Thursday, 24 January 2019

Editing for publication

Not everyone who reads here is a writer, but many of you are, so I thought you might be interested in further thoughts about editing your own work or other people's.

Here are some things I look out for.

Word count is a big issue — many are the novelists who turn in a 100K manuscript when their contract says 65K. It comes back to them to be cut drastically, and this is hard work. If it's a magazine article you're writing, and they asked you for 400 words and you sent them 496, the editor will have to shorten it — and who's to say if the 96 words taken out are the ones you would have chosen to lose? If you're basically lazy like me, get it right the first time; if the content matters to you, see to it that you won't imperil it by sending in excessive word length. 

If you follow the system I described in the previous post, problems of word count will simply go away.

De-coking the prose is an inevitable task. Let me give you some examples.

Suppose you get a passage like this:

Whether editing someone else's work or my own, here's how I'd tackle that section:

First I'd look for, and eliminate, flocks of thats (given in red).

Every writer overdoes the thats, even skilled and famous ones. Look, for instance, at this famous prayer by Thomas Merton:

Beautiful, isn't it? I love it. But it does have a flock of thats. Had I the privilege of editing it for him, here's what I would do:

You may need to click on it to see properly, because all the thats are identified in red, but I've left some in and taken the extraneous ones out. I think the rest is fine.

So get rid of the flocks of thats.

Back to our passage again:

In green I've shown small and weak words. Some may be essential, but — like the weak cross-shoots in an apple tree — they'll need pruning. 

The purple word — 'has' — is a repetition. Repeating boring little words slows down your prose. 

In blue, I've identified instances of the verb "to be". Limit it.

In pink, are the qualifications hesitant people insert into what they say. Mine usually diminish: I'll say, "It's a little bit chilly today," or, "I'm rather hungry." I find it hard to convince myself that the "little bit" and the "rather" can just go.

By contrast, some writers/conversationalists pump up their content — everyone they meet is EXTRAORDINARY or AMAZING. So, "Simon has done the most EXTRAORDINARY work in the AMAZING orphanage he's started."

Irritatingly, you learn nothing there about the orphanage (except that it exists), and not much about Simon (except that he started it). Instead, you are fed your own response. This is mere marketing.

So, I might reduce our passage to this:

But then I see I've lost something (literally). Look at the original:

The first three black words are "Something . . . important . . . me".  
The writer is telling us about herself, not about architecture. How I rendered the passage —

— puts the house first and the person second, which is wrong for the feeling the writer intends.

So I might try this:

That's better. The prose is crisper than the original, given interest by  breaking it up into question and answer, starts with the person and lets the house follow, and includes the important addition of why the windows are important — not for the look of the building but for the light they let in.

Three other essential considerations: repetition in its various forms, clich├ęs and Unmentionables. I think I'll come back to those tomorrow, though, or this post will become a little bit  indigestible.


Buzzfloyd said...

I like the concision of the first edit, but I feel the second one changes so much that it loses the original author's voice. I'd do that in my own work but not someone else's. My own instinct would be to cut waffle but leave the original structure as intact as possible. Something like:
"Something important to me is living in a house with big windows."

Pen Wilcock said...


Anonymous said...

There you go, making me want to live in a house with big windows.
I'm so impressionable.....


Pen Wilcock said...

Hahaha! That's funny!!



Pen Wilcock said...

About what Buzz F says — something I should clarify.

If I were editing my *own* work, I'd make that change that Buzz thinks is too radical a departure. If I were editing *someone else's* work, I'd think it not sufficiently respectful of their text to make such an alteration without consulting. So what I'd probably do is highlight the passage, and in a margin comment make the case for a change, giving my new alternative wording as a possible path for them (in their own words) to follow — introducing the ideas about *why* the big windows are chosen as well as *that* they are. To make the book more interesting and illuminate the thought process for the reader.

Lynda said...

You must have a field day when you read my blog posts...

And cringe and sigh and shake your head and roll your eyes...

