Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Big Edit

It feels almost like an exam. Students are bent over papers, busily scribbling away. You hear the occasional clearing of a throat, a paper turning and, of course, the traffic outside.  But the latter does not distract; we are in the middle of the Big Edit and everyone in the room is set on perfecting the prose of the others.
This is not for the faint-hearted. I offer it as an alternative and / or a supplement to the one-to-one appointments normally available in the last teaching week of the semester. Students bring along the latest draft of their assignment – in this case a 2,500 word extract of a young adult novel and a synopsis they’ve worked on for this module - and their peers and I critique it. If there had been any reluctance to workshop their writing during the semester this must be put on one side for the moment. This process can be brutal.

The mechanics of it

It becomes a little like speed-dating. We have a two hour (ish) seminar – we must break ten minutes before the hour to allow the next lecturer time to get set up and this process is so intense we must take a ten minute break. I spend one minute describing the edit we’re doing and then the students spend nine minutes editing the paper in front of them – one passed from the left. After time is up, we pass the paper on and start the next edit. So, we complete ten edits. I join in, so every so often a student does not have a script to examine. “Make sure you bring a book,” I said. “Preferably a young adult one.”

Which ten edits?

Well, I’ve actually identified fourteen I like to do. The last but one, anyway, is the “read out loud” one and perhaps this is not appropriate in a room full of students. As we’re working on a relatively small sample some processes have been apocopated – see points 5 and 7 below for example. We actually worked with:
1.      Overall structure – look at the synopsis
a.       Is the overall structure sound?  - hook, inciting incident, increasing complexities, crisis, climax –
b.      Is the resolution satisfying?
c.       Does the time-scale work?
2.      Characters. Are they consistent? Do they develop? Do you know everything about them that you should?
3.      Check format and length against target market / reader
a.       Mixed genre
b.      Emotional closeness
c.       Leaving reader to decide
d.      Pushing boundaries
e.       Fast paced / high stakes
f.       Characters resemble young adults
g.      Bildungsroman
4.      Is it convincing? Is there cause and effect?
5.      Is there conflict and tension? Are there peaks and troughs? Does the pace vary?
6.      Point of View – is it consistent and if it “zooms” does it do so in a reasonable way? 
7.      Detail and description should be slipped in small chunks? Show don’t tell? Clich├ęs? Darlings?  
8.      Dialogue
1.      It should not be too natural
2.      It should only say important things
3.      It should differentiate characters' voices
4.      When angry, becomes childish
5.      Should take 2/3 of popular book
6.      Should convey mood, character and reaction
7.      Every speech should give information
9.      Overall flow
10.  Copy edit


As I handed the final script I’d critiqued back to a student I asked her “How does it feel having your work annotated like that?”
“I love it,” she said. “It’s so useful. And I’ve learnt so much by looking at other people’s work.”
This bodes well for next year’s Final Portfolio when they’ll be doing something pretty similar on a weekly basis. The one pity is that only a third of the students to whom this was offered turned up to the session. Year on year we encourage the students to take part in similar activities. I guess it takes a while before they feel ready to do that. These students were ready and took it on whole-heartedly.      


  1. Only a third? I'd leap at it, but I'm a masochist. Interesting blog.

  2. I think the problem for some was that they had other assignments and hadn't got this one to the stage where they wanted others to see it. That plus in many cases two hours travel for one two hour class. And shyness.