Kill your darlings: the importance of editing
No editor has time to look at a novel twice. Leading editors offer advice to help writers make the most of their one shot
Illustration: v0lha via Getty Images
To date in this series we have explored the constituent elements of fiction-writing, from plot, tone and language to voice, setting and characters. If you have negotiated those elements and have started or even completed a first draft, the most important task now is editing.
Writing, it is often stated, is rewriting. This aspect of your book cannot be understated, says Jonathan Cape editorial director Alex Bowler, who edits the work of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Kevin Barry.
“For many writers, editing is the period where the crucial improvements are made, and often where the book finds the form that readers will eventually think was intrinsic and there at the point of conception,” he says.
“There may be occasions when a book is unimprovable – that is, in its first draft it achieves precisely what it set out to do. But even in those instances, perhaps the knowledge that one can rewrite down the line supplies an essential freedom, removing the stress of weighing and questioning every line before one puts it down.”
Faber & Faber creative director Lee Brackstone edits writers such as Edna O’Brien, Teju Cole and DBC Pierre. He offers the example of Akhil Sharma’s novel Family Life, published recently, which had a final word count of just 50,000 words.
“This book has been chiselled to perfection from perhaps 20 times that number of words – one million words – and over the course of those many years I read totally different versions of this same novel.
“John McGahern’s working methods were the same: write and write, and recast and rewrite, like reducing a fine sauce for a fine meal. The result is a novel in which every word counts and every sentence sings: that is the importance of rewriting.”
Typos aren’t the biggest sin
A work that engages an editor is crucial, but lesser flaws can often put off interested parties. Many commissioning editors will forgive typos, but baulk at a carelessly submitted manuscript.
Brendan Barrington is senior editor at Penguin Ireland and also edits the Dublin Review. He feels that first-time writers should figure out what works best for them in terms of redrafting.
“Am I the sort of writer who meditates upon my book for a long time, plans it carefully and then writes it with close attention to every sentence? Or am I better off working more iteratively, through draft after draft? It’s about getting it right, not about the number of drafts.