You need an editor in your head: instalment 2

IMG_3789My previous post emphasised how important it is for any writer to incorporate a self-critical attitude into the process of composition, so that you edit your own work as you go. (When I say ‘you’ in this context, I’m giving advice to myself as much as to anyone else!) The end of ‘instalment 1’ foreshadowed the point that the editor in your head should keep a watchful eye on three aspects of your writing: content, structure and texture. I’ll explain now what these involve. My focus here is on literary creation but most of the underlying principles are adaptable to the writing of essays, professional reports or journalistic articles.

Looking self-critically at the content of your work should include a wide range of things. In the case of novel-writing, for example, content covers all the events and settings and situations, all the interactions between characters. Factual mistakes and inconsistencies easily creep into a draft, and need to be spotted and fixed before they become fatal flaws. This is vital in historical fiction: have you avoided anachronisms? Would this person have said or done that in those circumstances? Exploring countless such practical questions was part of the research for my latest novel, The Mind’s Own Place. How long did a coach journey take from London to Liverpool in 1833? What songs and hymns might a family in rural Essex sing at home in the 1840s? At about the same date, what were the everyday material realities of working-class existence in a Potteries town, and what were conditions like in certain English prisons for convicts awaiting transportation?

Beyond those material considerations, achieving a credible semblance of reality must also involve the use of authentic, appropriate language – an equally fundamental part of the content of your work. As a novelist who specialises in evoking times past in various locations, I’m particularly conscious of a need to persuade readers that my story is rendering accurately how people spoke and wrote in a given period and place: characteristic turns of phrase, conversational habits – these should give an insight into the way they thought or felt, often different from what we’re used to today. For The Mind’s Own Place this was a tough challenge because the action moves through several regions of Victorian England and then to Western Australia, with characters not only from different places but from different social classes – so their speech patterns are quite diverse. Linguistic accuracy isn’t a pedantic matter if you want your story’s content to ring true.

The second aspect of your work that needs editorial scrutiny as you write is its structure. An interviewer once asked film director Jean-Luc Godard: ‘Surely a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end?’ Godard replied, ‘Yes, but not necessarily in that order.’ So at an early drafting stage you ought to consider carefully whether you’ve chosen the best starting-point for your story, and whether the sequence of chapters maintains interest.

It’s important to pause over other structural questions as you go along. Does the point of view achieve the scope you want? What if you were to filter part of the narrative through a different character? Is there anything superfluous or cumbersome in the arrangement of parts? Discarding chunks of what you’ve written can be painful, but if an episode doesn’t earn its place you may have to reach for the editorial knife. Conversely, is anything missing that ought to be there? Quite late in the process of writing The Mind’s Own Place I reluctantly decided an additional scene was necessary to shed more light on the relationship between two characters. I now think this extra chapter is one of the best things in it, but if there hadn’t been a vigilant editor in my head I’d have overlooked the need for it.

The third area for editorial focus is the texture of your writing – the style, the tone, the rhythms in your prose. Have you avoided clichés, verbosity, adjectival overload? Is some of the phrasing too repetitive? Are there descriptive passages that need to be enlivened? (“Don’t tell me the moon is shining,” said Chekhov; “show me the glint of light on broken glass.”) Are you sure about the grammar and punctuation? Is your use of dialogue always functionally justified?

One way of paying attention to the rhythmic balance of sentences is reading passages aloud – “giving voice to print.” When working on a new novel, I’ve always read an early draft out loud to a discerning critical friend – and the same again when it’s more fully developed. With The Mind’s Own Place these test readings not only produced thoughtful comments from my friend but also allowed the editor in my head to hear any false notes, any awkward phrasing.

No doubt this list of things to keep in mind makes the writing process seem arduous. So it is. Anyone who imagines that perfect prose will flow effortlessly is not serious about the craft of authorship. “I work like a pack mule,” said the Russian writer Isaac Babel, “but it’s my own choice. I’m like a galley slave who’s chained for life to his oar but who loves the oar… I go over each sentence, time and again. I start by cutting all the words it can do without.”

One of the secrets of successful writing is not to be too easily satisfied with what you write, and to keep listening to that editor in your head.

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