‘Cut The chains and give the Key to The Prisoner’. The Writers Retreat Explores The Art of Editing

How important is an editor to a writer?

If you look up the word ‘revise’ in a dictionary it will say: ‘to examine and correct: to make a new improved version of: to study anew’ and for me, the most important definition is: ‘to look again’.

This is the most important step in learning to edit one’s work. This is probably harder, in some respects, than writing the initial draft. We are all addicted to the moments where we seem to be inhabited by another person and words trip from our brains and end up effortlessly on the page. Sometimes we are capable of writing hundreds of words without taking a breath it seems. This is fantastic and is something many writers strive for.

So, having managed to fill a few sides, what happens next? That depends how you work of course, some people like to edit as they write others prefer to ‘crash it out’ and return later and some people prefer a mixture of both approaches. What do I look for when I am editing? I suppose that depends very much what I have been asked to do or what I am being paid to do. There are different forms of editing and different stages require a change of approach. Some would advise a writer not to look back until the end, but it really is a question of personal taste. In my opinion it is much easier to work on something that already exists than stare at a blank page.

I have been in discussion this afternoon with a publisher who wants an edit of a novella. His initial words were: ‘The story is a 1st draft, so I would like you to complete a thorough read to mark-up key problem areas with comments and an explanation. No editing is done at this stage. The comments will then be fed back to the writer for an opportunity to re-work, before you do the final editing.  Later in our discussion;I would like your notes to be extended a little further, and really show your thoughts & insights regarding the story. Offer alternatives in key scenes, for example, I really liked how you made a suggestion regarding the flower seller as an alternative plot driver.’

It’s a complex process with lots to consider but can never be underestimated. Of course much can be done by an author and I would encourage any writer to make the very best version they can manage up to the point of finding a professional reader. There is no excuse for sloppiness regarding typography, presentation, excess use of the same words like ‘her’, ‘she’ etc. These are the very first things that can be proofed before you even consider handing it to someone else to read formally. There is plenty of information on the internet regarding how to prepare a manuscript for submission but that is not my emphasis here.

When you embark on a first edit of your own work, imagine you are reading the piece for the very first time. Try not to be precious or protective about characters, think about how your reader might react. We all view the world through our own narrative arch and that differs tremendously between readers. In this first revision stage a writer should strive to make prose (or poetry) coherent, clear and effective. You can read for different emphases, for example: check basic grammar, spelling, punctuation, spacing in a rough first look through. Then check for clarity, by this I mean that perhaps a different paragraph may be too much of a shift of perspective for a reader without an explanation, however brief. If that is your intention all well and good, but writers need to be clear and effective and often there can be a tendency towards verbosity; don’t use three words when one will do, trust me!

Clumsy sentences are obvious, especially if you read your work aloud, I find it extraordinary how effective that can be as an editing aid. Don’t be in a rush to throw things away. Make sure you allow enough time between edits, some days, work which looked weak one day may seem very different the next. I am shocked sometimes when I find half-finished poems that I can’t even remember writing, but which I quite like; it’s a wonderful discovery.

Be brave, sometimes it’s not enough to tinker with sentence structure, word order or vocabulary you might need to revise structure. What we now understand as ‘a re-write’ is not really that; it’s a salient point to consider. In the first rewrite the story should begin to take shape so really let it emerge and eliminate some of the additional words. Identify the major conflict, find the story’s big moments and that way you can build your narrative towards them.

I will return to this topic but it’s something to consider and now I must return to Italy where the main character is lost in the streets of Sicily and frankly, I am lost in the excess of words, it will be interesting to see how the narrative finally emerges after this first process is over.

Novakovich J Fiction Writer’s Workshop Story Press 1995


King, Stephen On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft New English Library 2001

Strunk Jr William The Elements of Style Longman 1999

Bernays A What If? Writing Exercise for Fiction Writers Harper Collins 2005

Royal Brandon The Little Red Writing Book: 20 Powerful Principles of Structure, Style and Readability Writers Digest Books 2007

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