Editing – pep up your prose

This summer the LEaD writing group activities focused on editing. This post outlines the activities so you too can use them to pep up your prose.

An eye hidden behind two planks of wood

1. Hiding the ‘I’ in fiction and non-fiction

Blog writing can be a reflective form of writing. As a result, we may use ‘I’ a lot. However, this does not always make for engaging prose, as Marlin Barton (2007) discovered when he asked for feedback from a fellow writer. The activity he developed involves reading the following piece of text and trying to edit it, including cutting and rewording, to hide as many of the ‘I’s as possible. How many can you hide?

I picked Jimmy Neal like he was some kind of prize off the shelf at a carnival, like he was a stuffed bear or a box of candy. I picked him as sure as these summer nights are hot as oven heat. I didn’t know I was going to choose anybody until I saw him at the Bait Shop. Then I knew, all of a sudden, that I had to pick someone. Someone for my summer. I had to pick him. And that’s what I did.

Maybe it was because of his sweet red mouth or his pale blue eyes, eyes the lightness of the watercolours I used to paint when I was little. Jimmy Neal had such pale blond hair too, I thought, like a little boy’s before it darkens. He looked too sweet almost. I knew he wasn’t my usual type.

It was interesting to see how challenging it was. Also we came up with a variety of solutions to improve the flow of the text. The next step was applying the same rigour to our own writing.

2. Paragraphs

I’m often asked what the ‘correct’ length of a paragraph is. Obviously, there is no hard and fast rule, and context is important. Nonetheless, a key element is readability, after all, you probably are writing to communicate a message. This second activity is taken from William Zinsser’s book ‘On Writing Well’ (2006). He astutely notes:

Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual – it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.

This advice is especially relevant for online content. Taking his advice, I’ll keep this short. If you would like to see the activity, I have attached a file with the complete exercise below.

Do you have any activities or exercises that have helped you hone your editing skills? If so, please share them with us in the comments section. Alternatively, bring them along to the next LEaD Writing Group session on Wednesday 4th October, 13:00 – 14:00, B310.

For further information about the Writing Group, email – daniel.sansome@city.ac.uk


Paragraphs exercise – William Zinsser

Hiding the ‘I’s exercise – Marlin Barton


Barton, M. (2007) ‘Hiding the I in fiction and nonfiction’, in Johnston, B. A. (ed.) Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. New York: Random House, pp. 317 – 319.

Zinsser, W. (2006) On Writing Well. New York: HarperCollins.





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