The mood music of editing

When we write fiction – and especially when we are steeped in revision – it would not be unreasonable to assert that our primary goal is to land on the ‘right’ words, that elusive combination which tells the story we want to tell and does so in the perfect way. Not unreasonable, surely?


I am in the second phase of revision for my next novel, “The Opposite of Remembering” which is scheduled for publication at the beginning of February next year. The way I work? First stage is a review on the computer; the second is a paper-based re-read; the third and final phase is another re-read, this time through a proof copy of the final book. All of which sounds like a thorough process which should give me the best possible opportunity to ‘get it right’.

But there’s a flaw in the argument.

What I discover every time I go through this activity – as especially during the second stage – is that the degree of revision undertaken is dependant on two rather more emotionally influenced criteria. First, the quality of the material I have to review is entirely dependant on how I was feeling when I actually wrote the first draft i.e. if I was ‘in the groove’ when I first put pen to paper, the quality is usually good; if I was struggling, then it’s inevitably not so hot.

Maybe that’s not surprising. But secondly – and crucially – irrespective of the quality of the draft, how much I choose to revise the text is profoundly dependant on how I’m feeling when editing it. Take two copies of the same paragraph and edit it on different days, and I guarantee that you will end up with different outcomes. Given that, how can there be a ‘right’ answer?

It’s common to acknowledge that a poem is never finished. I would argue that you can say the same about fiction too.