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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dempster

An editing workshop with Helen Sedgwick

On Tuesday evening, we were delighted to welcome HighlandLIT member Helen Sedgwick who, for the perspective both of a writer with an impressive track record - (The Comet Seekers, The Growing Season) and a new book coming out early next year (When the Dead Come Calling) – and of a gifted and experienced literary editor (and founder of Wildlife Literary Editors) spoke on the editorial process.

Helen first described briefly four different kinds of editing: Structural Editing, Line Editing, Copy Editing and Proof Reading. She then explored the first two of these in details. Structural editing, she told us, which involves focussing on ‘the shape of the story in which things happen and characters change;’ character development and interaction; the architecture of individual chapters and scenes; and voice, dialogue, description, atmosphere.

Helen introduced us to the ‘3 Act Structure’ which is often a helpful way of conceiving a story, and to the idea of a ‘mid-point’ half-way through the ‘2nd Act’ which sometimes contains a pre-echo of the end. Helen also described the kind of report we could expect back from an editor doing a structural assessment of our draft – several such assessments may be necessary during the development of the novel.

Then, we looked at the ‘line edit’ – a line-by-line edit of a text approaching completion, ensuring that every word counts, that that there is clarity, and a clear dynamic throughout the text, and consistency. The question the editor will ask (and which we can ask ourselves as writers) is ‘What is this person trying to say? What’s the best way of saying this?’

One of the key things which struck me was Helen’s comment that you can normally cut at least one third of any text without losing anything vital, enhancing the writing in so doing.

I appreciated the respect which Helen shows as an editor towards the author’s individuality and voice – encouraging the author to find ways of making their writing ‘work’ while not using edits to impose her own literary voice. I also liked the fundamental questions which she asks of a text, or a passage in a text: ‘What is the author trying to do? Is it worth doing? Has the author succeeded in doing it?’

The exercises were fun too. We enjoyed, for example, trying to bring clarity and forward-thrust to this passage: ‘She was running very fast through the streets which were really dark and dim, the street having been left unlit for some reason, and it was nearly night.’

But it’s OK to pour words on the page when you’re working in a draft, Helen assured us – the resulting writing will probably be messy and repetitious, but it provides a basis for editing, and polishing, and restructuring, until something powerful and beautiful emerges: words which convey the meaning you intend.

It was a wonderful evening – very well attended, with 40 people present. We really appreciated Helen’s grace and expertise. Thank you so much, Helen


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