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Emma Cox on Editing

Emma Cox

Emma Cox - children's author and winner of the New Children's Author Prize 2015 - continues to share her experiences of working with a publishing house for the first time as her debut, Malkin Moonlight, edges closer to publication.

It is through this first editing process that I've realised how much all the thrown away words matter. All those words that got highlighted then deleted. Poor words. It’s so instant. They fall so that the ones that remain are stronger, work harder, shake themselves off and think, ‘We’re not so bad after all.’ 

It wasn't that I didn't love the words that got cut: I did. I lost some favourites. It’s just - they had to go. Some of the ones I didn't like so much remain. But they look better now, on their own, without their clever friends around them, shouting out, drawing attention. 

Editing is so strange. 

The right combination is the thing isn't it? This I would love to master, one day. Like great guitar players can combine a few chords that have always existed, that any amateur could play, but they make a tune that is so recognisable it survives forever. The start of Smells Like Teen Spirit: so rough, so rude, so great. Dylan can put a harmonica to his mouth and now we all recognise Once upon a time you dressed so fine... Yeats said to us A terrible beauty is born and in five words defined a time and a country, and the young men who died for it. 

It’s the combination: the complexity and the simplicity.

And it’s the cut. Cut, cut, cut and let what remains standing seem simple and yet be so bloody hard.

This is what I've been trying to learn. But I'm me. I'm brand new to this and I'm not very good. But I'm going to carry on because I love learning and I'm so grateful for my mind to be even thinking in these terms. My brain enjoys it. 

Let me tell you about this process, now I've finished my first edit. Now I'm back to me, and the MS back to my lovely editor who has to think of polite ways to say Change This. 

Every morning during the edit I got up at 5am because I am a teacher and these last five weeks of term are our busiest. I wanted my book to get the best of me, and not my reports, so it got the five to seven slot when I was half asleep and my fingers raced ahead of my mind, and my coffee went cold. 

Boiling the early morning kettle for the second time and wondering at the sky I kept thinking about this shop in Dublin, this pen shop. I love this shop. It is all dark wood and beautiful ink pens beneath the glass and you really don’t have to buy anything, the shop is just happy for you to be in it, the person is kind, tries to give you free things, if you leave with a bookmark and a black pencil with a quotation from Joyce he puts an extra one in the paper bag. It kept making me think about editing, and here was my first Dublin thought:

How did they do it in the olden days? The people who wrote with ink pens or quills, dipping and thinking. Did they think a lot between sentences? How about back in the day when paper was so expensive, long before Find and Replace. Have we evolved? Have our brains changed? Are we now fast and furious because we've got to have a shower and get to school looking halfway decent, with no midnight hours printed on our brows? Did those quiet writers of the great past think about every letter, suck on their quills, while we just tap away and delete? How have writers changed? 

I hate sentences that end in question marks, over and over. But that is my five am mind. Prodding; nasty mind, asking, and asking. No space to think, and then it shuts up all of a sudden, and then I write. 

I fear I am just crass and rubbish. A bit of me, perhaps a lot of me, wants to sit in a room lined with dark wood, listening to cathedral music drifting up, with a bottle of something cellar-worthy (not from Tesco Metro) wearing a very long skirt that rustles along the floor in a pleasing way. A bit of me wants to be a contemplative ink-dipper, not a teacher with reports to write and time ticking on, and Sports Day and the Marquee Concert and these horrible broken fingernails and my father coming to my flat and looking at what I like to think of as ‘Writer’s Corner’ and saying ‘You need another bookcase.’

Yes, my flat got messy and books spilt over and everything was untidy. The food I ate was not always healthy. But I was throwing away words, and that matters. Bigger than that, it’s the books I wrote before Malkin Moonlight: all the thousands upon thousands of words that I stuck in certain combinations that were fated to never see the light of day together. Those careless words that real authors have placed together perfectly, carefully and just so; that they have used to define people and countries and times. All the words I've thrown away perhaps have made me capable of being an author now, albeit a new one, one who is learning. 

Thing is, since I started to want to reduce the word count, not increase it, I've learned a lot about the craft. And now my book is with my editor, and my reports are written, and I've two months off school. 

What do I see in that time, what do I do? I have two lovely holidays booked - hooray, but what else? What about all those other days? Easy answer: I see me writing. In that wonderful, secretive, no one can see me state, whatever hour of the day or night it might take place. When an idea wakes you up and you think, Oh good, I can get up. That lovely state of creativity, when you tot up your day or night, by the number of words that exist; not the ones who are lost. I'm looking forward to this. 

The other Dublin thing:

Last September, on my birthday, I was outside a pub. Brilliant people talk to you in Dublin, everyone talks, and it is one of the lovely things about the city. A man in a raincoat started to talk about Samuel Beckett. He said a lot of things in that Irish accent I love so much, and then, in a moment, he said: “When Love walked in I didn't recognise him, it must have been the hat.”

I've had that sentence stored in my head for nine months. In that time it’s been growing. I can see a story all around it, but I haven’t had the space to start. Now time is here. I can’t wait. I've done words like axes, and now I want to stop chopping and start creating. 

This is what summer is for. 

I can’t wait. 


I was born in Clifton in Bristol. I studied English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. I taught in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, then moved to Rome where I taught in an international school for three years. I now live in Exeter and am Head of English and Drama at Exeter Cathedral School - a job I love. I have been writing since I was four years old. I've always written for children and young adults. Malkin Moonlight will be my first published book - hopefully in July 2016 - I am very, very excited to have joined Bloomsbury's list of children's authors. I think the year ahead is going to be the most exciting of my life. I can't wait for all it will bring. 


Read the first piece in Emma's series of articles for Writers & Artists.

Read the third piece in Emma's series of articles for Writers & Artists.