This piece was written at the request of Book Trust some years ago and is as true to how he writes now as it was then…
Redrafting and learning to edit your own work at Key Stage 4 and A Level – Andrew Norriss
Screenwriter and novelist Andrew Norriss offers teachers and A-level students a professional’s insight into the process of redrafting an extended piece of writing.
In over twenty five years of earning my living as a writer, I have never submitted a book, a TV script or even a piece like this, without re-writing it at least seven or eight times.
I used to think this meant I wasn’t very good – after all, Trollope or Dickens didn’t need to do that many drafts – but then I read that one of my heroes, Terry Pratchett, reckoned he usually stopped revising his books after the sixteenth draft, and I’ve since discovered that most writers are like me. There are a few who only write their novel once or twice, but most of us have to go over it again and again before it looks anything like the way we wanted.
So when I finish the first draft of whatever I’m working on, I usually reckon that means the job is about half done. I’ll need to spend at least the same amount of time again doing… well, doing all the things I’ve listed below.
But a word of warning before I start. Writing is a very personal game. On the odd occasions when I meet up with other writers and we discuss the process, I find we have an extraordinary range of habits and idiosyncrasies. I offer these suggestions for altering and improving your work simply as that – suggestions. They work for me and, if any of them work for you, good luck!
- Achieving balance
There’s a man running a creative writing course in America who calls his opening lesson ‘Finishing that Awful First Draft.’ My first draft invariably qualifies as awful, but experience has taught me to resist the urge to throw the whole thing away and instead to go through it looking first at the overall balance of my story. Does it have a proper beginning, an even development through the middle, and a satisfying end? If not, where does it seem to go off the rails?
I will have planned my story before I started, with a couple of sides of A4 detailing what will be in each chapter, but always find that big chunks of the story don’t work as I’d expected. And it’s only when you read through the thing at one sweep that you notice which sections need beefing up and how others want slimming down.
Some sections may need a complete rethink. However carefully I’ve planned, I inevitably find parts of the story that ‘feel’ wrong. In the book I’m working on at the moment I’ve just removed an entire sub-plot because it didn’t ‘fit’, and the smooth flow of the story is my first priority. Making sure that it moves from one event to the next, building to a climax, with proper surprises along the way… all the things I’d like to find in a good book myself.
After reading through the first draft, I determinedly shake off my depression, go through the notes I’ve made on what needs to be changed in each chapter, make a new plan, and then sit down and 1start writing the whole thing again…
- Developing your style
At the same time as reading through for balance, I have an eye open for style. It happens much less now than it used to, but in the early days particularly I would find my style could be heavily influenced by whatever I was reading at the time. If I was reading a Terry Pratchett, the chapter I was working on could read very differently from the next one, written when I was deep in Jane Austen. So I keep an eye out, while I’m going through that first draft, for the bits that sound truly authentic, that sound like me.
Because the style I’m really looking for is the one that is my own authentic voice. It may not be as funny as Terry Pratchett or as literary as Jane Austen but… it’s me. There is no guarantee, of course, that anyone will like your authentic voice but, ultimately, it’s going to be the only voice that will truly express whatever you have to say.
There’s a story of a man asking Rudyard Kipling to look over a short story he had written. Kipling, always generous with advice and support, sat down then and there and went over it line by line. He changed things, crossed out whole sentences, put in new ones… and the result, the man agreed, was a great improvement. The only trouble was that it wasn’t his story anymore. It was a Kipling story.
- Consistency and logic
Some time after the second or third draft, when the narrative has shaken down to something that is no longer likely to change too dramatically, I take a careful look at consistency and logic.
Firstly, I’m looking for the obvious things – like making sure the characters have the same names throughout, that the distance they walk from one place to another is the same each time they do it, and that if one thing happens on a Wednesday, the day after is not the weekend – because these are the little inconsistencies that have the power to destroy the credibility of my story.
But there’s another sort of inconsistency, which Anne Fine once characterised as the, ‘Why don’t they call the police?’ question. My characters have to behave logically. If they are normal, sensible people, they need to do normal, sensible things. I may want my heroine to wind up on her own, in the home of the suspected serial killer… but is she really stupid enough to have gone there alone? As Anne Fine says, wouldn’t she have had the brains to pick up a phone first and call the police?
I need to find a reason why she didn’t, and it has to be a convincing reason. It needs to be something better than the heroine taking out her mobile and finding there’s no signal. If I want her in the madman’s house so that I can have my dramatic confrontation, then I have to think of something better than that. Usually it means planting something earlier in the story, and it always means working out not only what your main characters do, but the things they could have done and why they didn’t.