Ha ha!! xx

Pen Wilcock said...


I love your blog posts. Especially the pictures. (Only teasing . . .)

Lucie said...

Hello! Just a little diversion here... but was your decision to leave out your 'narrator' that began in Hawk and the Dove a move to simplicity? I loved the wrap around story of the mother and her five daughters (hum, familiar?) sitting around the kitchen table or the fireplace and recounting the stories of all the 'brothers' in St Alcuins. It was a bit of a shock to pick up In the Hour Before Dawn and go straight to the abbey. I loved the vision you created of the wild and independent mother shunning the gossips at the school gate to gather her tribe and make her home. What happened to them?

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Lucie. The first book of that series was written as something of a tribute to the Canterbury Tales and, even more to the Fioretti of St Francis. I liked the idea of writing about the Middle Ages using the medieval literary device of the frame tale. I also wanted to write about love and intimacy without an inevitable sexual component. As deep personal relationships form in families and in monastic communities, I thought having the women (mostly) in the family setting and the men (mostly) in the monastic setting was one way to approach this.
At the time I began the series, I also thought it would be fun for my children to find (an approximation of) themselves in a novel. I thought, too, that there are some strong similarities between the spiritual disciplines of family life and monastic life, and wanted to explore that.
So for all those reasons, I began that way, and continued the framework into the second novel (The Wounds of God).
During the time I was writing the first two books, I was working as a Free Church chaplain in a hospice. In the last book of the original trilogy, The Long Fall, which follows on from The Wounds of God, I wanted to explore some of the realities I'd encountered in palliative care, and in care of the chronically sick (an area in which I'd also worked). I was teaching in the NHS about spiritual care, and writing about it, but felt that a novel would open it up imaginatively for people. I'd noticed that a feature of terminal illness is the shrinking of a person's world and social circle, and in The Long Fall I tried to communicate the sense of close, deep, intimate interaction this brings.
I'm going to post this and continue in a separate comment or it'll get too long to post as a comment.

Pen Wilcock said...

. . . continuing.

The readers of the Hawk & Dove books include many monastics, who really enjoy the series. They (especially the men) like the parts about the monastery but for the most part find the parts about the family an irritating intrusion. Readers who have small children at home and are immersed in family life tend to enjoy the first two novels with the parts about the family.

Twenty years went by after The Long Fall was published, and the trilogy never went out of print and continued to find new readers. Meanwhile my family grew up and our life changed. We had some massive and traumatic family events, many sorrows and losses. I was divorced, and we lost our home, I remarried and was widowed, I remarried into a step family who wished I didn't exist, my family of origin fractured. So many things . . . For a long time I couldn't work, and I never really recovered.

But when the 20th anniversary of The Hawk and the Dove's publication came round, I thought it would be fun to write another novel in the series, and my publisher thought so too — so I did. And then I just kept on writing, as the story of William unfolded, allowing me to explore how healing can happen in a person whom life has hurt.

It didn't occur to me, then, to revive the original frame tale of twenty years ago.

This year will be the 30th since The Hawk and the Dove was accepted for publication. In all that time it has stayed in print, and kept on finding new readers — people who need to find a way in to the kindness of God's grace that never gives up on us.

Lucie said...

Dear Pen, you've just widened my whole sense of the books! I may or may not have said but I am a school librarian and found Hawk and Dove on the shelf, purchased by the previous librarian who was a committed Christian. I fell in love with the book and it got me through many rough patches and like you said, I really enjoyed the 'family' part of the telling. But it is a reader's fault to think of the book as a static entity and not the living breath of the writer. I'm so grateful that Hawk and Dove has been surviving, causing ripples of understanding and grace in its wake! It took me a little while to get used to the different 'framing' of St Alcuin's life but now I'm there, I'm there.

Pen Wilcock said...


I always hope, too, that there are enough threads left trailing in that series to allow readers space to create more and more stories with the characters, in their own imagination. I tell myself new stories from those characters every single day.