Posted by: Corri van de Stege | January 30, 2009

Write on Wednesday – Revision Redux (or: on editing)

wow_button11I’ve spent a great deal of time this week on editing a 100 page report to be submitted to a client next week. This kind of editing is not of course what Becca is talking about in Write on Wednesday, however, it has similar obstacles: it’s always a daunting exercise.   Where to start?  How do I link the various chapters into sensible outcomes, with a satisfying final chapter: in this case the recommendations (in the case of a book that would be: the resolution to the story for better or for worse)?  I can mention many more.

Where it is different is of course that the kind of editing I did this week is quite technical, it’s about the delivery of education in one form or another, the report solicits so-called stakeholders for their views on proposed changes, it analyses the financial and estate of existing institutions, etc. I find the process of pulling a report together, with a number of colleagues, actually quite intellectually satisfying – I enjoy the writing up, making sure there is a ‘storyline’ and that it is intelligible for the audience. But I’m getting carried away here – that’s NOT what Becca is talking about and it’s the editing of our stories and fiction writing that is under discussion here.

After quite a lull in my creative energy I actually started looking at my own novel again at the beginning of this week, intending to do some, yes, editing. And that is daunting – where to start? I’ve done a bit of reading around as well, mainly source books, novels that help me think about some of the settings that I am using in my own writing: living in Iran, living in The Netherlands, in England, the transitions between the cultures and how that affects my main character.

What I have in reality is a number of stories and I need to make sure that they integrate, that they become the visible part of a whole, in which readers can submerge themselves. One book I read was The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer, a very well written and researched story about being forced to leave one’s country and life, after that life has slowly been subverted and eroded by the revolution in Iran. I was very impressed by the detailed research that has gone into this book, the way in which I as a reader could lose myself in the narrative, as if I was helping to uncover the story, unravel the inevitable end. The structure is in fact quite simple – four voices, mother, father, son and daughter, almost as if they live in their own shroud, hidden from each other. But then, they are hidden from each other; each lives his or her life, struggling to come back to a unity as a family within the chaos and uncertainty that has resulted from the revolution. This is a book about loss, about identity and how you deal with becoming uprooted from what you were before. It is magical writing.

Another book I am reading is Jumping over Fire by Nahid Rachlin. This is also about Iran, but written in a completely different style, informing us of what happened, one thing after another, and while doing so, spilling bits of information about facts and history. Much less engaging but informative, and with a catching story line of someone who is caught between two cultures, belonging to neither one nor the other – and coming to terms with that.

Back to editing: what good is it to read these books? Simply, it helps me to think about the structure, and what I need to look at in terms of editing. For a story to be gripping it must be coherent, it cannot go all over the place. If there are too many different things interfering then I must set these aside and perhaps write another story or book and deal with those themes separately. That means that I will need to cut, and cut and cut. That’s one thing I also learned from the creative writing course: editing is first and foremost about cutting out, getting rid of the redundant words, sentences and yes paragraphs. Readers are very intelligent, they read between the lines; make up their own stories as I did whilst reading The Septembers of Shiraz. Reading Jumping over Fire, I don’t feel I have that space to make up my own story, I’m reading it for the information the book gives me about things I had forgotten, the rituals, the expectations, but not because I feel I can help write the story of Nora, the main character in the book. She is too all-round, everything is spelled out, I am told exactly what she thinks, wears and what she does all the time. There are very few surprises.

So by reading these books I’ve learned something about editing and that is that everything superfluous needs to be taken out, and as the writer/editor I nee  to be the judge of that. This is not different from editing a non-fiction report. The difference with a story is that as a reader you want to be able to help make up the story: you don’t want everything spelled out (as in a report), but you want the space to help the writer make up the story.

One book that I can also recommend in the light of this discussion, and as a bit of light relief, is How not to Write a Novel. It has some great advice and towards the end it notes:

Remember, editors and agents are very busy people, and all they need is one good reason to shovel another manuscript from the slush pile into the ‘not my problem’ pile.

Well, there’s always e-publishing and you can do it yourself!



  1. I do think there is much to be learned when reading other novels with an eye to how to improve our own. And you’re quite right about letting the reader have some room to imagine characters and story on their own. That’s hard for me to do as well…my tendency is always to “tell too much.”

    Great thoughts! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. I read every word, interested not only in what you read and why but to see what you do and it is SO like what I do – the technical thing. Getting to the conclusions (and recommendations) and having a story line go through the technical work. Your topic – education – is engaging, though. (Mine is mining! coal, gold,etc.)

    OK, I’m not going to ramble on and on here. This was pitch perfect though, in comparing tech to novels and the revision process, a process that requires total “buy-in” by the writer.

    Look forward to hearing more. And will find that book you recommend on how NOT to write a novel.

    Thanks, SC.

  3. […] Posted in Book review, Books, Reading, Reviews, The Sunday Salon, UK newspapers, Writing, film reviews « Write on Wednesday – Revision Redux (or: on editing) […]

  4. Becca: the same here… I need to delete and cut and delete some more: all the time. But it’s kind of satisfying, isn’t it?
    Oh: mining@ coal and gold and everything else sounds intriguing to me! I’m becoming a bit jaded with education! Mind you, in the past, when working in a coal mining area, education and coal mining were part and parcel of so-called ‘reskilling’.. but I won’t bore you with that. Yes, do get hold of How Not to Read a Novel: it tries to keep you away from all the obvious mistakes 🙂

  5. Hello 51 stories, Yes, keep slashing. We don’t want to spell it out to the reader. Exposition can be read through the text if you know what I mean. Lovely post. Look forward to more of these posts.

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