- Cutting it down
You might want to ignore this one. I just know it’s something I always do. In the first draft, I shove in everything. I don’t try and decide whether it’s useful or relevant – if it seems fun at the time, I put it in. In all the later drafts, however, I’m usually taking stuff out, and my final draft is always at least a third shorter than the first. I take out things that seem irrelevant to the story, are too long winded, repetitive, or too elaborate. Perhaps it’s because I’m writing stories for children, but I try very hard to make the story telling as clear, simple and direct as I can.
There are writers, however, who don’t do this at all. I don’t think J K Rowling found that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a third shorter in the final draft. Or that Dickens hacked out sections of Great Expectations. You could go through both of those with an editing pen and have a more concise and very powerful story, but not many would thank you for doing it.
And yet… it’s as well to bear in mind that you are taking up someone else’s time when you expect them to read something and I do my best to make sure that each sentence counts and every paragraph has a purpose.
- Spicing it up
Some of the best lines in a book or a script don’t get added until the end. When I’ve been through four or five drafts, got the balance right, shortened it, know I’ve got a good story – then I read it through looking for the areas where it maybe drags a little and could do with… spicing up.
If I have a conversation which I know is fine and necessary to the story but a little… ordinary, I might add in what the characters are doing at the same time, to flesh out the picture. It can add another dimension. The silver haired granny who absent-mindedly scoops up a spider as she speaks, for instance, and gently places it out of the window, is clearly a different sort of person from the one who sprays it with a cloud of insecticide.
Spicing up works particularly well with comedy. A decent gag can take anything from ten minutes to an hour of thought and you don’t put in that much time on a line until you’re absolutely sure it’s not going to be cut out of drafts two or three. This is the technique that P G Wodehouse famously used. He planned the content, not only of each chapter in his book, but of each paragraph, pinning the pages up on the wall around his office. Then, when he was satisfied with the story, he went back and ‘wrote’ it properly. In this line from The Inimitable Jeeves, the base line is the information that Aunt Agatha looks surprised, but what he finally comes up with is…
‘…Aunt Agatha’s demeanour was now rather like one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back.’
Genius. Pure genius. But put in near the end, not the beginning.
- Reading it aloud
At some point near the end, I will always read my piece aloud. To myself. Nothing reveals more clearly which bits simply don’t flow, which phrases clunk, and which bits just… don’t sound right. So I print off a copy, sit down at my desk, and read it to myself – making notes as I go of which bits will need changing, and going back to the computer and tapping them in.
More recently, I’ve started doing the reading out loud to other people. It took a while to screw up the courage but since I write entirely for children now and do school visits to promote my books, trying out ideas on a captive audience seemed logical. And children are gloriously honest. You can sense without a word whether what you have written has caught their imagination or not and it can be a sharp reminder that your first job is to absorb the reader into your story and that if you don’t…
Some people find reading their work to other adults in a writing group can be helpful. I’m sure it can, but it can be dangerous as well. I was recently with a group of writers where a woman read out the opening pages of her latest story and, in the discussion that followed, several people told her that she needed more tension, jeopardy and excitement in her story… I’m not sure she did, but what I do know is that they pretty much killed off her story. It’s worth remembering that even skilled and experienced editors can get it wrong. If it’s my story, I need to tell it my way, and there are definite limits to how far I can change it without losing its life and its heart.
- Spelling and punctuation
And the last thing I do is go through the spelling, grammar and punctuation. I’ll have been paying it some attention through all the previous drafts of course but this is where I go through it as carefully as I can because a misspelt word or a missing question mark can stop a reader in his tracks and break the spell quicker than anything – quite apart from making it look as I haven’t bothered.
As an ex teacher, and someone who has earned his living from writing for more than twenty years, I regard myself as above average literate, but when one of my books comes back from the copy editor I always find they have spotted an alarming number of mistakes. I’ve never quite established whether you walk round a room or around it, and I’m a little hazy still on the semi-colon, but I have learnt to accept this. And that some rules are made to be broken. Like beginning a sentence with a conjunction. Or some sentences not having a verb. Rules matter, but the most important thing is whether the words have the effect I intended.
So there they are. The seven things I do when I’m revising a piece of writing. It’s a very different process from the heady shambles of composing the first draft when your imagination has free rein and anything can happen. It uses a different part of the brain, I think, but is in its own way every bit as much fun.
For me there is something deeply satisfying in reading through a piece that has been through eight drafts, and noticing how different it is from the first. Seeing how the story now builds sequentially to its climax, how the plot grows in a logical step by step development, how the jokes are delivered at the end of the line… just so!
And as I read through this piece for the umpteenth time, I note that in an ideal world I would probably cut out a sentence or two from section 3, that I’ve used the word ‘story’ twice in one line in section 2, and that the phrase ‘above average literate’ in section 7 is grammatically dubious…
But that leads me to the last rule of making revisions. You can nit-pick endlessly but the fact is that, once you’ve said what you wanted to say with a reasonable clarity and cogency…