E is for Editing

I yearn to be writing a novel again—to be walking across the park with characters’ voices in my ears, telling me exactly what they think they should do next.  I’d like to be sitting in a café, scribbling down outlines and rough drafts on bound books full of graph paper, then going home and turning on the computer and typing it out. 

But I stopped doing all that about 18 months ago, when I typed the quote from Machiavelli that ends my novel.  Since then I have not been writing, exactly, I have been editing.  It’s not the same thing at all.
It’s not that editing can’t be fun.  It’s just that I thought I already knew how to do it.  I know the difference between ‘which’ and ‘that.’  I am not afraid of punctuation. I never leave green lines on Word. 

After all, I had a PhD supervisor who studied with the famous Strunk of Strunk and White’s style guide, back when Strunk taught English at Cornell in the 1920s.  Strunk told my supervisor Harriet that it was not enough to learn to write well; she should also learn to bake a lemon pie.  Harriet did both.  By the way, if any of you have consulted Stephen King’s good book on writing, you will find it owes much to Strunk and White, though I don’t know if Stephen King ever learned to bake lemon pie.  The thought of the kind of pie he might bake is scary.

The first thing I’ve had to learn is that editing a novel has nothing to do with copyediting.  That’s the easy part.   

Since I’ve been editing, I’ve learned that writing a novel is much more than typing down grammatically correct sentences.  I asked my writer friend Amey to read my manuscript.  I hadn’t realised that she would do it properly, and that it would take her over six months to do.  Amey taught me that, in a novel, every sentence and every phrase in that sentence has to serve the plot.  Her own mentor was one of my favourite novelists, Doris Betts, who, according to Amey would have excised the redundant ‘t’ from her name if she could.

Around the same time that Amey was reading and commenting on my manuscript, a tutor at an Arvon retreat told me I should try to get my total word count down (the rough draft was 149,000 words).  He advised me to reduce it to 85,000 words.  I burst into tears and sought solace from my friends who hang out in Café Aphra.  I thought it couldn’t be done, but after learning how to follow Amey’s Bettsian principles, I cut it to 117,000.  Then, after learning on another writing course that 95,000 words were the absolute limit for a publishable book, I lost a few scenes and useless characters and cut it to 94,500.  One of the many ways in which editing differs from writing is that you are really happy when the word count goes down.

But cutting nearly 50,000 words may still not be enough to edit your book into a good novel.  You may have to rewrite entirely and then cut it back once again.  See ‘R is for Rewriting’ in a couple of weeks.

If writing the first draft of your novel is like a romance, the editing and rewriting phases are more like a rocky marriage and perhaps, eventually, divorce.  I’m not quite ready to get a divorce from my characters and plot, but a trial separation might be in order.  I’m yearning to write something new.
Frances Hay


  1. I always dread that editing phase you speak of. My first draft is always way too long with lots of dross that has to be burned off, but it's worth the effort when you end up with a publishable work in front of you. Thoughtful post! I'v just got to finishe anothe bit of my current work before that editing begins- although for reasons I won't explain just now I've been doing that editing for months too. :-)

  2. I always leave green lines on word...!


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