Aki Schilz

How to Edit with Purpose by Aki Schilz

Editing isn't simply a process of finessing. That is, of course, the final stage, but sometimes what can happen, especially in the context of writing competitions, is that a line-by-line perfectly serviceable submission comes in with few to no grammatical or syntactical errors - but it still lacks that special something that makes one take notice. With the 2018 prize attracting 1,200 submissions, and only space for 5 writers on the shortlist, what is that X-factor that means some pieces rise to the top, and is it something the writer can bring out in the editing process?

There is, of course, the odd work of genius that simply breaks all the rules, but within the realms of practical application and due diligence (rather than a one-off Lottery win style brilliance which is fabulous but not particularly controllable - as it should be) I think the question is one of intention, or purpose. A creative writing professor once said to me, 'talent like murder will out, but talent like muscle can waste'. And that really stuck with me. I really believe that all writers can work on their craft, and that it isn't some mystical gift handed down from on high. What we can all look at as writers when appraising our own work is how to interrogate, clarify, then polish writing to help it stand out, if not from the crowd, then certainly on its own feet, whatever those feet might look like.

In our work at The Literary Consultancy, we have seen shaky-sounding premises delivered with pizzazz, and promising storylines deflate like disappointing soufflés (and lots in between). The difference is only partly to do with 'talent'. Much of it is to do with how clear the author's own artistic vision is. A great storyteller can convince us of anything. The mundane can be endlessly fascinating, the outrageous perfectly believable, in a confident writer's hands. It's that fine balance of mastery and artlessness that makes a story come alive in our hands as readers. The real test is in the editing, where that artistic vision is either sharpened and brought into focus by the writer, or, untested, it can bleed around the edges, leaving an impressionistic sense of a story half-brought to the surface, murky and difficult to engage with. Someone once said that editing is really just window cleaning, and I love that idea. It should be in some sense an invisible process, but we all know that glass can't make itself sparkle. So, time to roll our sleeves up.

1) Interrogate

Now that you have the work in hand, presumably complete at least in first draft, it's time to think about the central premise. It might feel like this has been 'done' at the planning stage, but remember, you, as well as your book, will have changed since you started writing. You must never imagine that it's time to stop asking questions of yourself as a writer, and of your work. Asking questions helps you be accountable, and identifies areas of weakness, usually in the areas of character motivation (what do your characters want?) and plot progression (what happens next to help them or stop them getting what they want?). Ask openly, ask ruthlessly, and make sure everything matches up. You're a detective, and you're not going to be happy till you've got all the pieces lined up. The premise should be sound, and so should the internal logic.

2) Clarify

The process of interrogation is tied up in ensuring that you as a writer keep the emotional beating heart of the story pulsing under every scene. This is where the clarity comes from. The reader shouldn't have to ask themselves, because you will have presented with conviction to them implicit answers to the question: why is any of this important, and why should we care? Consistency is key, so that even in the most experimental format, or within a fiendishly complicated timeline, a reader can feel they are in safe hands. If 'Interrogation' has been setting up the rooms of your house, 'Clarify' is making sure the acoustics are fine-tuned, so that in each room the sound is crisp, clear, and just so.

3) Polish

Now is the finessing stage. You've attacked the macro, now it's time to zoom right into the micro, be an ant among the grass of your words, testing each blade and its relation to the sun, its reaction to the wind and rain, etc... (you get the idea). It's now that you can assess and weigh up every sentence. Each word should earn its keep, and in the context of each sentence, paragraph, scene and chapter, each will have a particular weight. The smallest adjustment can shift entire meanings, so it's worth taking your time with this. Real precision at this delicate stage will serve you well, just sharpening the focus here and there so that the whole feels more deeply textured, and really glows when held to the light. Your writing is precious, and ought to be treated as such.

Aki Schilz is the Director of The Literary Consultancy, the UK's longest-running editorial consultancy for writers, providing editing services, mentoring and literary events. She is a Trustee of Poetry London, and sits on the advisory board for the award-winning publisher Penned in the Margins. Aki is a judge for the Bridport First Novel Award, on which TLC is proud to partner, and the Creative Future Literary Awards. She is also a prize-winning writer of short fiction and poetry, and co-founder of the Saboteur Award-shortlisted #LossLit digital literature project. In 2018 Aki was named as one of the FutureBook 40, a list of the top 40 innovators in UK publishing, and nominated for an h100 Award.

TLC is on Twitter here: @TLCUK
Aki is on Twitter here: @AkiSchilz

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