We asked Mary Paulson-Ellis to share her experience of the editing process for our latest early career resource pack. Find out more about our free resources here. Mary is an International Literature Showcase-selected writer and author of three books including the acclaimed The Other Mrs Walker. Find out more about her work here. Don’t miss the exercise at the bottom of this piece!
I went on an Arvon course once – Advanced Writing. Two moments were particularly memorable: the cold in the corridor as I phoned my partner to say the tutor loved the initial thirty pages of my novel-in-progress. And said tutor describing how she had to cut the first three chapters of whatever she wrote each and every time. That week was full of good things – food, wine, writerly companionship – but that’s not what I remember. I’ve edited the rest out.
We all edit. For circumstance. For time. For reasons of embarrassment or writing a CV, amongst other things. Some writers fear editing, or believe they don’t know how to do it. But editing – the ability to edit – is the story of our lives.
I spent years writing that novel-in-progress, but couldn’t get it published. One of the reasons was because I never edited it properly. Instead I polished it line by line. I hadn’t yet learned to ‘cut the first three chapters’. Or in other words, be brave.
Copyediting, proofreading, changing the commas – that’s not editing. That’s finalising a draft for publication. Real editing is a form of re-writing, or re-imagining, much as we do in life. This could mean re-shaping your narrative, overhauling a character, cutting a subplot. You can do it with a scalpel or a machete depending on your preferred choice of weapon (mine is the machete). But it has to be done because what we’re after isn’t the shiny surface, rather the pulsing core.
My debut novel, The Other Mrs Walker is notoriously tricksy. Two narratives, multiple timelines, objects traversing past and present. The agent who took it on wanted changes. I anticipated a long list. Instead I got three sentences: let go of the architecture; follow the objects; change the ending. I was disappointed. This was not the intricate set of notes I’d been hoping for. Nevertheless, I applied her suggestions to my text.
Amazingly all its problems became suddenly clear, along with their various solutions. At first I thought the agent was a witch. Then I realised after forty years in the business she had learned to fix on the heart of the thing and direct her writer straight to it. She trusted me to do the rest.
About the time my debut novel was published I trained as a script-editor, shepherding writers and their scripts from outline to final draft. Looking at work that isn’t your own is the best teacher. You have no stake in it other than to understand.
What I discovered is, the best kind of editing asks a question: not, ‘Do it this way’, but, ‘What you are trying to achieve?’
Here are some questions you might want to ask of your work-in-progress, inspired by screenwriter and tutor, Douglas Dougan. Start at 1, apply to your text, move on:
- Understandability – does the story make sense / is it complete
- Structure – do the mechanics work / is it character that flips those mechanics
- Character – does each character have a journey / is it consistent
- Conflict – is there conflict / is it enough
- Dialogue – does it communicate character / individuality
- Theme – what is your piece really about
Above all strive for unity, everything working together to reveal your story’s beating heart.
Mary Paulson-Ellis lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, the setting for her series of dual-timeline detective novels about the world of those who die with no next of kin. Her critically acclaimed debut, The Other Mrs Walker was a Times bestseller and Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year. Her second, The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Best Scottish Crime Novel and a Historical Writers Association Gold Crown. Mary’s non-fiction and short stories have featured in the Guardian and on BBC Radio 4. Emily Noble’s Disgrace is her third novel.
In 2020 Mary was selected as one of four writers to represent the vibrant diversity of literature in Scotland at the British Council Literature Seminar, Hamburg. She regularly appears on BBC Radio Scotland reviewing what’s current in TV, film, theatre, art and books. The fourth novel in her Edinburgh series is forthcoming from Mantle in 2023.