Note to self: useful editorial comments

Pencil drawing with digital colour. Hand with mechanical pencil.

The other day I mentioned that writing questions (or vague observations) to myself in the margins of a draft rarely proves helpful when I sit down to actually type up the changes. What I find most useful (if I can’t definitively answer the question then and there) is to write the question and then list at least three possible answers (even if they’re silly).

Pencil drawing with digital colour. Me in a yellow blouse, chin in hands, frowning at paper

Short form note to self:

When marking up my own work:

  • identify the problem/ask the question and
  • try to come up with three answers, even if they seem ridiculous.

When commenting on other people’s writing:

  • identify the issue (what seems not to be working) and
  • suggest at least one possible/indicative solution.
Pencil drawing with digital colour. Me in a yellow blouse and blue jeans, grumpily typing.

Long form:

There are a few reasons for this:

  • Simply asking a question or pointing out that a problem exists leaves me too much room for anxieties and misunderstandings.
    “Seems ruthless” could indicate a word choice issue, or a book-length characterisation issue, a major plot problem, or a chance for an amusing miscommunication. “Seems ruthless — consider softening this sentence with body language” requires rather different editing from “Seems ruthless — nothing in this story is consistent with the character’s later declaration of love in the last chapter — change end or show reasons for actions throughout.”
  • On the other hand, only giving solutions (without identifying what they’re meant to address) isn’t always helpful either.
    A note like, “replace ‘mystical’ with ‘mysterious'” isn’t necessarily useful — especially when given by someone else, or after enough time has elapsed between making the comment and making the edits. I might not know (or remember) if the problem was that I used ‘mystical’ incorrectly, or overused it, or that the ‘ic’ sound was unpleasant, or that four syllables flowed more mellifluously than three in that particular sentence.
  • A little lighthearted effort early on can save a lot of angst later.
  • But this approach also takes the pressure off making those comments (to myself or on other people’s stories).
    • I’m not imposing the One True Edit — just trying to illuminate the gap that needs to be addressed.
    • On the other hand, I might have misidentified the problem, but the suggested solution could give me/the author an idea what the actual difficulty was (e.g., a perceived inconsistency in world-building might have been just a typo).
  • The suggestions take the pressure off puzzling through problems when typing. Sometimes the right answer turns out to be in there after all, or clearly exists in the negative space between those ideas. At the very least, I’m much more likely to grasp the shape of the problem.
  • But it still gives me choices and flexibility. It lets me quickly adapt to other changes in the manuscript, and leaves space to find more organic solutions, or simply to use vocabulary I now prefer (while still fixing the problem).

Some day I will consistently remember this.

Pencil drawing with digital colour. Me in a yellow blouse and blue jeans, from the back, throwing paper in the air.

Observation Journal — on editing

This week of the observation journal featured a few reflections on editing (I’d like to think I was on a roll, but I had submission and uni deadlines). See previously: notes on editing “Not to be Taken” in Observation Journal — Application to a Story, and editing checklist.

Double page of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, and one, and a drawing of a mug with a dinosaur on it. On the right, "Some 2am editing observations".

I know that some people hate writing and love editing. I don’t understand this. You get to just make things up when you’re writing, and there’s trackable progress and a definite end point! I find editing hard work (with too-infrequent flashes of gold), and I have to keep reminding myself that I can still just… make things up. This page wasn’t an attempt to solve that problem, but I wanted to at least record how these editing passes got done, in hopes I could find some patterns later — a sort of prelude to a project review, or a fragment of one.

Key editing lessons (from these stories):

  • Efficiency is not the same as efficacy.
  • If there’s a worse and more urgent task on my desk, I will in fact choose to edit. Deadlines help, but they aren’t fun.
  • When I’m reading over a draft, I often write questions to myself in the margin. This is rarely helpful. What is helpful is to force myself to write an answer to the question then and there — or at least to write the question and then give myself three mock solutions/phrasing (even if they’re bad ones). I can change my mind later! But at least there’s something to work with.
  • I need to start in order to let things begin being done. 
  • It seems smart to deal with issues in batches! But I won’t. Starting at the beginning and nibbling through is excruciating, but I will do it. (See efficiency vs efficacy, above).
  • The necessity of rolling slowly through.
  • The (eventual and occasional) magic of momentum.

These two projects predated the journal and these were interim edits. One project is out on submission now, though. The other is a story within the novel I’m working on for uni, so… one day.

(You can also see I made these notes at 2am and on the wrong page, which is where numbering the pages for cross references comes in handy.)

Tiny biro drawing of a mug with a dinosaur on it
Tea Rex mug (it’s the General Eclectic one)

Observation Journal — application to a story

I’ve put these three pages of the observation journal together because they all relate to the same project — my short story “Not to be Taken” in the poison-themed Egaeus Press anthology Bitter Distillations.

Butterfly on a wine glass

The story began in the journal — I’ve posted indirectly about it before, from the pages where I was first trying to sort out my ideas. It forms the third row from the bottom in (Too) Many Ideas (several elements appear in the final story) and was the subject of the alphabetical list in Reflections and Alphabetical Order (of all those ideas, the final story was closest to “R”, but only if you unfocus your eyes).

