The Artful Edit

If you’ve been watching the steady crawl of the MA novel progress bar in my sidebar you’ll have noticed that I have entered the final stretch of my first draft. As of right now, I have approximately five and a half chapters, shortish ones in comparison to the novels larger non-submersible units. The plan is to try and get the first draft finished before our move back to the U.K., let the first draft simmer while I get our new home sorted, then let rip with the editing machete when September rolls around. That said, I am very aware of the first edit looming on the horizon.

On a recommendation from my MA writing workshop tutor, Rachel Genn, I have been reading Susan Bell’s excellent treatise on the subject, The Artful Edit. I’m about a third of the way in, having stopped briefly to read The Great Gatsby, the text Bell uses to highlight the key editing techniques here book expounds, for the first time, but have already picked up a good number of tips and techniques that I am sure will be very useful to me in the weeks and months ahead.

The opening section deals with that most difficult of editorial tasks, gaining perspective on your work. She suggests a good number of methods that I have already used when working on my short fiction (printing out work to edit on the page, change up your writing tool – if you usually use a computer write longhand or use a typewriter, take a break from the piece before editing, change the font, lay your manuscript on the floor, give the work to a reader you trust to be honest with you) and one or two that I plan to use in the future (edit someplace other than where you wrote the piece). The thing all these approaches have in common is the fact that they involve making the text strange, and stranging the text is key if you want to look at your words afresh.

One of the key techniques Bell suggests to help free up the editing process is reading your work aloud. This is something that every creative writing teacher and most writers I have talked to would agree on. I’ve been reading my work aloud for years. I usually wait until the house is empty and then pace the floor, manuscript in hand, stopping to lean on a shelf or wall to scribble down changes that spring to mind as I walk and read and walk and read. I’ve even gone so far as to record my work and listen back to it, which, providing you can bear listening to your own recorded voice, is even more revealing than simply reading out loud to yourself.


Lately though, this practice has become so ingrained in my process that it no longer felt strange enough. I was missing errors because of the process being just too familiar. My first thought was to find someone to read the work aloud to me but where are you going to find someone prepared to be on call to read stories whenever the need arises. Then I noticed, tucked away on the right click menu of Pages (my go to word processing software for the final edit of short fiction) an option that read start speaking that appeared whenever I highlighted a section of text to cut or copy.

On clicking a robot voice began to read the text back to me in a stilted, dry and artificial manner, but with the pauses where they should be and the meaning clear. It sounded awful but more importantly it sounded strange. Even more importantly, though the reading itself was terrible, it was very clear when the sentences made sense and when they didn’t. The robotic voice somehow managed to make the text standout for the ear in the same way as a new font will do for the eye.

Since tripping over this functionality I have used it to redraft three short stories. Not sure if I’ll use it for my novel later this year, it may well have become too familiar to make the text strange by then, but I will certainly be using it for my short fiction for the foreseeable future. So that I am prepared for when the day upon which my new robot friend fails to satisfy, any writers out there care to share ways in which you shift your perspective on your work and make your words strange?

Image: Robot Reading by CarlosNCT