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Three lessons to learn from Philip Pullman on editing your copy
May 2013

Writing a charity’s annual report or a release for your website is not the same as crafting a Booker-worthy novel or a Broadway play. But both require you to take on two tasks: to get something written down, and then to come back to it and make it better, usually by taking a lot of it away.

Saturday’s Guardian provided an insight into this duality of creation and destruction by showingnewly-annotated first editions of popular writers’ work – from Harry Potter to Bridget Jones. Some authors chose to explain particular artistic decisions, while others exhibited continuing anxiety about supposed imperfections.

Most interesting was Philip Pullman’s scribbles on a first edition of Northern Lights, opener of theHis Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman takes the opportunity to bring an editor’s eye to four early pages, the scene where the narrative is kickstarted by Lyra sneaking into the Retiring Room.

More than a quarter of the prose on these pages is struck through by Pullman, with only a couple of short additions to compensate. It appears that, now reviewing his text from some years’ distance, he sees extraneous material that, for him, gets in the way of the core story. What do Pullman’s strike-throughs teach us?

  • It’s always hard to satisfy yourself that this is the best you can do.  The French 19th century painter Degas was famous for trying to persuade his patrons to return his works for ‘finishing off’. Once he’d seen a painting hanging in their home, he felt the need to work a little more on getting it just right. Pullman shows a similar need to continue perfecting. Whatever you’re writing, if the aim is for anyone else to read it, you have to learn to let go.
  • You need distance to be a good editor. Pullman must have laboured for hours over these few pages – and the rest – to get his prose just right. Coming back to it years later – the book was published in 1995 – he decides there are flaws, and is compelled to strike them through. Most of us write to timescales that don’t allow us to return to our work after so much time – but if you can, put your work away for a little while, even just overnight. Or, if it’s hard to achieve distance, ask someone else to read it and suggest changes.
  • In really good writing, every word earns its place. Pullman presumably saw many of his sentences and lines of dialogue as not contributing to the story, and instead hindering the action. A good editor is fearless – unafraid to take a scythe to a field of words and just leave the truly essential stuff behind.

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