Monday, 27 September 2021

Two tests when editing

There is a great quote which guided my master’s writing, from Reginald Hill (he of the Dalziel and Pascoe series – if you know it). The quote comes from a 1999 book called Arms and the Women: 

“Is this really so important to me I've got to say it?

“Is this potentially so interesting to readers they'll have to read it?”  (p. 67).

I use these two 'tests' for (a) what must remain to tell the main story, and (b)what must fall away to let the main story stand clear. Asking these two questions of ourselves can help us to let go irrelevancies which stand in the way of that clear storytelling. The things that cloud the issue, that provide too much information, that go down a rabbit hole. 

It is not by chance that newspapers had editors or sub-editors - subbies - who edited a piece after the writer had turned in copy: after the writer had passed over control. We who write - even academically - get attached to our own prose, our own creation. It is hard to learn to be ruthless in getting rid of those clouding elements, as our attachment means we may not see clearly enough to really edit ...or as Stephen King so wonderfully says, to "Kill [...]our darlings" (2000, p. 222; paraphrasing Quiller-Couch, 1916, p. 235). 

Subbies once ruthlessly red-penned out those clouding words. We who do not have subbies must do it ourselves. And Mr Hill's two sentences, in my opinion, provide a great test to do that.

I hope they may aid you too :-)



  • Hill, R. (1999). Arms and the Women. HarperCollins
  • King, S. (2000). On Writing: A memoir of the craft. Scribner.

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