process.

All those years of my reluctance to floss are beginning to catch up and I know that if I don’t change my rebellious ways then the real trouble will start, meaning more pain while in the chair.  Had I been a good flosser from the beginning then cleanings would be easier and I could spare myself yet another lecture.

Suppose I hadn’t been brushing at all and it had been several years since my last visit.  Chances are there would have been cavities and possibly the need for a root canal or two.  Some of the teeth might have been so damaged that they needed to be removed entirely.  Not only would this process have been painful, it would have been very costly as well.

In drafting a novel, just like in caring for teeth, it is essential to clean things up.  Each chapter is like a tooth which needs both brushing and flossing. Brushing is like rough edits where we make sure that all the thoughts on the page are in the right order, are necessary, and are clear to understand.  Flossing is the polishing edits where the language is refined and all the nitty-gritty grammar is fixed.

Sending a first draft to an editor is the equivalent of visiting the dentist after never brushing or flossing for a lifetime.  You can expect to have lots of pain as chapters are ripped into and all the issues are brought out into the open. You might even lose a chapter or two to the process. However, if both brushing and flossing have been done and the draft is squeaky clean then it’s more likely that the editor won’t find any major issues that need to be addressed.

Just as a cleaning is harder if it has been a while since it has been done; editing can be more difficult if all the work is left to the end.  I know many writers who spend the first part of their writing sessions combing through what they’ve written the day before.  After they’ve cleaned up the previous day’s work and brushed away the rough edges they then can continue to writing the next scene. Not only does this make for a better draft it also helps ground the writer into the story so they can continue writing.

When the whole novel has been “pre-cleaned” in this way it leaves less work at the end when it comes time to do polish editing. Don’t get me wrong, there will still be plenty to refine and correct, but it will be far less daunting.

Obviously this isn’t a perfect analogy, a chapter won’t build up problems over time by itself the same way a tooth will.  A dentist will fix a problem mouth at a great charge, an editor will make copious notes marking out the problems that the writer must correct before the story can go to market.  The more a writer can do to perfect his story before sending it in, the less painful the process will be.

Happy writing and don’t forget to floss!

About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
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3 Responses to Editing is like dentistry

  1. ericjbaker says:

    You dropped a thermonuclear analogy bomb today! Love it. way to write from life.

    With my writing, I’m still learning not to overbrush. Too much fluoride kills the energy.

    • Jodi says:

      Kaboom!!! That would have been a brilliant point to include. Overcleaning is a definite problem and leads to lifeless and dull prose.

  2. Great post! I guess I’m fortunate because I enjoy re-writing and editing much more than first drafting, which scares and depresses me (hence my sometimes interminable procrastination). I’ve used the sculpture analogy – My first draft leaves me with something rough and blocky that looks like, oh, let’s say Wreck-It Ralph. After a re-write it might resemble Sylvester Stallone. Only after the tedious (yet fun) and endless hours of editing, I might end up with something that sort of looks to me like “The David”. Even little things like using “Ctrl-F” to nix extraneous “ly”‘ and “that” is fun because I know that each one taken out makes my story .000001% better! The problem, of course, can become obsession with perfection, so a deadline to ship must be set.

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