30 September

Pencil holding fingers – an editing workshop

How do you feel about the editing process?  Is it something you relish, or something you find difficult and face with a sense of dread?

Almost exactly a year ago, I attended an editing workshop at Nottingham Writers’ Studio,  an incredible experience which had a lasting effect on me for many reasons.

Firstly, the venue itself, the street it was on, the view of the church from our writing room, the whole vibe of the area seeped into my soul somehow.  It was all so new; I knew no-one and I was way out of my comfort zone.  This had the effect of sharpening my senses, as I think it often does, so that I noticed everything around me.

In addition to this, I learnt to edit, drastically, and had a lightbulb moment where my writing was concerned – I could do anything I wanted to with my words.  I could change what I wanted to change.  Nothing was set in stone.  This has drastically altered my approach to the whole writing and editing process, for which I am truly grateful.  Until then I had feared the whole process of editing, finding it really difficult to know which words and sentences to cut and which to leave, feeling that once I had made a change, that was it, I couldn’t undo it.  In my mind, I had been separating out the writing and the editing, treating them as separate entities.  I now see the whole process as one, and as a fluid and changing thing, a building up, of layers almost, and a peeling away.  I’m not saying it’s easy, but I no longer feel panic-stricken by the thought of changing what I have written, but relish the thought of this liberating experience… and it is liberating.  These are our words, our stories, we make them the shapes they become.

And, finally, this whole experience was symbolised by a pencil.  Pre workshop, I had always edited in pen, but during the workshop I was given a pencil complete with rubber on the end.  I still have the pencil and have used it until the rubber is… well, rubbed out!  I continue to edit in pen sometimes, but see the pencil as a metaphor for freedom and for the change that I underwent on that day, and the changes that will happen in my writing.

I wrote this poem a few days after the event, and hope it kind of sums up that very remarkable day.

Pencil holding fingers

I gazed through the glass at the church beyond
and the autumn trees losing their leaves,
listened to the click and clack
and the rhythmic scratch
and the shift of cotton unseen,
wondering how I would ever begin,
how I could possibly say.

But you gave me a pencil
which put everything right,
offered wisps of wisdom to the page,
erased the things that shouldn’t have been said
and the things that weren’t,
untangled the lashes that swept the colour
from our eyes.

You preferred to keep yours down,
so didn’t see how many times
I snatched away the mesh
of lead and rubber mixed to a fine dry pulp.

Not that it mattered.
That was what it was for.
That was what these were for,
these pencil holding fingers
only I hadn’t noticed the absence,
hadn’t realised that the ache wasn’t the early onset
of some genetically inherited arthritic condition
from my paternal grandmother’s side
but the ache of longing
of missed moments,
an emptiness held in the palm of my hand.

I kept them,
the grains of the day
held inside my resting grip,
sprinkled like confetti into the side pocket
of my jacket, hanging,
my fragments, your bus tickets,
collectables that no-one else will ever want.

It’s wearing down now
and I am frightened lest it disappear.
Then what will I do with these pencil holding fingers?

About Abi Burlingham

I write children's books and paint pictures inspired by nature, animals, trees etc, mostly in acrylics. I am a crisp addict.
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20 Responses to 30 September

  1. Jo Carroll says:

    What a brilliant approach to editing – thanks, Abi. Puts it in a whole new light.

    Now – must go and buy pretty pencils!

  2. Ah, thank you Jo. Enjoy pencil shoppine!

  3. I write my first draft on the computer and I do a few read-throughs/edits on screen but nearing the end, I always edit in pencil. On paper. In fact I’m editing a manuscript right now – on paper and with a pencil.

    Long live pencil and paper!!!

  4. That’s good to hear. That’s exactly how I work too, with the whole thing preceded by lots of notes, in pen, on paper, and now I use cut up index cards for plotting too (a method that Liz Kessler uses). There are always things I notice on the hard copy when I’m editing by hand that I hadn’t spotted on the computer screen. Yes, long live paper… and pencils… and rubbers!

  5. I agree – words look very different on the printed page. I always spot things, too. In fact, I’ve just spotted a few artefacts from an earlier draft that have, until now, eluded a strike-through. Be gone!!

  6. Yes, you see, editing by hand is GOOD! I have, this week, done exactly the same thing! The glaringly obvious, on paper, suddenly seems… well, glaringly obvious, when on the screen it was inconspicuous. I also enjoy the physical process of striking things through and writing possible new bits in margins – I think it gets you to think out of the box more.

  7. I love the poem! Beautiful! And, I too, MUST edit on paper…. all 270 pages on my dining room table right now! I’ve never tried pencil, though — my preferred is red ink! I suppose it’s a leftover from my journalism days…. professors leaving comments. After reading this, you’ve encouraged me to try pencil!

