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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Left-Handed Manual to Self-Editing

Dan Walsh is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW). His first novel, The Unfinished Gift won 2 Carol Awards (Book-of-the-Year) from ACFW for best debut author and best short historical fiction. The sequel, The Homecoming, released last year in June. His third novel, The Deepest Waters, has just released and his fourth, Remembering Christmas, comes out in September. For those who haven’t read Dan’s novels, reviewers often compare his books to Richard Paul Evans, Jason Wright and Nicholas Sparks. He writes fulltime in the Daytona Beach area, where he lives with the love of his life, Cindi, his wife of 34 years. They have two children, both now grown, and one grandson. As they await more grandchildren, they enjoy the company of two mini-aussies, Bailey and Darcy.

As a child, I was raised Catholic, even went to a Catholic school through the eighth grade. Had nuns for teachers, the whole bit. Some were nice, some a little scary. But nothing compared to the stories my folks told about some of the nuns they had experienced as kids, back in the 1930’s.

There was this one nun in particular who routinely took offense with left-handed children. She didn’t see this as a matter of birth or genetics, but as an act of rebellion. If she caught you trying to write with your left hand, she’d bring out the ruler and give you several whacks across the palm of your hand. Can you imagine?

Now, of course, we know being left-handed is perfectly normal. Some pretty important people are left-handed, like our current president, Paul McCartney … my wife. But left-handed people are still in the minority; only about 15% are born that way. When we use the expression, “a left-handed way” of doing something, we’re not saying it’s a stupid alternative, just a path less traveled by.

I want to talk about a left-handed approach to self-editing in our fiction writing.

 I’m not even left-handed. But somehow, I adopted a different approach to the editing and rewriting process than most people follow, and are told to follow in most of the how-to-write books and blogs I’ve read.

The norm is to write and keep writing all the way to the end of the first draft. Don’t do anything to stop the creative flow. Then go back with the scalpel and edit. Write, then rewrite. Keep them separate. Some would say the two processes are totally different, like a left-brain/right-brain thing.

This is great advice, and for the overwhelming majority, it’s the best way to go. It’s just not how I do it. But the norm is so prevalent, I’ve been tempted to change my practice and conform. I even tried it for awhile, but it didn’t work for me. Felt kind of like a nun slapping my palms with a ruler.

So here’s a left-handed way to self-edit and rewrite. It’s especially helpful for those who don’t write fulltime and those who can’t even write part-time in a consistent routine. 

Maybe your schedule is too crazy (this was my life through my first two published novels, The Unfinished Gift and The Homecoming). At the most, I’d get to write two hours at a time, and sometimes go days in between before getting a chance to write again.

Before I’d start to write, I’d go back and read the last chapter, maybe two. This helped me to reconnect with my characters and storyline, get back into the feel of things. But the time gap in between also helped me to approach what I’d written earlier as a reader, not a writer. I’d catch typos, wordy sentences, hear dialog that have could have been said better. So … I’d edit. Fix it right then. And keep doing this until I got to the end of the earlier material and reached a blank page. Then I’d switch hats, become a writer again.

That’s all there is to it.

I’d do this and several months later the book was finished. When I’d go back to re-read and rewrite the manuscript, I’d still find things here and there but was often surprised by how quickly the rewrite process became.

I followed what I’ve just described before turning in the manuscript for The Unfinished Gift, a book that won 2 Carol Awards last November. What readers read in the pages of that book are very close to the original words I’d sent in to my editor at Revell, Andrea Doering. Fair to say about 98%.

I’m about to turn in my fifth book to Andrea. She’s often told me the condition of my manuscripts make her job a breeze. She actually said this about me recently: “I have no idea how Dan does it, but by the time a manuscript reaches me, he’s hidden all the seams.” I like hearing that a whole lot better than seeing a ruler out the corner of my eye and hearing, “Young man, hold out the palm of your hand.”
So…any other left-handed rewriters out there? Anyone who does it differently than the status-quo?

 The Deepest Waters –

For John and Laura Foster, what began as a fairytale honeymoon in 1857 aboard the steamship SS Vandervere soon becomes a nightmare. A terrible hurricane strikes and the grand ship is lost in the murky depths of the Atlantic. Laura is rescued by a small ship sailing by, but there’s only room for the women and children. Believing her John is lost but still daring to hope for a miracle, Laura must face the possibility of life alone in New York City with a family she has never met. Award-winning author Dan Walsh skillfully tells an epic story of hope, faith, and love through an intimate lens. Inspired by a true story.


  1. This post reminded me of one of my middle-school(junior high) gym teachers. She was teaching us to play field hockey, and was putting down left-handed people. She'd said it's a right-handed world and when you have a kid that wants to grab a spoon or a pencil and use their left hand, you need to grab it out of that left hand and make them use their right hand. I remember, thinking, "that's certainly stupid." I was only eleveen or twelve at the time and I already knew that left-handedness was a matter of the way one is born, not just something somebody was doing to be rebellious!

