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The global edit: writing and editing working in tandem

You've heard the phrase, 'Think global, act local.' It's the same thing in this context. When you read a story, you're always reading locally, because your attention can only ever be focused on the paragraph or even sentence you're digesting at this exact moment. When we ask you to edit globally, it's the exact opposite...

You look at the story (the plot) as a whole. Writing and editing merge at this point. The writer and the editor become the same person. By the time you read this page, you'll have written enough that you feel comfortable writing. And editing is probably something you've done unconsciously. It's nothing new to you. Very few surprises are about to be sprung —

It is, however, time the formalize the process. Nail it down tight, by understanding how and why it works. In the early days, writing and editing is very much about trial and error. You do your best work, show it to people, and listen keenly to how they respond. Now, friends and family will seldom tell you if a piece was poorly written, boring, or full of mistakes! So deliberately ask for feedback, constructive criticism ... and don't take offence when you get what you asked for. Use it. Learn

The first job of editing you're going to do is to look at the story line as a whole, and make sure it makes sense. This sounds almost ridiculously easy, but ... it's not! Some absolutely astonishing disasters have happened because global editing was overlooked or forgotten. For instance, a character's name changes in the middle of the book. It's subtle: MacCready become McCready. No one noticed till after the book was printed. Ouch! Or, Helen started out blonde in the first chapter, but by Chapter Nine she's being describes as having 'lustrous, mahogany tresses.' Ooops. Writing and editing can be a minefield. The writer is usually wafting above the mantraps, free of the constraints of gravity, while the editor shuffles along on hands and knees with a stick, locating and defusing the mines!

Another obvious mistake is to have a character who started out as an Aussie from Victoria, and then name a town in New South Wales as his home, when he tells his story to a new friend, 240 pages later. Here's a beauty: a dog who started the book as a Husky turns into a Malamute by Chapter Six. The two dogs are both Arctic breeds, but very different. In the business of writing and editing, it's the extraordinary author who has a memory good enough to carry every facet of every character and situation. The editor is the one who saves the day.

A subtle mistake is when a character's eyes turn from blue to brown, or brown to green. A whopper of a mistake is to forget that a character was killed in Chapter 2, and have him/her reappear 500 pages later. This is so obvious, it rarely happens; but what happens much more often is that a writer will forget when a character was very badly injured, and allow insufficient time for him/her to heal up, before they're suddenly out there kicking butt again. This error happens when, in a long novel with a lot of action, several hundred pages have been written, depicting a series of intense events. The problem is, all the events (all 400pp of them!) took place over a three-day period. Billy Bob, whose pelvis and both legs were broken just before all hell bust loose, should still be heavily medicated for intense pain, and weeks away from being able to get back on a superbike and hit the road. In writing and editing, 400pp doesn't mean a long time; it just means some heavily documented events.

A global edit has to be meticulous. You either remember or (better) jot down physical descriptions of the characters, plus where they're from, who they're married to, who's widowed, who has kids, how old they are ...! You write thumbnail biographies. You also keep a check on who's hurt, who's dead ... who's a Persian and who's a Siamese. Writing and editing is always meticulous, but nowhere more so than in this process, which is often skipped. As the saying goes, that's how accidents happen.

Bear in mind that writing and editing a full-length book will take months, possibly even years. Over that much time, you can't carry thousands of tiny details in your memory. In any case, why would you want to? Have a notebook, write things down. You'll be amazed how much work this simple tip will save you in years, and projects, to come.

We asked the maestro, Mel Keegan, to nominate the best process, and here's the word:

    "I don't have limitless time to devote to writing (I wish I did!) so I tend to be thorough, and not have to backtrack. The first thing I do is think the story line through from beginning to end, and, when I'm pretty much satisfied with it, I write it down. It's odd: when you get the plot line down in note form, the gremlins start to come sneaking out of the woodwork. You'll see problems you never perceived before. They might be problems of timing, or geography, or great bald patches in the plot will show through: swathes of story in which nothing much happens. These parts have a ghastly potential for being boring — that being the single sin of which a writer must never be guilty. Never, ever bore your readers. Do that, and they'll put the book down ... and they won't buy your next one, either. So, get the story firmly in your head. Write it down, and LOOK at it. Imagine, or figure out, how many pages will be needed to get over, or round, this subplot or that plot device. Look for the bald spots. Rework the plot a couple of times; reverse the order of some scenes. Roll two or three characters into one ... or split one character up into two or three. And write biographical files, so you don't trip yourself up on the details, six months and 350pp from now. Lastly, sketch a timeline, and plot the events of the story against it. The scale of the timeline can be anything from minutes to years, depending on what you need. Make sure you leave enough time for Jack to get over the smashed bones in his foot, for Jill to hike out of the wilderness after crashing the glider, for Bob to work out how to fix the motor and get the fishing boat back to port, and for Brenda to take the train from London to Cairo!" Always keep in mind that writing and editing are two sides of the same coin. Two jobs which can't be done alone. They're the flyer and the catcher in the circus act ... and the better the catcher, the higher the flyer can, well, fly.

Give yourself time to learn the skills of writing and editing. Don't demand of yourself that you lean it all in a week. Remember that an apprenticeship as a tradesman takes years to finish, and appreciate that it's just as tricky mastering every aspect of writing as it is to learn every nuance of fixing leaky faucets!

Let's assume, for the moment, you're determined to succeed. You're going to crack the market and get published, build a writing career — or bust. Let's also assume there's a lot you need to know, and you're smart enough to admit it. You're on this page to track down the information, and you hit paydirt. When it comes to writing and editing, you'll find it here.

As we said above, the writing side of the circus balancing act is a multi-faceted artform. Approached 'all of a piece, it can be overwhelming, so we've broken the whole thing up into nibblets of information. Zero in on what you need right now, at this moment. The same holds for the editing aspect of the job. Focus on what you need right now, right here, to get a particular job done. Master one thing at a time, then go on to the next chore. When you work bite by bite, things don't look nearly as overwhelming.

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