  8. It’s so nice to hear that people still edit by hand. It’s interesting to see people’s preferences too. I was suprised at how much more freedom using a pencil gave me, although I still do like to edit in pen too. Good luck with your editing – I know you’re working so hard on this. Fingers and toes are crossed!

  9. Emma Pass says:

    I’ve always loved editing, but that’s because I dread first drafts, especially the knowledge that no matter how much preparation I do, the end result will always be an awkward, rambling mess. Editing gives me a chance to try and knock that mess into shape, which I find more and more satisfying with each draft. I usually plot and write my drafts straight onto the computer, but when I’m editing, I always print a copy out and make notes by hand. Typos, plot holes, awkward sentences – they all seem to leap off the page in a way they never do on the screen.

    When I’m making those notes, I use a black Bic Crystal biro (fine point). I wrote my first ever story with one when I was 13, and since then, using anything else has felt plain wrong. I can use a pencil if I’m desperate, but I can’t write at-all in blue ink! (Yes, I know I’m weird…)

    • Thanks for that Emma! Yes, most people seem to be in agreement that, at some point, we need to edit on paper and that errors seem to miraculously appear on paper but not on screen. You are right too about knocking the text ino shape – that is such an enjoyable process isn’ it? I’ve heard other people say they dislike blue ink too, so you’re not as weird as you think! I don’t mind blue ink, so clearly I’m not weird at all 🙂

  10. Emma Pass says:

    And your poem is absolutely lovely! 🙂

  11. Ah, thank you. It’s a special one because it holds so much meaning to me. Glad you like it.

  12. Denise says:

    Hey Abi

    I have been through my novel 6 times now .. I’ve read it on the computer, printed, on an e-reader, even on my phone; and have edited or made notes in everything known to man! No matter how many times you look, something always gets past us. Each medium is different and helps you see a manuscript in a new light but at the end of the day, you can only do as much as you know how to do. Sooner or later you need someone with more experience to point out things you would miss no matter how many times you read it.

    • This is true. I think, in the end, we can only get our work to a stage where we are happy with it and where we feel it’s the best we can do. At that point, if it gets as far as a publisher, I have found they are often more than willing to give feedback and input. Another set of eyes really does help, and yet more editing tends to commence. It is a learning curve. I think having faith in your work is as important as anything.

  13. Damyanti says:

    love paper and pencil! 🙂

    Join me at the Rule of Three Writers’ Blogfest!

  14. Martin Shone says:

    Hi Abi, I always print off and edit, shh (with a pen). Every time I read and edit on screen I miss something, print it off and there it is. Writing in pencil is comfortable and has a natural tactility? to it, so why do I write in pen?

    Nice poem, :-).


  15. Thank you – glad you like the poem, being a poemy kind of person yourself. Yes, I had never edited, or even thought of editing, in pencil, until this workshop. Now I pick and choose according to mood – it’s good to give it a try and you’d be surprised how free it feels… and if tactility isn’t a word, it certainly should be 🙂

  16. wendyfreckles says:

    Hello Abi, I finally found the time to scroll through your blog, and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    From my POV (see, I’m starting to talk the talk!), as a newbie, it’s fascinating to see how others work. I am different to you all – but I won’t worry too much about that – because I never edit from hard copy – always on-screen. But this is due to my background – I was a PA for 20 years at a very high level and it was my job to type and proof-read presentations for 100s of people attending conferences, etc. So editing and proof-reading is natural and second nature to me. I cannot imagine printing out, going through and then making changes because of this and because I am a natural time-saver and that would seem like a long, frustrating and drawn-out process and would completely wind me up! But we are all different and you might think me mad!

    But what I do do is to read it through – out loud is essential – as I go, as though an actor, to see if it flows. That’s when I notice any glaring misstakes…..(did you spot it?!).

    And what I also found interesting when reading your blog on having a dominant right or left brain – you have me puzzled as to what I am! (and I may start to worry about that!). In life I am highly organised (no surprises there) to the point of anally ridiculous (which irritates even myself but I can’t help it), and also in the writing process. But in my speech I am completely erratic and also in the way I work or do jobs around the house e.g. if I clean or paint a window I would start at a random, illogical point and continue in this crazy way. I might not even finish it but start another one. Can you explain that? No hope for me : 0

    PS. I really enjoyed your poem – it was very sensitive and I could feel your emotion.

    Now. Was this a linear post?!

    • Hi Wendy, how lovely to read about the way you work. It’s fascinating stuff isn’t it? I do find that my approaches have changed over time, and that I actually write things in different ways, sometimes consciously, but also depending on genre. I think this is one of the absolute joys of writing – there is no right and wrong way – it’s entirely up to the individual. I do like change and enjoy experimenting with new ideas too. Was this a linear post? Probably not 🙂

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