Thursday, April 22, 2010

If You Want To Get Published, Edit Out the Literary You...

Rob Parnell

As writers, we all know that careful editing makes the crucial difference between rejection and acceptance. Only a complete novice thinks that editing is not as important, if not more important, than the actual writing.

For the purposes of this article, I'm assuming you know all the usual advice about editing for publication. If not, go here:

Editing for publication requires a clearer focus on some very specific issues. The object of the editing and rewriting process is to get your book into a shape that is instantly recognizable as a serious contender in the marketplace by the agents and publishers you will send it to.

These people – people who read manuscripts all the time – recognize when you’ve done this work correctly. The signs are in fact all too clear. Right up front.

For instance, if your first line is meandering and vaguely pointless (a common enough scenario for 90% of all manuscripts), they know that the rest of the work is likely to be the same.

In order to impress, you need to show that your prose is focused and strong right from the outset. Your story – and only your story – should be blatantly apparent from the first line.

This is why you must not get caught up in the actual words.

Do you understand what I’m saying?

I fear not.

Here’s a clue. If you absolutely love what you’ve written from one page to the next, then it’s probably self indulgent – and unlikely to ever be published.

I know this sounds contrary to logic but trust me, it’s the way it works.

Because actually, the way to tell if your writing is any good is if the words don’t touch you anymore.

The only thing that matters is STORY. And it is this that you should focus on when you’re editing a publishable novel.

Any attempt whatsoever to look like you’re a great wordsmith will lead to failure – in the eyes of a publisher and in the eyes of a reader.

So how does this work in practice? How do you remove the literary writer in you and focus purely on the story? First, take a look at your own first line.

Any clues? Is it long winded and full of compound phrases that confuse and may cause a reader to balk? Probably.

Take a few tips from the masters...

Look at the opening line for The Da Vinci Code:

Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

What is actually here? For a start, there is nothing in this sentence that suggests literary prowess, no sense that Dan is trying to show off. It is simply story – nothing more, nothing less.

In reality, Dan may have struggled over which precise words to use to get the exact image across. He may – and probably did – edit this first line a hundred times, but to what end?


To make it look as though it was the first thing that came into his mind.

Look at the opening line of Chapter One of Twilight:

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down.

Again, there is no affectation, no desire to impress, simply the facts of the story moment. The writing is deceptively simple because it places an image in the mind of the reader – and serves no other purpose.

Too many new writers – perhaps the majority – believe that their words should somehow be beautiful and flowing and show great intellect and mastery of the English language.

For the bestseller in particular, this is simply not the case. The purpose of good writing is to place images in the mind of the reader, transparently, with no barrier – that is, without the WORDS getting in the way of the story.

Again, the first line of The Alchemist:

The boy’s name was Santiago.

How simple do you need to get?

Do you understand yet that writing good stories is not about the words?

Don’t fall in to the trap of loving your own words.

Only amateurs do that.

In fact, many professional career writers actually end up loathing words because they have a nasty habit of getting in the way of what they’re trying to say.

Just ask any old writer.

Your first line should be simple and direct with no affectation whatsoever. No author present. No narrator. Only the story, because that’s all that is necessary.

This is the lesson.

Great writing is that which appears not to be.

And, conversely, writing that aspires to greatness, ironically, often ends up sounding crap.

For this reason, choose your own writing style carefully. And, if you want to be a successful fiction writer, choose story over the love of words – every time!

Thanks for reading this short excerpt from Anatomy of the Modern Bestseller (

Keep writing!
Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write
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