On Being Edited, by Kev Pick
This is the seventh in a series of behind-the-scenes glimpses into the production of The Mechanics’ Institute Review Issue 14. Since March, we’ve been posting first-hand accounts by some of the people involved in the process, describing the stage in which they’re taking part, and their personal experience of it. Our aim is to provide an insight into what publishing an issue of MIR entails, which we hope will be of interest to writers, readers and would-be editors alike.
Post #7, the second of two on being edited, is by one of our authors, Kev Pick.
On Being Edited
A long time ago I wrote radio commercials for a living. It teaches you a lot about writing, but not all the lessons are good. It’s a practice with strict parameters and hard time constraints. It forces you to write economically and pragmatically. You learn to take some meagre pleasure from those rare occasions when you have a few seconds spare in the script to indulge in a nice turn of phrase, a line or two of dialogue, a joke, a rhyme or a spot of alliteration. Any tiny bit of flesh to decorate the bones of the brief.
The client is your editor and they will most likely want nothing more than a loud voice shouting their phone number four times in a row followed by a jingle. To some, a jingle that also shouts the phone number is considered nirvana. No writer wants to be responsible for such crimes, so it becomes your job to mount a defence and battle for every word in your precious script. Often you will lose this battle, which is why the airwaves are filled with people shouting numbers. Eventually, you learn not to be so precious. You learn to take it on the chin. You learn to pick the battles you can win. In short, you get lazy and it’s time to stop because if you’re not fighting, you’re not writing.
As I said, not all the lessons copywriting taught me were good ones. This combative approach to editing is pretty ineffective, even useless, when it comes to fiction. Fiction is different. There is no client. There is no brief. At the beginning, it’s just you, squinting towards the distant limits of your imagination and hoping you can draw a map clear enough for others to follow. There is enough work involved in simply starting a story. Finishing can be a monumental task. A lot of times your work will go unread or rejected. But sometimes it won’t.
It had been a long time since I’d written a short story. I’d taken a break from writing and after many years exploring other artistic avenues, I found myself wanting to write a novel. Because I’m not particularly good at restraint, I started three. That quickly became a ridiculous pursuit. I realised I was suffering the opposite of choice paralysis (whatever that may be – choice mania?). I had too many ideas and didn’t know where to put them. That’s when one of my good copywriting lessons kicked in. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? Introduce parameters. What I really needed was a word limit and a deadline. MIR offered both. I took the most pressing idea I had and told myself that my task was actually very simple: to make it short and make it on time.
I sent it off and got back to work on a novel (singular). I was fully expecting my story to be rejected by MIR as I didn’t think it was “their kind of thing”, nor did I feel like I ticked many of the boxes that MIR likes to champion. Thankfully I was stupid and wrong. Like many writers looking over their work, I thought my story was silly – a thought experiment with no literary merit, probably best suited to a genre periodical rather than a university publication. My story has no political, social or cultural aspect, so why would it be deemed worthy? But I submitted it anyway, because I’m battle-scarred enough to know that a lack of confidence in completed work is a common frailty that shatters many a writer and the only cure is to submit, submit, submit. It’s just a story and stories are welcome everywhere. So I hit Send, knowing that genuine confidence in your work only comes after being selected and edited. Speaking of which . . .
My first reaction to having a story selected for MIR was immense relief. I was excited, sure, and I was looking forward to the edit, of course, but I was mainly relieved. Somebody read my story and liked it. That’s honestly all I was aiming for.
You like my story. This thought, when true, is all the motivation a writer needs to get through the editing process. I find being edited a joy. I’m hyper-critical of writing but I’m only critical of writing I like. Criticism means you’re engaged. It’s the opposite of indifference. So when MIR rolled up its sleeves and started rummaging around in the guts of my story, I was elated. You go for it, MIR. Get in there – up to your elbows. You like my story.
I found MIR’s editorial approach to be very warm and positive. My editor [Miranda Roszkowski] was keen to remind me that this was my story and that I had final say, before proceeding to unknot the knotty bits and flick the threads at my face. I welcomed it. I’ve heard some writers say that being edited is a difficult process, that they feel their story is being torn apart, or that they lose confidence in what they’ve written. I feel to reach the stage of being edited is a success in itself. You can relax. You’ve done the hard part. You’ve written a story good enough for someone to care about and now they care about making it better. The stuff they hate, the stuff they don’t understand, the stuff they want to cut; that’s all nectar to me. That’s just pruning the bonsai tree.
Being edited by MIR is a multi-step process, beginning with a structural edit followed by a line edit then a copy-edit and finally a proof check. The structural edit takes the most work and no matter how watertight you think your story is, you will be confronted with great big plot holes or astonishingly obvious character problems that you can’t believe you’ve missed. But really, these are easy to fix by remembering that the story is strong enough and those holes aren’t so big that they can’t be filled and the characters just need a little nudge in the right direction. The line edit drills down into the text itself. I was impressed with the level of detail that my editors reached here, teasing out tiny syntactical problems, trimming every ounce of fat and even questioning my choice of a single throwaway word buried deep in the middle of a paragraph. It’s the kind of editing I’ve always wanted, but have never been lucky enough to receive. It’s humbling enough to be selected, but to have someone go into microscopic detail on a line-by-line basis made me grateful for how much care and craft MIR put into their editing process.
What I liked most is that at no stage did I feel like I had to battle with my editors. Those old tricks I’d learned from copywriting were of no use here. No cut was malicious, no confusion was wilful, no suggestion was egregious. On the contrary, I felt supported and the edits were incredibly helpful and absolutely necessary. Most importantly, the editing process has made me more confident with the integrity of the story and I’m happy with the final result.
Now that the wordy work is done and the last tweak has been twunk, I’m full of eagerness to see how it fares with readers. They’d better like it, or they’ll have a fight on their hands.