I stared at the file in dismay. My words from my middle-grade manuscript had been kindly and meticulously edited by my friend Renee. There were almost 5,000 words in four chapters. Renee’s comments were in purple. She’d given me quite a few ticks, but there were more suggestions and deletions than ticks.
Out of the four chapters, the one she liked the best was the one I wrote in a café the day before. I had suddenly realised I needed a scene where my protagonist apologised to someone she had hurt. (Because it’s good to make twelve-year-old characters do things they don’t want to do, and no one likes to admit they’re wrong!) A chai latte, an hour, about 1,000 words – done. Renee gave me lots of ticks for that one.
At first I was really disappointed. I knew the chapters weren’t singing yet but I didn’t think they were THAT bad. Then I became analytical. Why was my fresh, raw new chapter better than the ones I’d spent hours crafting?
It’s partly because the olds ones had been written about a year ago and I’m a better writer now. I’ve absorbed all the many books on writing I’ve read, and the many writing podcasts I’ve listened to and the hours spent discussing the finer points of writing with friends.
And it’s partly because we think that it’s easier sometimes to work around the edges, polish a few sentences and it’ll do. But sometimes a blank page and an hour offers no limits and no preconceived ideas.
I spent some of last weekend editing grade four stories for a writing workshop, and went into their class this week to talk to them about their stories. I showed them a few of my pages which had been reviewed by an editor – all the comments scrawled in the margins, the lines crossed out, suggestions written in between the lines.
‘This is a good thing!’ I told these nine and ten-year-old students, when I gave them their edited pages. ‘It means someone is responding to your work, and that’s what you want as a writer.’
I think I need to listen to my own advice. Sometimes illumination happens in the margins.