Week 3 of the Start Writing Fiction course looks at editing work we’ve written, reviewing others’ work, and getting reviews for our work. It began with an exercise in which we were given a paragraph of text and instructed to edit it down to two lines. Here’s the paragraph:
The heavy black and blue winter sky groaned awfully with rain clouds that at any moment were really about to fall crashing heavily down upon the street where, because it was rush hour, so many people, wearing all manner of different clothes, hats, shoes, boots, some of them carrying bags, suitcases, briefcases, scampered and strolled about the place as though oblivious to what was just about to happen over their very heads. One of these people was called Hilary and concealed inside her voluminous coat she carried the loaded, snub-nosed gun, and she also seemed to be the only one looking upwards into the tempestuous thundery heavens.
And this is what I edited it down to:
The bruised winter sky groaned heavy with clouds waiting to burst open upon the streets. Amongst the rush-hour bustle, Hilary held her coat tight over the loaded gun, and looked up.
(Okay, it takes up a bit more than two lines here, but it was two lines exactly in my Word file so it counts.)
I thought this exercise was artificially easy, but useful nonetheless. It was easy enough to see that people carrying bags and wearing hats wasn’t important. I identified that the important parts were that there’s a storm about to break, it’s rush hour, Hilary has a gun, and Hilary is looking at the sky. I turned “black and blue” to bruised, because that’s basically what it means colloquially, without the confusing connotions of refering to a stormcloud as a blue sky. I liked the idea of the clouds groaning – it gives them a bit of humanity, a bit of personality, and meshes nicely with the injury imagery of bruising. I summarised the nonsense about hats and bags and suitacases into the word “bustle”, and cut out the second description of the sky.
The course materials gave a different edited down version.
The winter sky was heavy with rain. It was rush hour. Hilary concealed the loaded gun inside her coat.
Personally, I didn’t like this. It’s too choppy, lacks the emotive visuals the original paragraph attempts, and it’s too direct. My style may be considered verbose by some, but I am very much of the opinion that if you cut too much out, you can cut out the heart and leave a piece stiff and dead. I consider “heavy with rain” to be a bit cliched; I’ve definitely seen it before. And this version fails to include Hilary looking up at the sky. I thought that was important because it gave a suggestion of pace. Hilary might be outside during rush hour, but she’s not rushing around like everyone else. She’s got time to look at the sky instead of where she’s walking to make sure she doesn’t walk into someone.
This exercise has made me think about what’s important. I know I tend to write wordy first drafts – perhaps not has bad as this passage, but more dilute than it needs to be. I will need to focus, in each paragraph, on what is important.