So I applied for a teaching job about three weeks ago, one that sounded sort of astonishingly perfect for me. It would be for a college level course on editing and revisions at a career-focused school. Alas, I haven’t heard a word back, not even the basic form letter acknowledgement that I applied. I’m thinking I give it another week or so and then move on. My problem, though, is that my brain doesn’t want to move on. During my long dog walks, when I’m supposed to be thinking about my villain and how his conversation with Natalya goes, I’m pondering knowledge and lectures and teaching methods.
How would I structure a course in editing? How would I structure class time? What kinds of activities could teach someone how to edit their work? What’s the best learning style for an activity that is usually solitary? What’s the most important information that I’d want students to walk away with? How would the process be different for screenwriters and game designers?
I’m thinking if I write some of it down, I’ll be able to let go of it. So here goes. (And if you have no interest in learning about editing and revisions and information design and learning theory, come back next week, instead. Maybe I’ll write about ducks again.)
The course takes four weeks, so I’d structure the overall arc as:
Week 1: First readers
- Alphas, betas, and OSC’s concept of a “wise reader.”
- Building a support team of early readers
- Critique groups, online and off. Pros/cons.
- Responding to critiques
- Neil Gaiman: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
- Collaborating (important for screenwriters and game designers, less so for novelists) and communication.
Depending on the size of the class, I’d break them into groups that they’ll stay in for the length of the course, so that each student’s project gets an alpha, beta, and wise read from one other student, and each student also provides an alpha, beta, and wise read for one other student. So groups of four would be the ideal, but if it didn’t work out that way, I’d figure it out. Possibly pairs with three sets of reads instead of the team approach. That might work better, anyway.
Week 2: Structural and developmental editing
- The job of a structural or developmental editor or producer(?). Revision requests.
- The three-act structure: hook, conflict, climax
- Story beats
- Making your characters work. Goals, motivations
- Dialogue: tightening, tweaking, finding authentic voices, key words. Reading aloud.
- Character details, choosing the right level & info
- Minor characters don’t need names or backstories
- Major characters – quick sketches plus meaningful info, killing details that don’t influence plot or story
- Details: “Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” —Stephen King in Writer’s Digest
- Criteria-based content analysis for strong storytelling: choosing the right details
- Subtext and foreshadowing (Joss Whedon examples from Firefly, ie the set up for the stranded in space episode)
- TVTropes: The Law of Conservation of Detail
- Visualization and sensory information
- Visualization esp. vital for screenplays – setting mood and tone
Week 3: Copy-editing (“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”—Elmore Leonard)
- Stylesheets & background info: names, places, details
- Knowing yourself — developing individual checklists for your own common errors
- The fundamental grammar mistakes (it’s vs its, they’re vs their) and tricks for checking on them
- Repetitions and word choices
- Stronger verbs, passive voice
- Adjectives, adverbs – how to decide if they’re useful (cut/come back later)
- Tightening, cutting unnecessary words (Elements of Style?)
- Online editors – prowritingaid.com, autocrit.com, others
Week 4: Proofreading & Formatting
- Fresh eyes – the need for a break between editing and proofing
- Tricks – putting the file into another format (Kindle, paper, different font size), reading aloud, listening to it read aloud (computer), blocking off lines with paper or a ruler, reading it backwards
- Using Find & Replace (carefully!)
- Punctuation issues (?)
- Using styles and shortcuts
- Cleaning up hidden code (Sigil?)
- Formatting rules for different types of files, ie screenplay rules, game rules, etc.
I suspect that the actual breakdown of classes wouldn’t be by weeks. The biggest and best topics all come in week 2, but a lot of the work comes in week 3 and 4, given that the students don’t really have enough time to do serious revisions on a major work. They might discover that a major revision, like deleting a character, would improve the work, but not have time to do it. So probably each class during week 3 and 4 would be half the subject of the week and half more on one of the topics from week 2. Blend things up a bit. Hmm, possibly the way to go would be to have half the class time be on the subject and half be spent looking at their own real work, in discussion format, with a focused topic, such as details or dialogue or subtext.
And speaking of classes…
I’d want to start each class with an exercise. Something experiential and engaging, that immediately gets the brain moving onto the topic at hand. I don’t even know how many classes there are so how many exercises I’d need to create (8? 12?), but examples would be things like:
1) Rewrite a scene (15-20 lines of dialogue) so that one of the characters is different (older/younger/other gendered/different culture/the villain/attracted to the other char/etc.). After ten minutes, share some lines.
2) Act a scene from one of the students’ works, student as casting director, lines read aloud. Discussion on lines afterward – did they feel fluid? Reveal character? Work as read?
3) Pick a movie quote. Why is it good? (Or bad.)
4) Find a trope used in your work (from TVtropes). Discuss if you subvert it and how, or why it works as stated in your work.
5) Create a wordcloud (wordle.net) of your WIP. Any words in there that shouldn’t be?
Hmm, possibly I’m writing homework assignments here. And possibly when I haven’t come up with an engaging exercise, I’d start the class by having them partner up with one of their first reader partners and discuss a specific piece of feedback and/or a specific scene that could use tweaking.
So, class starts with an exercise (goal: engage brain through active participation), then moves on to lecture, probably about 45 minutes. Then, alas, a quiz. I’d do a quiz in every class because of the sad fact that quizzes improve information retention. In learning theory, the more times you’re exposed to a fact and the more different ways in which you’re exposed to a fact, the better your chances are of actually remembering the fact. That’s why lectures with visuals are better than lectures without. But the perfect combo is listening, seeing, and doing. And quizzes are a good way to do.
But I hate quizzes just like everybody else in the world hates quizzes, so I’d make it so that any incorrect answers can be fixed after grading by taking the quiz home and re-doing it as open book. It becomes double homework then, so there’s motivation to just do it right the first time, but it also removes at least some of the test-taking pressure. I don’t want students sitting in dread through the first half of the class worrying about the quiz.
After the quiz a break, followed by a lecture that ideally combines experiential work. Depending on what kind of homework I’m giving, it might include some sort of homework review. For example, in the copy-editing week, we could look at the style-sheets they’ve created. But that might be boring, too. I’ll have to think some more about that.
I think the thing that makes me so very interested in teaching this class is that it so easily combines two things I love: editing and story. I love character. It’s my favorite aspect of story-telling. And you can’t edit without thinking about character. But I also love editing. I love spotting the repetition and tweaking the words and looking for the stronger verbs and tightening without removing meaning. And also, of course, after twenty years as an editor, it’s my one true area of expertise. I’m okay at lots of stuff in the world, I’m good at several things, but I’m an excellent editor. And teaching it—well, it just seems as if it would be really fun.
And now that I’ve spent three hours writing all that down, can I let it go? I hope so, because planning course curriculum for a job that I haven’t got is, at best, an exercise in frustration. I should plan a curriculum for a course in self-publishing instead, because that one I could probably find a way to teach on my own. Also, of course, even if they did hire me to teach this class, they might have a curriculum of their own that I was supposed to use. Ooh, imagine how frustrating that would be. Perhaps I shall be glad that I got the pleasure of writing it and thinking about it and let that be sufficient unto the day. I should really be writing a novel instead!