Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The joy of editing

Some writers moan about editing. It’s painful - boring – impossible. It’s not creative. The joy of telling a story, inventing, imagining, creating is gone, and in its place you’re fussing around, checking and cutting.

But I love editing. The hard work is done. The story is there. Now I can trim and shape, experiment and refine without the big worries of where the narrative is going or what’s going to happen next.

I’ve just finished - hurray! – the first draft of Almost True. I loved writing the sequel to When I Was Joe but it was tough. I did a lot of rewriting right at the beginning, and then later on I found other work getting in the way. It’s taken a year to get the first draft done - double the time it took to write Joe.

However, partly because it’s been a longer process I’ve done a lot of editing as I go. There’s not so much to revise (until I hear from my agent and editor that is, they may disagree) Even so, it’s satisfying and fun to go back over sentences and chapters. Is that bit in the right place? Have I explained this clearly enough? Editing isn’t separate from writing, it just makes things clearer and sharper.

Almost True is a long book - 13,000 words longer than Joe. Will my editor think it's too long? Will he see cuts that I haven't spotted?

Candy Gourlay reported on a workshop held by Working Partners senior commissioning editor Sara O’Connor, whose message was summed up as: Slash, burn, chop, chop, chop. She gave excellent advice for writers of fantasties, and all writers - read it here.

If you’ve worked as a section editor on a newspaper you know that you can cut any piece of writing to fit, if you need to. What’s more, a good editor can usually make cuts that even the writer doesn’t notice. You also know that even the best writers can’t spot all the flaws in their work. Every piece of writing needs editing, first by the writer and then by an editor - someone to represent the eventual reader.

The perfect metaphor for editing is gardening. Do you want your garden choked with weeds, overgrown with towering shrubs ? Believe me, you do not. Some gardens just need a little pruning, others are crying out for a total makeover. Our garden was neglected for 12 years - 10 years when we lived abroad and rented it out to tenants, then another two while we failed to do anything about it.
Today was the day when the garden got its major rewrite. It doubled the available space. Beautiful plants got a chance to breathe. We re-discovered features that we'd completely forgotten about.
And now every time I sit in my garden I'm going to see it as editing in action.


  1. Congratulations on finishing the first draft!
    And oh yes, slash, chop and burn. Following in advice from a writing agency, I recently chopped out 35 000 words... Eeek!

  2. My goodness - how much was left???

  3. Well I can tell you why editing is a pain for me. I only recently finished my first draft - ever. I went at it like a mad freak, just to get it down. Previous attempts ended because I was trying to correct and edit too much initially, but now, that I went at it like a mad woman, the editing process is a little more tricky. There are LOADS of errors (and I'm talking plot) and its really tough sifting through all of that. Especially when you're so darn proud that you actually managed to write a FULL draft. :P

  4. Popping in from the blogoffee morning - I'm discovering some fascinating blogs and this is one!!

  5. Hi, interesting post. I think I probably really neglect the editing part - maybe because I try and write in ten minute daily bursts so it was great to see another perspective.

    Kate x

  6. Another wanderer from the Blogoffee... just wanted to say I love the cover artwork for WHEN I WAS JOE.

  7. How nice to get so many comments!
    Amanda - I feel for you, but isn't it easier to spot the errors and gaps now you've got the whole thing in front of you?
    Kate - there are some times when I just feel I can't write because I haven't had enough thinking time - and that's when I start editing.
    Marshall - I love it to, it's by the very talented Jane Donald who works for my publishers, Frances Lincoln.

  8. I'm in the middle of the rewrite of my novel, and my experience is much the same as yours. The heavy lifting is done. Now for the fine tuning.

    I have to say, however, that much of the time when I hear about slash and burn editing that I'm not sure it makes the writing better but only easier to read. Faulkner, Melville, and even Banville will be around much longer than the Hemingways of the world.

  9. Hmm..there's a fine line sometimes between poetic and inpenetrable. There doesn't have to be a choice between clarity and depth, and nor should beautiful writing leave you completely baffled.

  10. Hi Keren
    Just dropping by from the blogoffee morning! Did you paint that lawn???

  11. Hi Nicola - If only I could get my prose as pristine as the lawn!

  12. You talk a lot of sense (as an aside, Jack Straw is on Today at the Conference and has just pulled the scariest face at the end of his speech - but I digress). I'm news editor of a football website, and though I HATE the checking for typos and the ego of some of my colleagues when their work gets improved - sorry, changed - it is a thrill to take a well-crafted piece and make it better. Especially if it's my own stuff. Where possible with my blog I write something, then leave it a couple of days before publishing - that way I can have a good half hour tweeking. Some of my best lines arrive in this half an hour (often by accident).