On Editing

By Matt Bryden, poet and Writer Co-Mentor on the Teachers as Writers programme

At the Teachers as Writers Development Day in May, one teacher described the change in the way her class approached writing. Its new routine ran:

1          Free writing
2          Sharing work with an ‘edit buddy’
3          Preparing a finished piece
4          Deciding whether it is to be marked or not

I was struck by the similarity to my own writing process. I tend to express myself on the page and see what I have to work with later. At this second stage I shape my writing into a finished poem, finding patterns in the language and the way the poem falls on the page to create logical stanza lengths and line-breaks. Then I workshop it (with my ‘edit buddies’) and consider whether to submit it to a competition or journal or put it to one side for further revisions.

Often, my first drafts seem superficially more attractive than the finished versions. Since I compose in cursive, the pulse is visible in the handwriting. Each draft flows effortlessly, arriving in one impulse or a series of visible surges. Yet ultimately they are less successful as poems. Lacking an insider knowledge of what I’m rattling on about, the general reader may be baffled by a personal or insufficiently-realised reference. In this regard, ‘edit buddies’ or poetry workshops are an invaluable way of keeping the channel from the mind to the outside world clear.

Another weakness in my first drafts, and one which I often only notice when it is pointed out by other readers, is a tendency to unconsciously repeat words. These draw attention to themselves and can appear careless. Yet, finding a replacement that works can be the very devil.

Here is the final stanza of a prose poem in which a professor finds his name left off the bill of a conference in Portugal:

And here I am with three days to go. I have checked myself through the automatic gates of passport control. The wine regions verdant, the UNESCO village wrongly-coloured viewed through rain. My steak is overcooked and a nearby table of Spanish bother me. Low blood pressure, the doctor has it. As the wind rifles a menu on a wooden rest, on the steps I am grateful for the rain.

With great ingenuity the poet has made the last word of the poem – ‘rain’ – chime with the earlier word… ‘rain.’ It is no exaggeration to say that I have spent sixteen months seeking a phrase possessing similar sense, rhythm and sound to ‘viewed through rain’: ‘… against the grey’? ‘… dulled with grey’? ‘… seen this way’? For the poem to read right in my mind – for it to be finished – it needs to maintain the sonic qualities that came to me in that first draft.

John Lennon urged songwriters to finish a song in one sitting, since it takes so long to get back into one’s original mindset. Surely, the ideal situation would be to shape a piece of writing as you write it. I have accomplished this just twice – once, on a long walk outside of Bath, when the silence and my regular pace allowed me to write in my head without distraction; and stood against the baggage rack of a train from Preston to King’s Cross. The mental strength required to block out the surrounding conversation and claustrophobia forged the poem in a smithy of concentration.

‘Wrongly-coloured viewed through rain…’ Maybe I need to take a long train journey. Or a walk. Consult an ‘edit buddy.’

Matt Bryden

2 thoughts on “On Editing”

  1. I’m interested to see that Matt has described the repetition he finds in his first drafts as a ‘weakness’. For me, when writing poetry, such repetitions seem to signal this is an aspect of the text which I will probably want to develop further. The repeated words are signalling their significance in the initial unshaped outpouring. They may need changing, and eventually removing, but their sense and the mood /emphases they create seem to drive many of my early drafts.

    1. That’s really interesting, Sue. I think you’re right, and that I do need to develop these repeated points further. I suffer from a kind of myopia, though, and it can be years later that I am able to make a revision with the simplest, most effortless of strokes. It is if I am simply explaining what was always there…

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