Editing of the kind that I have described in the last few articles is rarely seen, though I hasten to add that there are many professional editors out there who do a good job. The omission in many cases is to do with communication. It’s probably a good idea to describe how it works in practice.
1. A writer sends a piece of work to an editor. The editor, if properly trained, carefully reads through the work and ‘listens’ to it until he or she understands it at a conceptual level.
‘What if it’s just a light piece?’ someone asks. ‘What if there is no “conceptual level” to be heard?’
Here’s the big news: there is always a conceptual level. Even the tiniest drabble, even the most ill-thought-out piece, even the pulpiest, most two-dimensional thing you can imagine, has a conceptual level. Just because something has a ‘concept’ behind it doesn’t mean that it is somehow ‘deep’ or suddenly ‘literary’. Any writer, by definition, uses words to evoke concepts; the accumulation of words which comprises a piece of fiction is like a kind of spell: it conjures concepts out of thin air. The concepts may not be substantial, they may be banal, or ill-conceived or incomplete, but the mere fact that words have been strung together means that some kind of elemental evocation will have taken place.
An example I came across recently -- a journalist at the magazine The Economist suggests that this is a pretty bad sentence:
Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis.
It’s bad on a number of levels, notably because it needs to be decoded largely backwards before it makes any kind of sense, but, despite its awfulness, it still has a concept behind it: there’s a paralysis, created by a nightmare, through an obscure use of compounded metaphors.
Some longer fiction struggles in a similar way to this. Only by making it to the end can the reader determine what the whole thing was about, and usually the effort turns out not to have been worth it. I can’t think of many examples of these kinds of works, as they are so difficult to get through and are usually only read under duress, but a couple of years ago I was hired to edit a 600-page ‘novel’ of this type. The prose varied between turgid and trite, the dialogue was cringeworthy, and the ‘plot’ such as it was, seemed driven by either whimsy or a bad dream (or both). The author clearly had no idea what she was doing. However, the thing was still, haltingly and inadequately, painting images and making a tremendous effort to evoke concepts — you could tell, from reading it, what she was trying to say, even when she was dismally failing to say it competently.
Most fiction, thankfully, is not that bad: it contains structure, some degree of control, and a modicum of worthwhile value which means that it is pleasurable to read for the most part. The concepts which form its foundation shine through; the ‘spell’ works to some extent. Using the basics described in How Stories Really Work helps enormously in the communication of concepts.
It is the task of a listening editor to clarify what these concepts are in any given piece.
2. The editor isolates the core meaning or concepts above and feeds them back to the writer. This is Controlled Editing. It’s not as common as you might think. Most editors give very little feedback and sometimes it is either misguided or too much to do with the mechanics of a piece early on. They either haven’t spotted the conceptual level of the work, or have not bothered to try and see it. Professional editors do a better job, but sometimes still fail to grasp the ideas behind the words. But to a writer, this step can be quite revelatory.
Controlled Editing can give a writer, sometimes for the first time, a measure of confidence that what they are doing is worthwhile, that their writing is working, that the whole endeavour will yield rewards. In many cases, the writer learns for the first time what he or she has unconsciously been trying to communicate from the beginning.
3. Guided Editing then gives the writer some clues and advice as to how to expand upon the core ideas of the work so that it becomes stronger and more certain to communicate powerfully to readers. With Guided Editing, the story becomes stronger, superfluousness is shed, concepts become less opaque, the light of the ideas shines through.
4. Trimmed Editing extends this over time so that a work evolves and stays on track.
5. Putting this altogether leads to the final stage of editing, which I’ve termed Direct Editing. This usually happens when a writer has grown accustomed to the above and learns to work much more quickly and directly with a trained editor. In this seamless kind of relationship, the writer finds that growth has taken place: the fiction he or she produces is firmer, more assured, full of a sharpened and direct energy. Not only are the stories produced in this way of a much better quality, they are also churned out faster without compromising that quality.
Part of Direct Editing is that the editor gradually becomes redundant. It’s an oddity that this is part of what an editor is trying to do: make himself or herself unnecessary. When you think about it, this is a natural development: writers should not actually need anyone else to tell them what to do to push their fiction to its maximum potential. In practice, they do, sometimes desperately — but once the stages outlined above have been effectively passed through, a writer can evolve to a point at which he or she can see for themselves what needs to happen with any particular piece.
But please don’t think that you are close to this point without first experiencing what Fictivity-trained editing has to offer. Even receiving an accurate clarification from an editor as to what your stories are all about can be totally transformative. Being able to take that knowledge and improve fiction with it can turn a failing career into a shining one, full of hope and with a growing readership.
That's the aim.