Prune, pare and perfect at Pat Young’s editing workshop – 13 February 2019

It takes a certain degree of chutzpah to employ punctuation as a fashion accessory. Pat’s traffic-calming exclamatory knitwear demanded attention for an enthusiastically-delivered interactive evening of all-embracing editing advice (which included minimising the use of adverbs and employing hyphens to reduce word count).

As a well-known member of the Group, Pat has published three novels with Bloodhound: Till the Dust Settles, I Know Where You Live and One Perfect Witness.

In a well-attended session, Pat took us through five (self-)questions as prompts for reflecting on our editing skills, together with two activities.

1. For whom do you write (and edit)? – self, family and friends, paying readers, non-paying readers – through a blog, website or local newspaper, judges, literary agent, publisher’s commissioning editor, magazines. All of these may require different stylistic or content approaches, and while perhaps demanding different levels of editing precision, the highest quality should always be aspired to.

2. Why edit your writing? – in short, to make your stories easier to read, and Pat drew on the analogy of a good car driver trying to achieve the smoothest ride for her passengers. Thus we edit to achieve brevity, to hone style and plot(s), to improve clarity – reading our work aloud is instructive here, to improve accuracy of grammar, presentation and plot-line(s), to assist fluency – particularly in dialogue, and to improve the story, perhaps to increase tension, by adding hooks.

This question generated further discussion: when to stop editing and, indeed, when to start. The suggestion that some of us may stop editing only five minutes before our deadline was countered by the notion that there can be too much editing, such as when we feel we are changing back something we had previously modified. Or, for example, if too much – perhaps a chunk of material – is edited or even removed, it may result in loss of continuity in the plot-line.

That some of us start editing our opening pages and keep going back to them, rather than moving on, seemed to be widely experienced, reflecting a certain diffidence, particularly for the ‘linear’ type of writer. Don’t get stuck, but keep on writing, even if the first draft is rubbish, would appear to be sound advice for fiction and non-fiction writers alike.

3. When do you edit? This question naturally flowed from the previous discussion. The potential options offered for debate were: not at all, as you write, once having finished a chapter/verse/section, or at the end of the first draft of the first chapter. Writers will have their preferences and may well employ combinations of these approaches.

4. How do you edit? The suggestions here were: read out loud, read on screen/paper/kindle [load via pdf format but check font size]/phone, make notes, change as you go, have someone else read it (Beta-reader) taking their comments seriously, pay an editor (per hour or per thousand words).

The subsequent activity challenged us to edit a 350-word piece of given text, to: remove unnecessary words and correct mistakes (accuracy), make the passage read better (style), render the text easier to read (fluency), and reduce the number of words without losing the meaning of the piece (brevity).

Out of this exercise Pat provided advice on achieving brevity through eliminating tautology, changing word order, and reducing long sentences into a number of shorter ones. There were also tips on the use of punctuation, avoiding clunky phrases, reducing adverbs, and choosing verbs carefully, particularly in relation to speech and movement.

5. What can you do about it? To help improve our editing, Pat offered the following: don’t make excuses, learn how to edit, draw on the many free resources available, borrow or buy books to see how others do it, attend courses, be(a)ware as you read and, not least, practise editing.

Alongside the second exercise, where we paired off and edited our partner’s piece of writing, Pat offered some further random tips, emphasising the role of computer software in checking the over-use of particular words, employing track changes and a virtual Thesaurus. There was also a hand-out on words you should delete.

Overall, the full evening provided excellent stimulation and guidance for the novice and experienced writer alike, and Pat’s infectious and engaging approach was spot-on.

Derek Hall

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