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A few strings

Revising and Editing: building the Orient Express

Until recently I'd never heard of a writer editing, unless their day job happened to be with a publisher. As I've always used the words, editing is done by editors, and what I do, after I've got the first draft down on paper, is revising. But now I keep hearing aspiring writers say, "I'm editing at the moment." (Just to clarify, I tend to think of re-writing as what I'm doing when I leave behind a story which hasn't worked, and start again with some of the same ideas and characters, and approximately the same purpose, and polishing as the last pass to pick up minor slips and idiocies.)

But surely the important point is that anyone trying to write recognises that getting the first set of words down on paper is just the beginning. Does it matter what we call the next stage? I didn't think so, until I started hearing a scary number of aspiring writers saying "I've written the novel, now I've only got the editing to do and I'll be sending it out." From the talk on such threads it's clear that they see editing as a close-up process: excising unneeded words, bringing out a character more clearly, tightening up sentences. Of course, that's terribly important, and can make a huge difference to how well your story comes over; I often liken it to cleaning the windows on the Orient Express: if they're grubby enough you'll be able to tell mountains from deserts and night from day, but not much more, and who'd buy a ticket if that was all they were going to see? But it seems as if many beginner writers think this close-up attention is all that's needed once the story is basically told.

"Okay, but when did the revising happen?" I want to ask. When did you stand back and look at the whole novel? When did you really examing the structure of the bridge, counting the piers, measuring the spans, testing their structural integrity? When did you prod each character to see if they're really alive, and throw them at each other to check they really would behave as the plot requires? Now that you know what the story's really about, did you ask yourself if you've told it through the right pairs of eyes? In the right tense? Started and finished it in the right place? When did you open your ears and ask yourself if the voices are voices that a reader is willing to listen to, and for a whole novel? "Revising" is derived from Latin, to re-examine, but to me it also has a sense of "re-visit" or "re-vision". When did you revisit all those decisions you made before you began to write or on the fly so you could keep going, and make sure, with all the new knowledge you have now you've got to the end of the story, that they're still the right decisions? When, in other words, did you make sure that the train will actually start, run, stay together and arrive safely at its destination, passengers and all? What about the heavy engineering?

This kind of stuff, which I think of as revising, is what publishers call the structural edit. Since professionals have good reason to work out the most creatively and financially effective way of doing things, it's worth thinking twice before doing things differently. What beginner writers have taken to calling 'editing' is what publishers call the line edit and, if it's a separate stage, will always be the later one. And then the last stage, polishing, is not unlike the copy-edit: picking up dodgy commas, typos, wayward formatting, final checks for the minor idiocies which inevitably creep in whenever you start doing stuff. Checking the toilets, as it were, and straightening the magazines in the rack.

Clearly, macro and micro - engineering and window-cleaning, wood and trees, revising and editing in my terminology - are different conceptually, even if they coil tightly together in the final novel, and some writers would say they do them together.  One writer even suggests that it's only in the close-up work that he uncovers any major structural problems. It's certainly true that if you're struggling to write how a character does something something the plot needs it may be that the character shouldn't do it, and is doing his best to tell you that: you're going to have to change either plot, or character. But the talented and/or experienced writer works with a feedback loop, whether it loops once an hour or once ever six months: big thematic changes, for example, need to be carried through at the level of sentences, while a change of tone which evolves in a particular scene may make you realise that there's something awry in the novel as a whole.

What worries me is to hear so many would-be writers using a word which suggests to me that they simply don't know that the chances of the wood being the right shape from the beginning are small, that it almost certainly will need chainsaw work, and that no amount of trimming twigs is going to make it the right shape if the trees haven't been planted in the right place. I think it's because so much writing-teaching focuses on the small scale. That's partly because prose is easier stuff to read and write and teach on in class-sized chunks, than structure is. And it's partly because of the focus, in teaching beginners, is on how to find material inside and outside yourself, and then learning some tools to shape a single little piece.  So writers embarking on their first novel are often quite aware of the micro-work it takes, but much less aware of the macro: in the Writers Workshop one-day courses I teach, our exercise making people write a two-sentence summary of each of the first five chapters is an absolute revelation to many students.

But if the smaller stuff is easier for teachers to handle, I'd suggest that it's also easier for the writer to face dealing with, and that's where you need to take your Anti-Writing Demon by the throat and kick him out of the room. It's frightening for a beginner writer to stand back and try to recognise if some of those fundamental decisions have turned out not to be right. Taking a long, hard look at the heavy engineering may mean you realise that a) you've got the wrong train for the route, or the wrong route for the train and b) you may need a consulting engineer to work out what to do next. It's much easier to concentrate on excising passive constructions, and whether they really did use 'wonder' to mean 'speculate' in 1710. Unfortunately, there's no point in polishing the windows for the best view of the approach to Venice, if the train won't pull your passengers up the first incline out of Victoria, let alone get them safely and happily to Istanbul.

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