Please Please Me

The title of this art­icle, of course, comes from The Beatles’ early LP (recor­ded over a nine-hour ses­sion in 1963), and I’ve chosen the title for this blog entry because it sounds so much more enti­cing than ‘edit­ing’.

Still read­ing? Aye, 99% of the writer’s lot is edit­ing. Writing the ori­gin­al draft? Child’s play. Revising the bleddy thing until it squeaks with qual­ity? Sisyphus him­self knows no such endur­ance.

Alright, edit­ing is mar­gin­ally easi­er than push­ing a rock up a hill, but the views are worse.

The story so far: Our hero has writ­ten and pub­lished a tech­no­thrill­er with a small press. Small press has decided to with­draw it from pub­lic­a­tion. Through dumb luck, our hero snags an agent. About the same time, a pub­lish­er (who shall remain name­less) offers to take said tech­no­thrill­er, provid­ing cer­tain edits are made.

And here I wish to pause. As a group, read­ers tend to hold cer­tain myths about writ­ing and pub­lish­ing. Charmingly, one of these is that book­chains pro­mote books on the basis of their qual­ity (the real­ity: on the basis of pub­lish­er cash). But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about the myth that the text of a book is solely the product of the writer whose name is often found, in gold-embossed holo­graph­ic pop-up plutoni­um, beneath the title. Not so, dear read­er. Not so.

You’re look­ing at the end product of a long, long pro­cess. The author, the agent, con­tent edit­ors, struc­tur­al edit­ors, book doc­tors, word nurses, and quite pos­sibly Clippy from *Microsoft Word have all con­spired, liked align­ing plan­ets, to work their witchy forces on the manu­script. To be sure, there is a scale of fid­dling. Some writers can’t stand to be edited. Others require a great deal of help. I’ve heard, for example, that Baron Archer has dif­fi­culty com­plet­ing his sen­tences.


My point is that edit­ing is a nat­ur­al com­pon­ent of the pro­cess. It comes in many forms. Anything that con­strains the shape of an art ‘object’ has an edit­ing effect. Your per­son­al his­tory edits your writ­ing. Your cul­ture edits it. Your sens­ib­il­ity cen­sures it. Your con­science may demand that the good end hap­pily and the bad unhap­pily. These — undetect­able as back­ground radi­ation — are sig­ni­fic­ant forces before we come on to the expli­cit, inter­act­ive force of expli­cit edit­ing (i.e. the weighty report that sug­gests you burn your manu­script and start again in twenty years, when you can write).

On the scale of ‘atti­tude to edit­ing’, I’d put myself at the pole that reads ‘can’t stop fid­dling’; and when it comes to calls of ‘please please me’ from edit­ors, I’m usu­ally happy to oblige. Why? Well, I see any draft of a book akin to the rough cut of a film. I’ve done a fair amount of film edit­ing in my time, and I know you can’t fiddle enough with cut­ting, pacing, exper­i­ment­al jux­ta­pos­i­tion, changes of tone using music, and so on. A book is not a unchan­ging object. It is con­stantly flu­id. The pub­lished ver­sion of a book is only a snap­shot of its flux. Its ebbs and whirls will con­tin­ue in the mind of the writer long after the print­ing press has fin­ished its run.

So, those are some thoughts on the whys of edit­ing. Later this week I want to talk a little about the pro­cess itself. How does one go about it? Is one’s judge­ment dur­ing the first draft to be trus­ted over one’s judge­ment a year later? Is a nov­el an inher­ently less struc­tured object than a movie or a short story?

Buggered if I know.

(Image at the top is George Martin. For me, the fifth Beatle. And the best edit­or in the game.)

* “It looks like you’re try­ing to write a nov­el. Would you like to see a list of loc­al psy­chi­at­rists and anger man­age­ment con­sult­ants?”

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

8 thoughts on “Please Please Me”

  1. Hi Ian, I fin­ished Deja Vu at the week­end. A great read — I really enjoyed it. I shall email you some thoughts, if you wish. But I wouldn’t want to be anoth­er cook peer­ing over the pot.


  2. I use the same film ana­logy with my own writ­ing pro­cess — espe­cially the bit where miles of expens­ive and hard-won foot­age ends up in the bin. (My BA is in film-mak­ing, although I nev­er did any­thing with it.)

    I’m also a fid­dler, and I also leap into sug­ges­ted edits with so much gusto the ori­gin­al sug­gester begins to won­der wheth­er they just lit a fuse.

    I’m not sure about the exact edit­ing pro­cess you employ, but this blog post of mine cov­ers the lat­ter part of the pro­cess, as exper­i­enced three times now with the same edit­or. Much of it will prob­ably ring bells.

    By the way, most of my nov­els have under­gone 30 drafts or more (prob­ably a lot more.) It’s not an end­less pro­cess because I treat dead­lines as abso­lutely pos­it­ively must-do, but there’s noth­ing to stop me spend­ing 17 hours a day work­ing on the manu­script before­hand, is there?

  3. Thanks your for com­ment, Simon. That was an inter­est­ing post. I think that one of the keys to writ­ing ‘pro­fes­sion­ally’ (in a sense that removes the usu­al fin­an­cial gain from the defin­i­tion) is the under­stand­ing that feed­back isn’t your worst but your best­est buddy. I think my own writ­ing stepped up a gear when I real­ised that. You’ve got to kill your babies left, right, centre (and fore and aft) and…well, I’ll leave it there (self-edit­ing…)

  4. I would be inter­est­ing in hear­ing how much of the new edit­ing is done to tight­en up the story, versus how much is done to sim­pli­fy the sci­ence and tech­no­logy in the story.

    I real­ize there might be some inter­sec­tion between the two, but I’m look­ing more to the example of an edit­or ask­ing why DNA has to be described in such a com­plic­ated way (two strands, double helix) when a sim­pler explan­a­tion (one strand, straight line) moves the story for­ward much faster.

  5. Interesting com­ment, James. I think I might do an entry on this in lieu of a reply here, if that’s ok…

  6. Sounds good to me.

    See my essay at and Frank Ryan’s ongo­ing blog “Meet My Dragon” at the homepage.

    You might also find some con­ver­sa­tions with agents to be help­ful: see under the top­ics “In Defense of Agents” and “My anti-MFA rant”. The Q&A is inter­est­ing.

    Also see and (start­ing from the bot­tom) Make Me Wonder and Why Agents Must Feel The Love. Again, the Q&A is inter­est­ing (and I nev­er got an answer to Part II of my ques­tion).

    Re: A later post — my girl­friend is also very rodent-focused, by the way, although she focuses on squir­rels.

  7. Or ignore my ref­er­ences above and just focus on your own exper­i­ences. More fun for you, per­haps more enlight­en­ing for me.

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