What I’m learning about writing: what is editing? – Anna Spargo-Ryan

What I’m learning about writing: what is editing?

What I’m learning about writing: what is editing?

I’ve never been much of an editor. My best guess is that the kind of writing I do is that “just throw your guts at the page” type that can be difficult to revisit. There have been times I’ve written things and thought “Well, that was the only shot I had at writing that”, as though it’s an exorcism (like this and this and this). Most things I publish are first drafts. That’s the way it’s always been.

But in writing something longer and seriouser, I’ve had to edit. You know, take the words I have written down and make them better.

I really like words. For me, a successful day is one in which I find exactly the right word to convey something precisely. I thought that editing would be mostly about words. I had imagined that editing was reading sentences and thinking, “That sentence is a bit shit,” and then changing some of the words to make a new sentence. And editing is that, obviously, but it is much more complicated than that. To my surprise, the bit where you change the words in the sentence is only one small part of it.

Zadie Smith said this:

Try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

What I’m learning about editing is that it’s impossible to read your work as an enemy would unless you have some space between you and the writing. I think this means something different for everyone: time away, physical distance, giving it to others.

I’m a visual person, and for me the best way to read it as someone else would read it has been to change the format, so I put my drafts on my Kindle. Then I start at the first page and think, “Is this an actual book, or is it just ‘good for a non-author’? If I had paid $9 for this, how would I feel?” Having it on the Kindle makes it easy for me to imagine it’s a stranger’s book; sometimes I start reading again in the middle of a scene and don’t recognise the words. That helps my own feedback to be even more devastating (“You are so trite! That’s not even a word! You know nothing about what it is to love!”).

So back to my first point, maybe the most important thing I’m learning about editing is that storytelling doesn’t just happen from one page to the next. The quality of the story is not determined by the appropriateness of a word. It doesn’t even matter what those words are, at the beginning, because editing means recognising where the story is no good.

I gave my first draft to my dad to read, so he could tell me whether the writing was good. He isn’t a writer, but he has a strong analytical brain and that is exactly what I need. Where all I saw was strings of sentences, one at a time, line after line, he saw the whole story. And we had this conversation:

I liked it, but when I got to the end I was unsatisfied.

But were the words good?

Yes, the words were great.

Then what was the problem?

The story isn’t finished.

And so I learned the most important lesson: editing is about the reader.

The first draft is for the writer. It is the time for spilling blood, nonsense or otherwise. The editing process is for the reader. It is the time for making sense of the story, for considering all of the things the writer knows that the reader doesn’t, for character development and story arc and above all else, a satisfying read. Read. The editing process is not about a satisfying write.

I rewrote the ending and read the book again with new perspective, watching the way the story unfurled and jumped and danced and crashed and closed. So I rewrote the beginning, and parts of the middle. Weeks passed and I had thought only momentarily about the words. Words that mattered to me, as a writer, but were miles down the list of things that needed fixing.

Then I understood what “editing” meant, which meant I could finally start.

Lesson 6: Editing is for the reader, not the writer.

  • Kimberley

    February 2, 2014 at 3:53 pm Reply

    Yes! This really resonated with me, Anna! I edit professionally and have found this is really true of every kind of writing—fiction, blogging, professional articles etc. Spot on! Kim

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      February 2, 2014 at 3:55 pm Reply

      Oh good! Thanks Kim :) This has been a new (and really enjoyable) experience for me, so I’m just hoping to get it at least partly right.

  • ali

    February 2, 2014 at 8:34 pm Reply

    Okay Anna, I think I need to say this to you: I don’t like change… What are you doing changing the ending?

    That said, I love what you have to say about the edit process. I thought it would be like you said: finding better words. Frankly, I’m surprised it isn’t. So there you go. I like your insights.

    Lastly, remember each reader is only one reader. We all get satisfied by different things.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      February 2, 2014 at 8:42 pm Reply

      I can’t remember which ending you read!

      The outcome of the ending is the same; I’ve just written it in a way that’s more complete and finished. And now I’m rewriting it a little bit again.

      Mostly I like my ideas best. But sometimes people say things that I think are better ideas than my ideas, and then I mash them together with my ideas to make new combo ideas.

  • ali

    February 2, 2014 at 9:48 pm Reply

    Either way, it’s gonna be fun now, ‘cos I get to read it again. With a proper cover and pages. I was so close to printing it out last time, and then I was sad because I’d read it, but not in the way I love to, all snuggled up in bed, bending the pages back. So it will be new again for me once it’s done. I’m into that.

  • Panos

    February 3, 2014 at 12:08 am Reply

    Excellent post, and so true. I paid for a proper structural edit /analysis to be done on my work a year ago and have only just reached the point where I feel I can put all the advice, criticism and story wrangling into action. So far I’ve just been writing up all my thoughts long-hand into a notepad and occasionally recording sparks of inspiration on my phone as I’m driving but it’s finally all coming together. Good luck on your journal, rewriting is so damn hard!

  • Maxabella

    February 9, 2014 at 7:53 pm Reply

    SO TRUE! When I think about the way I edit other’s work, I realise that I always take out the indulgent bits. The bits that are just there to serve the writer and not the reader. Sometimes it can be hard to cut a great line of prose, but cut I must if it shapes the reader experience better. To me, good editing is about helping the reader find the truth faster. x

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      February 19, 2014 at 2:50 pm Reply

      Oh no, you would remove about 65,000 words from my book ;) I leave all the indulgent bits in and take out the sensible, orderly bits.

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