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An Editor’s Tips, On Editing with Claire Hennessy

Writing.ie | Resources | Developing Your Craft | Submission Tips
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Sarah Griffin & Claire Hennessy

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At the International Literature Festival Dublin earlier this year, one of the panels that took place during the Date With An Agent event focused on editing. Sarah Griffin was there on the day and has already brought you author Dave Rudden’s experiences of editing as one half of the panel. The other half of the panel was Puffin Ireland editor Claire Hennessy, a regular at Writing.ie, a bestselling author in her own right and a director at The Big Smoke Writing Factory (busy lady!) Here Sarah gets into the nitty gritty of Claire’s role and finds out her tips for writers. Over to Sarah:

SG: 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?

CL: Yes they do. We’ve a huge misconception about editing in the world, partly to do with education (idea of learning to write a story within a short space of time and then ‘look over it for mistakes’ in exam situations) and partly to do with work situations (reports and such like are typically done to short-term deadlines rather than longer ones), so I think most people feel like editing is about the fiddly things rather than the big-scale things. They imagine the editor as someone who swoops in with a red pen and fixes up their grammar and suggests an occasional word choice. Editing is a big, messy, creative business. The first reason and biggest to do it before your work lands on somebody else’s desk is that it makes your work better and stronger and closer to the story you want to tell. You want your work to be as good as it can be before going to somebody else – especially someone who’s going to be making a yes-or-no decision about it with a professional hat on.

SG: How would a writer even begin editing their own work? How should they start?

CL: Distance. You need distance from the version of yourself that wrote the first draft, the you that remembers exactly what you meant by everything. You need to try to read like someone who can see the words that are actually on the page rather than the words you think are there. Two things really help with this: time away from a project (months, not days) and having other sets of eyes on it. Even rereading something after you’ve just sent it in an email to someone makes you go ‘oh, my god, did I write that? I need to fix it!’

Getting feedback from trusted readers is really helpful but you do need to tread carefully. You want people who’ll like your work and look for opportunities to make it better, for you to build on what you have, as well as people who’ll note when something perhaps isn’t working (or isn’t working as well as it could be). And you need to be able to take feedback as a series of suggestions and thinking-points for when you dive back into the project, instead of treating it like a definitive checklist to be raced through.

Also, looking at your work in another format helps – printing out a manuscript rather than just working from the screen, or sending it to an e-reader.

SG: 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? 

CL: I wish I had a definitive answer for you, but instead maybe I’ll just note: the people who worry about ‘overediting’ tend to be the people who don’t edit enough.

I think when you feel you can’t do any more with it yourself (or with any feedback you’ve received), it’s time to go. Often people do get better with self-editing the more they write (and the more they’ve been through the editorial process), so with first novels it’s better to be safe than sorry and allow for a last ‘is it really ready to go?’ period before hitting send.

SG: What changes about work when it experiences an edit? What is lost and what is gained?

CL: It loses the stuff that isn’t working. It gains more of the stuff that is. Characters are deepened, plotlines are strengthened and tightened, voice and dialogue are sharpened, descriptions have clichés weeded out – the book gets better. A good editorial process doesn’t strip the book of all the originality and passion that you’ve brought to it as a writer, although I think a lot of people fear that it might. It’s about an author trying to improve this thing that they’ve made and ensure that it’s the best it can be before it goes out into the world.

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

CL: When it’s your own work you’re much more aware of what you were trying to do (whereas with work by others you see instead what’s actually on the page). I give it time and then read back over, usually in hard copy, and then make changes, and then send to a couple of trusted readers. I haven’t always done this, but I have a few brilliant writerly friends (some of whom we have in common!) who offer up great feedback and whose work I will read too, so that it’s a two-way street. Then, same process. I read the notes, then go away and think about them for a bit (because humans are lazy and our initial response to any hard suggestions about a project that feels almost-finished is ‘ugh, too much work!’, no matter how valid they might be), and then return to the project with all those things in mind. If it’s a short story it goes on the submissions merry-go-round, and if it’s a YA novel it goes to my shiny agent, Sallyanne Sweeney, who will typically have another round of editorial suggestions. So lots of returning to manuscripts, but each time the thing is getting better and better. Or it should be.

When you’re looking at someone else’s work you really need to step back and be conscious that you’re not thinking ‘how would I have done this?’ but to try to work with what’s there and to make suggestions and notes and to be conscious of the collaborative discussion that the editing process is, rather than a series of ultimatums handed down from on high. It’s a conversation about and a journey towards getting a Very Good Manuscript and turning into an Amazing Book.

(c) Sarah Griffin & Claire Hennessy

Find out what sort of books Claire, in her editorial role at Puffin Ireland, is looking for here.

Read Dave Rudden’s answers to Sarah’s Five Burning Questions on Editing here.

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.

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