‘…good criticism should send you back to the primary text wearing new contact lenses…’
This comment struck a chord with me. My students on the Masterpieces course at The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts (UEA) have reached an important point in their writing. They are nearing completion of their, short story, poem or drama linked to the artefacts in this fascinating exhibition. Some have pursued the human relationships between artists, thinkers, patrons or muses. Others have focused on a specific object or painting, nearly all have now reached the crucial stage of editing their writing. Editing, re-drafting, re–writing — call it what you will — seem to present writing students and even more experienced writers with the greatest challenge. Many of my former students still have my mantra ‘Edit, edit, edit’ ringing in their ears. Despite this edict, work was frequently returned to me with just one of two words altered and nothing excised.
The real difficulty in editing comes not from seeking out errors, typographical, grammar or syntax (if you are lucky, as I am, you might find a hawk–eyed editor friend to pick them out) no, it comes from having spent time up close and personal with the text. The narrative has become so familiar to the author that they often fail to see the unnecessary digressions. I am no stranger to this issue; I am struggling to edit the first five chapters of my most recent novel, Casting Shadows. Recently I pulled another manuscript, completed years ago, from the drawer. My then agent said of this particular novel, Moving Out, ‘Had you written this book five years ago you would be a star by now,’ flattering and galling all in just one sentence. When it didn’t find a publisher, having fallen prey to the burgeoning genre now known as chic lit, I did what you are supposed to do, I began another novel.
So when I plucked Moving Out from its dusty folder and began to read, I found that I had regained my observational eye. The text was unfamiliar to me; even key elements of the plot had been forgotten. Interestingly, I was able to see what was irrelevant, extraneous and distracting immediately. I was able to rip through chapters with a red pen and remove large unnecessary blocks of text. It is tighter, leaner, fit for purpose and a good read. My editor friend told me that she is grateful to a school teacher who taught her the skills of summary and précis.
So what has changed in the intervening years? Of course my craft has improved, I have completed an MA in creative writing, I occasionally attend workshops for my own professional development and I have written and read a great deal, all of which helps. However, the overriding alteration that has enabled me to strike through vast banks of text is the simple fact that at I no longer care. At the time of writing Moving Out I was passionately involved, but now I have acquired a new level of professional distance and I have lost the intense emotional connection to my characters that blinded me to faults in the narrative. Of course I still care about them, with their endearing or infuriating qualities, but that’s not quite the same as being utterly enmeshed in their world.
I wish I could recommend a guaranteed method for creating this distance, other than the passing of time. I do recommend reading your writing into a digital or tape recorder, apparently Beryl Bainbridge used this method at the end of each chapter. If you are patient and can afford the time, you can put your writing away for six months or longer, a number of novelists leave the manuscript to prove, like dough. In the end it is up to me as a writer to find this distance without quite so many years elapsing and knuckle down to this difficult and important job myself. In the meantime it might help the student of writing to embrace criticism just as they do a new prescription from their ophthalmologist and gain clarity.