5 Burning Questions on Editing

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Sarah Griffin & Dave Rudden

As a follow-up series to the Editing Panel at Writing.ie’s Date With An Agent event, Sarah Griffin asked the hosts of the panel, Dave Rudden and Claire Hennessy, five burning questions about editing. Here are Dave’s answers:

1. Many writers imagine that the job of an editor is to edit – not the job of the writer. What are some of the benefits of editing a piece before it lands on somebody else’s desk?

Well in a practical sense, you’re never going to get an editor if you don’t already have some skill at editing.

Nothing ever arrives perfect on the page first try. Agents are looking at so many submissions a week that before you submit it’s essential to make sure your novel is as polished as possible.

Editing is an invaluable skill. No matter how much planning you do before you start writing, your story will always evolve as it is told and it’s editing that makes all those changes and little details make sense from the beginning. Pacing, character development, little plot details – all these are planted in the first draft but need successive drafts to be brought out and polished. Only when it’s as been examined from all angles by you, the writer, should it be submitted for an agent’s eyes.

2. How would a writer even begin editing their own work? How should they start?

If you’re looking to start editing, I recommend first putting it in a drawer and leaving it for two weeks. DON’T THINK ABOUT IT. Think about something else. Read your favourite books. Mainline every Fast and the Furious film. Whatever. But get some distance. Writing is hard, and you’ve earned a break.

Then, go back and open a new document. Copy and paste over the first thousand words. Now read it slowly aloud – that’ll catch repetitions, run-on sentences, phrases that lack music. You’ll find yourself naturally correcting the placement of commas, or cutting words, or adding new ones. You’ll sense when something is a little shaky, or a result of you being in a bad place that day, and you’ll have the distance to properly appreciate it.

If you haven’t applied Standard Manuscript Format, do that now (double line spaced, 12 point font, pages numbered). It’ll also help that distance. Remember the kernel of the novel is there – you just need to polish it and bring it out. Be hard on yourself about your writing – if you know that a sentence you’ve written was a little rushed or weak, take the time to find something you’re happy with. Your first and best editor is yourself.

I also can’t recommend writing groups highly enough. Free editing! Plus, your editing their work will help your own. You’ll recognise problems in your own from their mistakes.

3. How should a piece feel to the writer when it is ready to leave their desk and land with an editor? How should the writer know?

This is a difficult one to answer. No matter how good your novel is, it will still have to be edited when it gets sold. This is just a fact. The first thing my editor at Penguin Random House Children’s said to me was ‘I think it’s cute that your doc. file is titled KNIGHTS OF THE BORROWED DARK Draft 4 because we would really consider this the first draft.’

If you’ve written it, edited it, made every possible pass for bad grammar and formatting and had people who you trust to be honest, send it out. If you’re happy with it, send it out. I can’t say you’ll know when it’s ready, but you’ll know when it’s not.

4.What changes about work when it experiences an edit? What is lost and what is gained?

Editing is a two-edged sword. An essential one, unfortunately. I find sometimes I lose some of the musicality and the description from one draft to the next. I like building rooms with my fiction. I like making a place so real that you can smell the candlewax. Unfortunately, an editor comes along and (usually) correctly points out that readers need to inhabit the space as well, and so some of that description can be pulled back. I put in what I want, and they tell me what they think the reader needs. Usually we meet somewhere in the middle.

What you gain is someone with the skills of a critic but the eyes of a reader – someone who’s willing to go over each line as well as examining the book as a whole. As a writer, you know every single little thing that’s happening, because you’re the reason it’s happening. An editor reads the novel and points out that you haven’t actually put some of that connecting tissue on the page because you already knew it.

I think in terms of what you lose and what you gain, the book becomes a little less yours and a little more everyone’s. And that’s okay. (Usually)

5. What are some of the methods you use when editing your own work, versus editing work by other people? 

My first draft is the kitchen sink draft. Every good idea, every little detail, every spark of inspiration I’ve had goes down on the page. I don’t pay attention to format, sometimes I don’t pay attention to chapter length or continuity if an idea leads me off in a fun direction.

Then I stow the book for two weeks and try and talk about something else. When I return, I open a new document, copy and paste over each sentence and examine whether I should have written it in the first place. This is the draft where I work in all the little evolutions that crept in over the course of the book. Characters that I realised were far more important by the end are now given their foreshadowing. Lines and themes that kept cropping up are now properly displayed. If I skated across a description now is when I go back and properly inhabit it. This is when I feel the book is really a book.

Then I let my Doomsburies (the extremely cool name myself and my writing compatriots call ourselves by) tear it to shreds in the nicest of ways. They point out any problems or weaknesses that linger over the book, and I trust their judgement except when I don’t. Only you can make the final call on changes, but if you want to keep something then surely you should be able to defend it. If I can’t, then maybe it should go.

That’s when I bring it to the editors. They provide me with a letter of notes and a line by line edit where, much the same as with my friends, I have to defend the creative choices I’ve made. Then comes the fourth draft, and the fifth draft, and the sixth… Eventually we’ve zeroed in so far on any of the book’s weaknesses or questions that all that’s left is to check the spelling.

(c) Sarah Griffin & Dave Rudden

About the author

Sarah Griffin is a writer from Dublin recently returned from living in San Francisco. Her collection of emigration essays, Not Lost, was published by New Island Press in 2013. Her YA novel Spare and Found Parts is due out with Green Willow Books in the US in 2016.

Dave Rudden is a former teacher of secondary school English. A graduate of the UCD Creative Writing Masters, his first novel, The Knights of the Borrowed Dark, will be published by Puffin UK in 2016.

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