Mark Mordue and Angela Meyer on the importance of Editing Your Own WritingEditing image

Learning how to edit your own work, revising individual sentences and redrafting overall structure, is an essential step in successful writing.We asked tutors Mark Mordue and Angela Meyer to elaborate.

FWA: Why is it important to be able to edit your own work? Are there fundamental skill/aptitude differences that set writers/editors apart? Can’t writers depend on someone else to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s?

MM: Editing your own work functions on two levels. The fine, up-close work of sentence structure, varied and purposeful word choice, avoidance (or use) of repetition, paragraphing, etc. Then there is a structural level that involves administration of details and their meaning, clarity and control of characters, and of course the movement of plot or themes. An editor clarifies a writer’s voice and purpose. In that sense the back and forth is important for evolution. The collaboration. I don’t believe a writer should ‘depend’ on someone else to dot the 'i’s and cross the ‘t’s. A writer should be final master of their work down to the tiny details and across the larger ones. This is editing’s purpose… to question thinking, examine blind spots, find improvements.

AM: When we open our submissions at Echo for a week we receive around 150 manuscripts. Short story competitions attract hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions. Magazine editors receive pitches day in day out. The strength of the idea is important, but if a manuscript is patchy (particularly in its opening) can you expect busy editors to read on? To trust they’re going to get to the gold? If you learn how to self-edit, you increase your chances of being read, of your words and ideas getting a fair chance, of getting over the line. That’s the hard truth! Yes, writers and editors absolutely can have skill and aptitude differences, but it definitely does not hurt (for either, I strongly believe) to learn from and better understand the other.

FWA: The big picture of a project is important when it comes to editing, but sometimes writers aren’t sure what the big picture really is. How will the course will help writers clarify that?

MM: Discussion and work-shopping are key. There is much that can be going on off-the-page that may not be being made clear within a text. So the process of working on a manuscript and considering other pieces critically can be enlightening.

AM: The course will help because it will encourage writers to be able to step back from their work (at an appropriate time in the process) and see it through fresh eyes. Exactly when and how will differ for each writer and each work, but I will provide plenty of tips for students for looking at their work as a whole, analysing it, and working out what the big picture is (or big pictures, complexity is allowed!), and how all the elements of the work can then be brought into harmony to achieve the desired impact or result.

FWA: We all hope to have work accepted for publication and to work with professional editors. But what if a writer disagrees with editorial decisions? How are differences resolved? What is the best outcome a writer can expect?

MM: A writer needs some objectivity, enough distance to see where a cut or change really is an improvement. The best writers know how to destroy as well as create. As William Faulkner famously said, ‘Kill your darlings.’ It need not go that way all the time but sacrifices can be very important, the hardest sacrifices being perfectly good, even great writing that does not serve the purpose of the larger story. Strategically, politically, one must also look at human reality of any engagement. What is the argument over a manuscript about? Is one argument minor and trivial, another very important and critical? It is wise to know when to bend rather than break. And when to stand firm. This way, when you do stand firm it is more likely to be respected. In other words, pick your battles wisely. Don’t make your editor your enemy.

AM: In the course I will workshop some specific scenarios, so that writers can be prepared for all kinds of editing experiences. It is the writer’s name on the book or piece. It is their work. But they must also understand that editors are experienced and passionate and truly want the work to be its best. I’m positive that there is always a balance to be struck, or a solution to be found. I will encourage students in the course to be open, to know how to think through changes (both large and small), and to be confident when returning edits.

FWA: You are both experienced professional editors. When you start work on a new project what is your primary goal? What are you trying to achieve?

MM: To make the work clearer and better and serve the writer’s best interests. This might involve treading very lightly indeed; or require difficult and major surgery and re-workings. It is always about the work.

AM: I mainly work on books (and mainly fiction) and my primary goal is to help the author to make the book as close as possible to the dream of the book – the ultimate version of itself. I bring to this the skills I have developed around story, characters, and pacing (big picture), but the process is also partly psychological. There are often unconscious elements to the book, and there has to be a conversation with the writer in order for them to get at those parts, incorporate them, bring them out (or remove any ‘fluff’ that’s getting in the way of them). I’m passionate about books being genuine, and so often we don’t realise we’re trying to force them into unnatural shapes. When the genuine concerns are brought out, sometimes the plot, pacing, and characters take care of themselves (okay, I might still bring the axe out for some further cutting there...).

FWA: You are both also published writers. Can you tell a us briefly about your BEST experience of being edited?

MM: The best editors, I have noticed, may not touch a thing I have done. Then in another situation be much more through or demanding. In other words, they don’t edit for the sake of editing. They respect good writing and they demand more when it is flawed. This makes me trust them more. Generally, too, I know they are right. Ivor Indyk at HEAT/Giramondo has been one of best editors I have encountered. Stephen Romei, Books Editor at The Weekend Australian Review, is also excellent with essays and non-fiction. The work comes forward and becomes stronger and clearer.

AM: The best was the experience of A Superior Spectre, my debut novel, being edited. First, an emotionally and psychologically important series of conversations with my publisher Peter Bishop, which helped to enhance themes and character. And then I was copy edited by the brilliant Kate Goldsworthy, who goes above and beyond and really helped me iron out a few more plot points, as well as aspects of believability. She has a serious, caring and probing eye, and at times it was SO hard. I will be happy to share in the course how annoyed you can feel while being edited. It’s an intense process. But she forced me to be my best and I am so grateful.

FWA: What is the one main thing you hope that course participants will take away from completing Editing Your Own Writing?

MM: A sense of better engagement, even excitement for what they are working on. A way to better get a hold of their manuscript and lift it up to a level that could be published. An ability to walk the line between creating in heat and reflecting and reworking in a cooler minded way.

AM: Diligence. Yes, there are some writers with natural talent and such a unique way of seeing the world that they will break through anyway, but most of us mere mortals have to care deeply about the work, about not just the drafting but the rewriting and rewriting and editing and re-editing. We have to learn to discard ideas in favour of better ones. We have to learn to be patient with ourselves and with the process. We have to learn to want to be better writers, not just ‘published’ writers. Writers who learn all this, which includes self-editing, will get better and better, and will derive great satisfaction from writing, from the work.

Mark Mordue and Angela Meyer