Depth and balance in editing

Yesterday, I went to a workshop (“Page-turning Power”) with Margie Lawson, through Writers Victoria. Margie was great fun, chatty and engaging with a whole bunch of fantastic concepts and ways of thinking about the work of writing. As she noted, her advice was an enormous platter of cookies; we could take the ones we liked and leave the ones that weren’t working for our tastes or writing intentions. Some cookies I found particularly to my taste were her endless joy in rhetorical devices and sentence rhythm, and her editing system for analysing scene content and creating balance.

The rhetoric and rhythm aspect probably won’t surprise anyone who knows me. I wallow in language. I’m the grumpy one up the back of “plain English” corporate writing courses. I’ve read books just to see what the words did next, never mind the characters. And I’ve never felt such agreement with a quote as the author (I want to say Scott Lynch, but I can’t find confirmation) who mentioned wanting to feel like the author of a book had chosen the words and their order carefully, purposefully, delightedly. English is a magnificent sprawling multivaried bastard of a language, and I love to see it used with a deft hand and an ear for metre. Anyone who writes, for my money, should aspire to lay upon the page lines that delight the ear and tug at the soul.

The editing system was arguably the more meaty and toolkit-y item, however. It includes two of my favourite aides for thinking about writing – the notion of balance, and colour-coding. In broad strokes, Margie’s system advocates considering the various types of writing we incorporate in scenes – description, for instance, and dialogue – and colour-coding the scene accordingly. This enables the easy identification of clumps of particular kinds of writing, and what elements are sparse or missing entirely. It’s easy to say, “I have a weakness in description,” but then not really do anything about it, or only prod around the edges of it. It’s another thing to be confronted with an entire scene where you haven’t described the characters, their setting or what they’re doing at all. And you can’t argue with it: the colour-coding doesn’t lie!

It’s also, as the best systems are, an adaptable set of tools that aren’t genre-specific. Spec-fic might need more describing- and talking-about-things space. Romance might want more viscerality and sensuality. The tools can even be adapted scene by scene… as long as you know the purpose of your scenes. This is a key thing I always grapple with at first revisions and rewrites: often in a first draft I just want to get the words down, so I write the scenes that want to be written. For stitching those into an on-purpose story, one of the things I have to do is make sure every scene has a point, and that it is therefore achieving its point as… well, pointily as possible. And a chase scene is going to want more action, whereas a putting-together-the-pieces scene might have a lot more gritty thinking. My colour-coding should reflect this – and if it doesn’t, that’s something I’ve identified and can work on.

You can learn more about Margie’s systems – and rhetorical devices – through her online course notes, which can be bought on her website. Or I suppose it might be possible to take the base concept and build your own system from scratch. I’m already pondering ways to modify based on my own needs and weaknesses. But getting a thorough grounding in the how and whys of Margie’s system first is probably a good idea!

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