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Edit, edit, edit…or don’t!

July 6th, 2018

When creating a piece of art, be it a song, a poem, or David’s extraordinarily chiselled abs, knowing how to ply the techniques of your craft is of vital importance. Equally important, however, is knowing when to stop. It’s amazing how many creative types master the first skill and utterly neglect the second.

If you watch any painting competition on TV, you can’t fail to spot the ‘fiddlers’ – those artists who, three-quarters of the way into the painting challenge, have created something truly magnificent, but who, because there’s still time left on the clock, can’t resist the urge to jiggle things about a bit. A touch more paint here, another splodge there, perhaps a more muted wash, oh and I could add a boat in the background – and as more and more layers of paint are laid down, the once great picture turns into an overworked, unemotional, lifeless piece of rubbish you wouldn’t even hang in a hotel toilet.

This is a phenomenon that affects writing as much as painting. Just as overworking can suck the life out of a painting, editing can take the power and energy out of a piece of writing quicker than you can say ‘boring!’

It’s not our fault. As writers, we’re told that we must be prepared to edit, edit, edit. You write and rewrite, draft, tweak, edit and rework, chasing that ever elusive something that will turn the mundane into the sublime. I’ve worked on short stories for months, because that’s what I thought you were meant to do. That’s how I’ve worked for twenty years, and in that time I’ve had stories published a grand total of twice. And not for lack of trying – I have 350 rejections to my name.

So how, in the past couple of years, did I manage to win four consecutive short story competitions in Freelance Market News, as well as placing fourth in the recent Writers Bureau 2018 Short Story Competition? Simple – in all five cases I wrote the stories a couple of days before the deadline and didn’t spend more than a few hours on each. Write, edit, tweak, send – and now it’s beyond the reach of my meddling fingers.

It’s incredibly uncomfortable doing it this way – there are places in all five stories that make me cringe, and in each I can see a dozen bits and pieces I want to change – but they undeniably have the vitality and drive my stodgy, overworked writing does not. The success speaks for itself.

Knowing when to stop is an important lesson for any writer to learn. As Voltaire once wrote, ‘The better is the enemy of good.’ In other words, don’t let the quest for perfection ruin what you’ve already achieved. Your story can always be better. But good is good enough.


Gillan Drew is a writer, public speaker and stay-at-home dad who lives in the New Forest with his wife and two infant daughters. He has wanted to be an author ever since he can remember and writes in whatever time he can snatch between nappy changes, bottle feeds and trips to the park. After studying Media, History and Criminology, and working various jobs from nursing to the police, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as an adult, which formed the basis of his non-fiction book An Adult With An Autism Diagnosis: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed

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