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Editing Alan Bissett

Alan Bisset-JulyThanks to everyone who attended the third and final installment of Alan Bissett’s extraordinarily successful series of July workshops. The topic being “editing”, and having covered the general principles in earlier sessions, Alan got right to the nitty-gritty.

Classic faux-pas of the inexperienced writer were summarily noted. Over-emotionalism too soon in the story; “blood”, “tears”, “hearts”, etc. Worse than hearts, of course, are broken hearts – in other words, clichés. And worse than clichés are unnecessary adverbs. Worse than unnecessary adverbs are actively redundant adverbs such as “run quickly” and “shout loudly“. Worse than redundant adverbs are redundant phrases like “nodding his head mutely”. Worse than all of these is blatant “exposition” (beloved of bad sci-fi writers, throwing technobabble into otherwise casual conversations).

Worse again is the infamous “telling not showing”, in which the reader is told how a character is instead of letting them decide for themselves on the evidence of a character’s actions and dialogue. Probably the worst of all, however, is when the writer finds himself resorting to a series of questions about his own characters or narrative – giving the impression that he’s not even sure himself!

Well, so much for the don’ts. Some of the dos would be to always leave a trail of M&Ms (or breadcrumbs, if you’re dieting) scattered throughout your text, rather than reveal your message too soon. And, if you use an image, ensure that it is ambiguous; always end a story with an ambiguous image. Let the small details do all the work in your story.

Alan concluded the workshop by bravely inviting everyone present to tear apart his short story, Animals (which was a runner-up in the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday Short Story Competition, many years ago); throwing out as many florid phrases and redundancies as the audience could lay their hands on. Alan presided gamely over the ritual slaughter of such beauties as “snort derisively”, “non-committal shrug”, and “a hundred slugs pirouetting in my stomach”. Hyperbole, that one, I think.

So there you have it. If Alan can shred his own work to pieces, then the rest of us can do so with our own writings. Get editing, people. Here though, I have to admit – I rather liked that line about the cigarette smoke turning around like ships reaching the end of the world…

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