  2. This seems a more logical way to edit but unfortunately, I write such messy first drafts, that if I did it this way I'd never get past the early chapters of a book. I have to just keep pushing through to the end to get that mind muddle out on paper, then go sort it out.

    Perhaps I'll be able to do it that way once I get more manuscripts under my belt.

  3. I write like you do, Dan. Or I should say, I write better, more naturally like you do. When I'm under a very tight deadline, I have found it necessary to vomit it down and then go back and edit, but my work I think suffers for it. Love the title and cover btw. Can't wait to read The Deepest Waters!

  4. We have one son and two grandsons who are lefties and they do complain about it being a right handed world.
    My deadlines have been very tight, but now I do have to go back and check the previous chapters before I begin the next one. When I didn't or forget to now, I find repetitions and sometimes forget I had something going on and that I didn't wrap it up. Now my manuscripts are tight and clean as possible when they go in. Except for this last one, when I didn't have time to reread and edit. Hope it doesn't drive my content editor crazy. :)

    My husband just read your new book. His comment, "When's his next one coming. I like his writing." And he reads all the time and is picky.

  5. Because of all the right-handed wisdom out there, I've always felt that I was missing something magical by not taking the common road and just slapping it down on paper and cleaning up the messes later. Yes, I write more slowly, but I spend far less time in rewrites and edits. I don't do well in chaos. If my story seems chaotic, with things I know will need changing later, those elements hang on like barnacles while I try to write. They weigh me down. I am giving myself permission these days, though, to insert a big block of yellow highlight that says "Make her more likeable" or "Add a scene after wart research" so I can keep moving. Thanks Dan, Gina, and others, for speaking up for those who do function best editing as we go.

  6. Thanks for the article, Dan. This the way I approach writing, too, and for the same reason. I'm not fulltime, so there's little consistency to when I can write or for how long. Not only does interim editing help me reconnect, it often resparks creativity that may be waning at a certain point.

    BTW, I'm on a road trip and purchased the audio version of "The Unfinished Gift." Looking forward to it. :-)

    Cheers! Bruce

  7. Dan,

    Great post.

    For most of my life, writing has been my second avocation/hobby because I've always thought of myself as an artist first and a writer second and, up until 18 months ago, I've had to have a job to support both.

    When I had time to write, it was necessary to read at least the last chapter. It was a time to get back up to speed and to prime the writing pump. If editing happened then, so be it. (I never thought of it as editing... it was always fine-tuning).

    I still do that whether I'm designing a story or writing it. The review is like a first cup of coffee. It has to happen before anything else.


    I have learned through six unpublished manuscripts and countless abandoned stories, that it is counterproductive for me to do major edits while I'm trying to write the story.

    So I'm somewhere between totally right-handed and totally left-handed when it comes to editing.

    Happily, I have found the system that works for me and, as creative people, that's the best any of us can hope for!

  8. Dan, great minds think alike.

    That's the way I've always written, in an edit at you go mode, by going back and editing the last chapter I wrote before going on to the next one.

  9. Now I have a name for it! LOL Deb Raney is another one who uses this approach. I try, oh how I try, to just let the story flow, but I'm not wired that way. At least I know there are more of us out there. ;) Thanks, Dan.

  10. I thought I was the only one! Thanks for this post. You encouraged this writer today!

  11. I'm beginning to think that we all do this--in contrast to the right-handed way. I do too. And so does my boss.

    So how'd the right-handed way become what is supposed to be "the norm"?

  12. Mike, the "right-handed way" became the norm because it's what they teach you to do. Don't stop the flow of creativity to edit. It's smart, really, and I'm trying to shut my inner editor up and let it flow. Sigh. She's a noisy one.

    But the left-handed way works especially if you have a few days away from writing, You need to get re-grounded (is that a word?).

    But either way, write the best story you can. In the end, the reader doesn't care how you wrote it. LOL

  13. Interesting. I am left handed. And that is how I write.

  14. I can imagine, unfortunately. I'm Catholic, and when I was in 5th grade at Catholic school my teacher told us how when she was little the nuns would take her pen out of her left hand, put it in her right, and smack her left hand.

    I don't think I'm a left-handed writer. As much as I want to stop to edit, I know I'll just get bogged down tinkering with the darn thing, and I'll never get the rest done.

  15. This is how I like to edit too! Maybe it is unique to left handed people...

  16. Wow, I loved this post because I have no clue what I'm doing, and this is the way I am doing it- "left-handed". I've been thinking for the past few years as I've been writing that I've been doing it "wrong". But it never felt 'right' to just write and write and write and not ever look back and edit. Since I'm very new on this journey, I needed to hear that from someone with success! Thank You!

  17. Looks like I'm in good company. Thanks for validating my process.

  18. Folks,

    Thank you all for responding. And please forgive my lack of response. Don't know what happened, thought I set Google Alerts properly, but I never got the alert that this posted WAY back on April 5th. I kept checking every few days or so, guess I just missed it.

    I know I would have enjoyed interacting with you all, and I really enjoyed reading all you had to a pathetic, belated sort of way.

    It was also encouraging to see I'm not such an odd ball, after all.



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