Monday, 28 May 2012

Editing Work for Others is Mutually Beneficial

One of my writers’ group members recently got asked to send the first one hundred pages of her manuscript to a literary agent.  In the past, I had offered to do line edits and substantive edits for group members, providing my school schedule permitted; she asked me to have a look at her work.

So, I took a break from Underground and began editing.  The novel was historical fiction, though set in a time period with which I was unfamiliar—Anglo-Saxon times.  I found myself questioning phrases like “last nail in my coffin,” (did Saxons use coffins?) and historic terms like ceorl, and began to understand why Sam Hiyate (an agent at The Rights Factory) had suggested modernizing some of the Welsh terms in The Harper’s Word.  “Is using this term really necessary?” has become a question I now ask of myself, as much as of other historical fiction writers.  There is a tightrope to walk between historical authenticity, and readability, and editing my friend’s work made me much more aware of that fine line.

In addition, I began asking the question “is this really necessary?” of plot devices: is it necessary to give us the whole back-story now, or can we find out in bits and pieces?  Is it necessary to give a history lesson, or can we infer historic context from the things characters discuss? Is this character important enough to warrant describing him/her?  These questions, among others, I put to my friend, and now ask of myself.  One chapter of The Harper’s Word was edited down from four pages to six, simply by removing unnecessary plot devices and as I begin editing the fourth chapter of Underground, I’ll be asking the same questions all over again.

I have always admitted that cutting my own work is difficult.  Although I don’t think of each sentence in terms of the time it took to construct it (I know some authors who do), it is often easier to spot flaws in others’ work than in my own.  Editing my friend’s work has made me more aware of what is necessary and what isn’t, and has allowed me to bend a more critical eye on my own writing. 

If you have a writing group of your own, try swapping writing with someone, and go through their story with a fine tooth comb.  Be critical, but not cruel.  Ask the questions that aren’t answered.  If you think something is too long, say so.  If something doesn’t make sense, say so.  If something seems inaccurate, point it out and ask if the author did research.  Not only will this help the writer, but it can teach you to recognize problematic passages in your own writing, and it’s better to find them now, than to wait until you’ve been rejected by agents and editors because the manuscript isn’t tightly written.

Thanks to my writers’ group for all the critiquing, and for letting me learn more about editing on their work!

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