How many words from a first draft actually make it into a final cut? It’s an impossible question – unless you’re prepared to go through your initial effort and your final piece line by line, hunting for changes, you’ll never know. I can’t decide whether the answer will be ‘not many’ or, whether all the structural, grammar-forming words in a piece will remain more or less in situ as the surrounding work gets shoved around, rehomed, removed or repainted…
When you’re reading a novel you’re not just looking at a single act of creation. Instead you’re looking back in time, seeing a palimpsest that’s cobbled together over a period of years and (often) with suggestions by many different people. Not all of those words were set down on the same occasion. All of these alterations were made as an attempt to improve the work in some way or another, whether by cutting or clarifying – or even obfuscating.
What it means is that although a work could have been rewritten a dozen times, some of the actual words may be little more than a first draft. Some sections will have had a dozen passes-over with the damp cloth of refinement; others are still waiting for the glue to set and to bed in properly. This is where mistakes creep in. It’s hard to keep every single word of a novel in your head at one time, and so we repeat things, make factual errors as simple as changing a character’s clothing between scenes, or leave a single action that’s now without its consequence.
This is why I’m going through Night Shift one more time. Because I added a lot of new content in the last go-over. And I don’t trust myself enough to have got all these alterations spot-on in a single pass. Where I’ve stitched in material I may have left rough edges or a seam showing. And thus it follows that a novel can never be finished because any changes you made previously will need refining this time too. But let’s not worry too much about that.
It’s also dangerous to assume that the words you’ve been happy with for years are any better. Once something becomes part of the background you tend to overlook any flaws in the flow. Like wallpaper, your brain doesn’t engage its critical facilities when you see something so familiar that it’s already somehow inside your psyche. So a passage can have been dodgy when you wrote it – or perhaps you could just do it better now, which is far harder to spot and act upon – but because no-one’s commented on it you’ve convinced yourself it works.
I think the point of this article can be neatly summed up in four words, and those words are these: writing is a bugger.
Still. Could all be worse, I suppose.