On Editing: How to edit your novel the professional way

Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price (John Murray, 2018), 304pp, £14.99 (pbk)
ISBN 978 14 73666 68 6

Reviewed by Hannah McCall

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On Editing is from the team behind Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, and is designed to guide authors through self-editing their novels. Does On Editing have value for fiction editors? I think so. Most of the guidance is suitable for the process of developmental editing, but there is much that can be applied at the line- and copyediting levels.

The first (and main) part of the book deals with the editing of the novel. It’s thorough but not overwhelming. The authors start with the basics of getting ready to edit, such as setting goals, and move rapidly on to the nitty-gritty of what makes a novel work. Corner-Bryant and Price, as the reader would expect, certainly know their craft. They present how to create and maintain rounded, memorable characters, and there’s a good exploration of view point, and how to use it to its best effect, with techniques for dealing with head-hopping. The book then moves on to plot structure – the authors being in favour of a three-act structure, which they illustrate – and looks at how to maximise the impact of the opening and conclusion. This is followed by an investigation into how to create great dialogue, and support it with vivid description. The penultimate chapter of the first part deals with pacing, how to create and maintain tension, and how to identify where cuts could, and should, be made. The authors close with a detailed exploration of the ‘show not tell’ mindset in relation to everything they have already discussed.

None of this drags – at no point does On Editing become a dull, dry tome. It’s well-written and the style is friendly and engaging – you feel as if you are being talked to by a knowledgeable friend. The explanations are easy to follow and understand, and the advice is sound. Perhaps one of the most helpful features is that the authors provide good, clear demonstrations of how to apply the principles they are discussing.

Fiction editors may find the first section useful on two counts. First, to help sharpen our own editing practice. The authors reinforce a lot of what we (probably) already know, but there are some excellent tools provided that can only help our offering to clients. It gives the reader time and space to consider what is important when editing a novel, and gives an interesting insight into how a leading literacy consultancy approaches the work. Looking through the eyes of Corner-Bryant and Price is an excellent opportunity to improve our understanding of our own role as editors, and to reflect on how we can approach our work to best assist the writers we work with. Second, to recommend to potential clients whose manuscripts just aren’t ready for the services we offer. I can’t imagine a serious author reading this book, applying its concepts, and not coming up with an improved novel.

The second part of the book tackles the submission process, and aims to guide authors through it. Cornerstones is a trans-Atlantic operation, and this is reflected here in the specific, additional, insights given for the US market. The section seems a good resource to be able to refer clients to, and potentially to guide editors if we are asked to weigh in on synopses and cover letters.

I’m sure you will be pleased to know that it does have an index, so you can dip in and out as you need to, as I certainly will.

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