From good to great – Guest Post from Laura Wilkinson

It’s always lovely to toast the success of WW / Word Cloud alumni. Laura Wilkinson’s BloodMining was one such success – and here she talks about her editing tips.

First of all, thanks to Harry for inviting me over here. I’ve been a member of the Word Cloud for a couple of years, and I’ve used and benefitted from the fantastic editorial service that the Writers’ Workshop offers. Even those of us who edit others’ work need an outside eye.

I’m often asked how many drafts my début novel, BloodMining, required and I find it hard to answer with any degree of accuracy, because, in the end, I did so many I lost count. I began by religiously hitting ‘save as’ each time I returned to the MS, but after a while I did this only once I’d been through the whole document, and some sections were rewritten many, many times during an entire novel work-through. If pushed, I’d say at least seven drafts. Probably more like ten.

Editing is a process I enjoy. I was editor of the Virago supported creative writing project for over four years, and alongside my fiction I work as a freelance editor now. So today, I’m going to talk about editing, specifically prose. Love it or loathe it, it’s an essential stage in the process for every writer. Writing is all about rewriting.

So you’ve completed your first draft. You wrote fast and loose, with all your heart. Brilliant. Congratulate yourself, open the champers, box of fancy chocolates, whatever your chosen poison is. Put the MS away. For as long as you can bear to, though I’d recommend a fortnight as a minimum. Now the really hard work begins; you need to rewrite it. Slow and cool, and with your head

When you return to your novel, aim to read it as a stranger might, or, better still, as Zadie Smith said: ‘as an enemy would’.  Re-read it slowly, carefully. Try not to make notes.

Read it again, red pen in hand. Scribble away. Unearth the beating heart of your story. Identify the narrative arc, the underlying themes, what you are trying to say. Strip away those scenes that don’t add to this arc. Every chapter, every scene, every sentence, must have a purpose. Every character must have an intention, an objective, and there must be an obstacle, internal or external. Characters need to change, to learn something. Dialogue must be purposeful. If you plan in detail, this task may well be more straightforward than it is for us pantsers.

It is during this substantive edit stage that you must make major decisions about structure, point of view, character relationships. Have you started as close to the inciting incident as possible? Does your point of view best serve the narrative or would an alternative serve it better? Have you identified your five (or so) big moments? Are you playing them for all they’re worth? Expect to write several drafts.

Next, edit for sense. You need to lose repetition, ensure you’re using the best, or most appropriate, word to convey meaning, without gaps and contradictions. You need to limit the visibility of language as a medium of your message. Collect words or phrases you over use: tang (a favourite for many of us!), skitter, bold adjectives, actions like wiped his nose. Bin them. Cut as many adverbs as you can. Likewise very and suddenly. Remember Orwell’s rules. Finally, a word on correctness. There is no such thing as correctness in language, only consensus, and the consensus as to what is correct in British English is often referred to as Standard English. And Standard English is evolving constantly.

The last stage in the editing process, proofing, is best done by someone other than you. You’re too close to the work to see continuity errors (scars that move from left to right cheek, front doors that change colour and so on), typos, inconsistencies in punctuation and abbreviations. But this won’t always be possible, and if you are submitting to agents and publishers first impressions count. Poor grammar and spelling shows a lack of care. Other than roping in a good writer friend to cast their eyes over your tome, you will need to put the MS aside again, for as long as you can bear to, before returning to it with your proof reader’s hat on.

A final word of advice on proofing: print out the MS. This isn’t good for the environment, or your wallet, but I promise you, you will pick up more errors in hard copy. Unless you own a Kindle or similar e-reading device. Viewing your work as a ‘real’ typeset MS will help you to spot the errors. Or so I’ve been told. As yet, I don’t own a Kindle.

Editing is hard graft, but it’s vital if you are to transform something good into something great. And your story deserves it.

About Laura Wilkinson
Laura grew up in Wales, and now lives in Brighton. She works as a journalist, copywriter and editor. For her fiction she has been a finalist and shortlisted in a number of competitions including: the New Writer, Cinnamon Press, and the Virginia Prize. Laura has facilitated creative writing workshops at the Spit Lit(erary) Festival, The Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University and at the Museum of London in Docklands. She has published short stories in magazines, an anthology and digital media. BloodMining is published by Bridge House. Currently, she’s polishing on her second novel. You can find out more about Laura here or find her on Twitter

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  • Julie-Ann Corrigan

    Great! Useful and informative.

  • Wendy

    I wonder, if we knew all this before we ever started writing a novel, would we still do it? … I was probably arrogant enough to think I could do it in a couple of drafts, but now I’m hooked. Great post – You describe the writing/editing process really well.

  • Cheers, Julie-Ann and Wendy. I think it’s the editing that sorts the wheat from the chaff (apoligies for cliche use). It’s bloody hard work, but absolutely essential. To answer your question… would I have started? Probably. But then I like rewriting!

  • Fantastic post, which sums up very clearly why your writing is always so exquisite!

  • Excellent post, very informative. I want to tweet it but am afraid of deleting the internet 🙁

  • Great post Laura! And this attention to detail showed in your MS and is why we chose you as the winner with BloodMining over here at Bridge House. Some great editing tips.