When it comes to editing… Screen, paper, audio?

editingWhich approach works best for you?

Though I might scribble ideas on paper, I always write first drafts on a computer or an iPad. I edit them there too, so I tell myself. Experience has shown me though that printing out and reading the paper copy always throws up typos missed on the screen. Even the reading experience of the on paper version differs for some reason.

Maybe it’s that I print out on to yellow paper, and the colour change means I read more slowly or with fresher eyes. Maybe it’s because the text lies within the confines of, and is limited to, one page at a time rather than the continuous on-screen scroll. Perhaps it’s that I move away from the computer to read the pages and am less hypnotised by that slightly shiny, shimmery, Tahoma 16pt justified. No doubt being less distracted by other things going on (or available) on my Mac is a factor.

Take today. I’ve done that thing of leaving the third version of a WIP, a short story, in the digital drawer for a few days. On revisiting it, it seemed ready for a proof read, hence the print out. I took the paper copy and my red editing pen to a cafe. Not only did I find typos, I found words that were not the best options available for what I was endeavouring to show, slips in the narrative voice, sentences that would read with more clarity and impact were they turned round, paragraphs I’d broken in the wrong place for the sense of the text, and an ending that needed improving by linking back to references to the Bible made earlier in the story. I also read the piece aloud (sotto voce, of course) and found even more similar issues. On other occasions I’ve recorded myself reading and stumbling over shoddy phrasing. Listening back, I could hear where flow was disrupted unintentionally or I sounded to be droning on and on and on. It’s a process I’d recommend.

People tell me my style is quite poetic, sometimes from the language I use, but often from the rhythm initiated by my syntactical choices. This can become a problem. If I’m sure the piece is meant to be prose not poetry in disguise, I need to vary the sentences’ length and rhythm. Rhythm in prose does of course have a place, but it needs to be used for good reason and effect rather than from habituation. Too much of it can lose the carry, twists and moments of impact of the story.

Another couple of hours’ work later, it’s time for another print out (and a cup of tea).

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Writing in music

relaxed-writer_1This week I’ve completed a first full draft revision of my radio drama. It’s left me feeling hopeful because the writing has relaxed. I know where I’m going and what needs to be said, it’s no longer a case of that first write-itis where everything (for me) has to be in, clear, overtly stated.

Snip, snip. Less really is more.

Next task. Radio (sorry to state the obvious) is a listening medium, and listening to a radio drama perhaps somewhere between hearing a story and listening to a piece of music.  We listen to stories and music with cultural expectation, cultural training, we respond to it emotionally, assess its quality, its aesthetic, the way it resonates with us and becomes memorable (or not). We latch on to its shape and structure with its rises and falls. When listening, I think, the sound and sound shape of the story grabs and compels us more than characters.

Part of my editing process will be to consider and apply this understanding to the musicality the words, syntax and structure. Musicality in writing is poetic, a major aesthetic component. Can I recommend a book to you? The Poetry of Radio by Sean Street.

Fear of typing

When Jon McGregor* gave his first Short Talk About Lunch,
he insisted usb-typewriter-1all the students typed their names on his attendance list using the typewriter he’d brought on a trolley. (Along with doughnuts and Satsumas – there’s nothing like free food to motivate students.) Some of the students, being of a more conventional student age than myself, had never touched a typewriter in their lives.

There were questions such as: So how do you insert a space? How do you go down to the next line?’ What do you do to make letters into capitals?  I confess, I was amused by their lack of awareness that the invention of the computer keyboard was not original in concept, merely a development.

Though I’ve thought a lot about my radio drama script, written the synopsis of it, character studies, research information etc, etc, I hadn’t written much of it at all and was beginning to panic. Then it occurred to me, ‘Helena, you don’t need to have read every book about writing for radio that you can get your hands on BEFORE you write.’ Ah ha! That was it.

This week I’ve pretty much completed the first draft, it’s flowed and flowed from the heart. I gave myself permission to proceed in this order:

  • Write
  • Make minor changes to ensure continuity and consistency
  • Check factual accuracy
  • Read about radio and radio writing to inform the penultimate edit of the script
  • Penultimate edit
  • Gather feedback from mentor, Writing Group, any other willing reader, and the actors at a read through
  • Final edit
  • Done

A liberating process that’s revived my enthusiasm and flagging confidence. I’m hopeful that this approach has led to a script in which the emotions of the characters, and their voices, are raw and natural. Now I just have to guard against editing the life out them. That’s a post for another day.

* Jon McGregor is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, author of three novels and a collection of short stories, all of which I highly recommend. (Not that I’m a creep, you understand.) He is also editor in chief of The Letters Page, a literary journal in, as you might have guessed, letters. You might like to subscribe, and it is open for submissions.