A WAY WITH WORDS

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Freelance editor, writer and trainer Shelley Kenigsberg suggests writers could take more responsibility for shaping their manuscripts.

A question beginner writers often ask me is: ‘Can’t I hire a professional editor and hand over my manuscript so I don’t have to do the messy bits myself? I think it’s ready and, anyway, it’ll be exhausting having to look at those pages one more time…’

Answer: Yes. Of course. (I would say that.)

But.

What if you could learn to edit yourself? Not redraft; that’s probably something you’ve already done a lot. You are likely to complete at least a few drafts before you’re happy to hand over the manuscript. But the editing process is different from the redrafting.

Stephen King goes for a 10-draft minimum before he hands his manuscripts to his publisher. Kings extols the value of doing drafts with the door closed (utterly involved in the world of the work) and one with the door open (with a bit more distance) before letting the manuscript go.

Even seasoned, often-published writers understand to keep choosing the right parts of their story to show—and take time to mull over, sift and confirm those choices in the next draft—till the story is ready to soar.

Lots of writers have rules for writing. Henry James’ directive is particularly apt also for editing. He asks writers to: contemplate, select, render. What does that mean to you as a writer? My interpretation of James’ elegant rule is: think, pick, paint.

Observe, think and notice the small and large gestures by and between people to bring characters alive and get a sense of where your story (fiction or non-fiction) wants to go.

Then, choose the right details (what your characters notice/what your topic demands to illustrate, background, gestures, dialogue…) that not only says something about the character or expands the idea but also moves the story foreword, as opposed to bogging it down with details irrelevant to unfolding the story the way you’d like to. (Perhaps the ideal way you’d imagined you’d write before you began!) The act of painting in acutely observed details enables writers to bring new imagined stories and theories into being.

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Editing is a rigorous process. And you need space between finishing a draft and beginning the edit. And there may be more than one edit… some writers do the big picture or structural edit first, then fine tune with the copy edit.

The edit, if you’re doing it right, is where you remove those phrases that make you (or early readers) cringe, where you remove clichés and replace them with fresh images, and where you check the work for consistency.

It’s where you apply the best tools in your armory of ‘dos and don’ts’ to deliver a bloody good tale—bloody because, more often than not, editing means murdering some of your darlings; your most beloved scenes and phrases, your oh-so-wise reflections and expositions on the state of world. Those are ripe for the cut. Savagery in the edit means you cut the worst and save the best.

And for each iteration, you’re not ‘merely tinkering’. You are painting in final brushstrokes before handing over the work. It could well be the masterpiece your publisher’s been waiting for.

Shelley Kenigsberg runs S K Publishing and edits for publishing houses and private clients, in fiction and non-fiction. She has conducted editing workshops at an APWT conference and runs writing and editing programs called Editing in Paradise .