On being edited

Here’s one piece of advice you will receive when you have written a (draft of a) book. Don’t ask family and friends what they think.

Why not, I hear you cry? Surely you can trust them to give you an honest opinion?

Yes, you can. And I have absolutely sent the first draft to a few people either whose opinions I wanted as readers and/or because after all this time, I thought they deserved to see what has come of it.

But the truth is that it’s not enough. Not by a long shot. Not to make a book as good as it can be – however you want to determine that.

The scope of my first solo edit of the book achieved… not a lot. I got rid of (most of, I hope) the blatant inconsistencies in the plot. The things that changed later on and I had to go back and change earlier in the book. All of which was necessary, but not sufficient. I was – and knew I was – still far too close to the text. I couldn’t see what was wrong with it, what needed to be changed, and what was redundant. And, critically, I think, I couldn’t see the problems with the style of writing I had slipped into over time. The repetitions of phrases, the words that should never be there in the first place, the excessive philosophising. It all matters, some more, some less, but it all makes a difference. 

If you want real feedback, you have two options.

Ask an editor.

Or ask another writer.

Yup, we writers can tell you everything that’s “wrong” with someone else’s writing – or rather, what jumps out at us. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. Everyone will write differently but knowing what someone else with an understanding of and feel for writing helps us to make sure our own writing decisions are conscious.

Remember my blog on ballet corrections? This is the same. Specific correction is what really helps.

“I liked your book.” “It was rubbish.” Not so helpful. Why is it good or rubbish? And where did you see that? And what, exactly did you like or hate? I could go on…

So I gave it to a writer. Here’s what the first page came back looking like (the next 79 were similar):


Wahay! Now that is helpful (and what a professional editor would do – there’s a reason they get a mention in authors’ list of thanks). Do I agree with every comment and every suggestion made? No – and I was not supposed to. But every one is valuable because at the very least the text with comments needs to be re-considered. In the case of my prologue, re-written. But here’s the thing. I kind of knew that already. I knew it wasn’t quite right, I just couldn’t put my finger on why. Now I can. The voice wasn’t quite right. So I’ve changed it. The story isn’t (much) different, it’s just told better.

So what else have I learned from being edited to exhaustion?

  • I was concerned that I was writing too much dialogue, so I dialled it back. Too far, it seems.
  • Two lines of dialogue can replace a paragraph of description – and be much more effective.
  • I have way too much philosophising in there…
  • And way too many stray comments and descriptions.
  • And boy do I drag some stuff out. Cut it down, man!
  • I know the theory of writing fiction. I’ve read the books. What I needed is the comment in the margin that says “show, don’t tell” against a particular section. Then I’m fine, I will change it.
  • Cutting a 5,000 word scene down to 500 is sometimes the easiest thing in the world to do. When you have enough emotional distance, you know when a favourite passage or scene just isn’t needed. A holiday will do that for you.
  • After 80 pages of detailed comments, I’m making the changes myself (which was the point). Remember the adage about teaching a man to fish? I had to be taught to edit. And now I’m seeing what’s wrong and hacking it to pieces. This has the secondary benefit of reducing the word count. It’s just too long in the first draft. Which I also knew. But now I can see what to slash without losing the bits I care about because they are worth keeping. And along the way, some tiny themes are slipping away because I originally included them because I wanted to, but they don’t add anything and in some cases detract from what the story is really about.

All of which just goes to show that everything I said about correction in ballet applies to editing fiction. When it’s done well, it’s beyond valuable. I guess that makes it invaluable, then.

On I go then…

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