By this stage, however, I had written the story and was suffering through the editing process, which I only seem to be able to get through by being dramatic about it (I’ve accepted this as part of my method). So it seemed an obvious subject for journal exercises.

Two pages of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a painted rock). On the right, the exercise described below.
Left page: A crow shining sky-blue, my housemate trying out her rollerskates, and a new pie shop.

The first was an exercise from Helen Marshall, which has appeared before (10 Terrible Things). It is simply a list of ways I could rework the story to make it definitely worse.

This was a lot of fun and silliness, but in the end it was helpful. Shifting the idea to be about minor characters or flipping all the roles, or changing everyone into birds, made me think more about whether I wanted to keep certain elements, and be more deliberate about the ones I did keep. It also made me check that I was actually liking the story — there are a couple notes there about things that usually help me:

  • aesthetic
  • emotional spine
  • genre
  • character emotions (this is a tricky one but I’m starting to remember to think about it).

The story did not change hugely as a result of this. But it did make me more assured about it. You’ll see the notes there are about tightening the draft and remembering to TAKE CHARGE of my own projects, which is a lesson prompted by a few things last year.

Two pages of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a laptop balanced on a drying rack). On the right, the exercise described below.
Left page: Hatbush city limits, and arcane symbols

The next page features another activity I’d heard most recently from Helen Marshall (in a subject she was running and I was tutoring): 5 terrible opening sentences. The first example is for “Not to be Taken” (the actual first sentence for which ended up being “Lucinda collected poison bottles”). It didn’t shake up the draft as much — the 10 terrible takes (above) were much more effective for that.

But I also tried it on a non-existent story, and the exercise was very effective for that. Writing bad opening sentences was a very fun way to find a path into an idea, and to quickly develop a cast of characters along the way. Trying exercises out until I work out what they do suit is another good use of the journal.

It was also particularly interesting to note what appealed about each (terrible) sentence, and why — frankness, restrained humour, fun with stock characters (see also: The Caudwell Manoeuvre), and so on.

Two pages of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a butterfly on a wine glass). On the right, the exercise described below.
Left page: A butterfly breeze, and cobweb weather.

By the next week, I’d actually managed to finish editing the story (and had sent it to Angela Slatter for comment). This page is a simple breakdown of what I actually did (the editing checklist started here), and what worked, and lessons I learned, which included the following:

  • The painfulness of editing is not an indicator that anything is wrong with the process.It will take the time it takes.
  • That will be more time than I want it to be.
  • But faster than avoiding it.
  • Some distraction/inhibition-removal helps.
  • Aesthetic & theme are useful for making decisions.
  • Rule of threes (and thoughts on the stability of triangles — this led to two blog posts: Three Points and Silhouettes and Further Points). 
  • Doggedness & commitment.
  • Dissatisfaction with “predictability” may be a function of reading it 17 times. What’s satisfying for a reader is different for the writer.
Laptop balanced on a drying rack in the carport

A personal theory of editing

Editing is like combing knots out of hair, starting at the very tip and gradually working the tangles out, then going a little further, and coaxing those snarls down to the ends, applying conditioner and picking with a fine tooth comb at the worst tangles. And occasionally finding bits of glue or gum and giving up, getting out the scissors, and just cutting out a whole hank of strands.

Tiny pen drawing of a girl combing her hair

By this analogy, the first draft is like driving a fast car with the top down, your hair whipping in the wind.

Tiny pen drawing of a fast car

Observation Journal — reversing the audience

In this instalment of the observation journal, I was playing with ideas of target audiences, and what would happen if you turned them upside down.

Double page of densely handwritten observation journal. The left page has five things seen/heard/done and a drawing. The left is an exercise flipping an ideal user.

Left page: Encroaching shortages, a Schroederingian pause, and the Star Wars theme being practised on a trumpet.

Right page: For the course I was teaching, I wanted an activity that would make us think a bit more usefully about target markets (it was a business-adjacent course), aka audiences, readers, etc.

When I write, I am usually trying to please (or irritate) one particular person (not always me; not infrequently a housemate). But I tried this approach on both a physical project I was designing and on a story I was working on.

Note, this is one of those activities that really stirs up the sediment of stereotypes. I like that, because it brings them out for observation, and repurposes them, and makes them work for their living. (See also: Observation Journal — The Caudwell Manoeuvre). But it isn’t always flattering on the page, and is something to acknowledge/manage/bear in mind if you’re doing this in e.g. a classroom.

The first, businessy approach: Essentially, you make a four column table:

  • In the first column, make a list of categories of characteristics, e.g. age, gender, education, job, level of career, hobbies, physical activity, background, language, etc. You could add in others specific to the broad type of project. This was just my initial late-at-night list.
  • In the second, quickly identify the assumed characteristics of your “ideal user”/main audience, etc. If you write for yourself this will probably just be a description of you at some point in your life. It could also be a hideous stereotype of someone not you. (I’m aware there’s some very lazy categorisation in this version, but I wanted to see how the framework would work with that.)
  • In the third column, flip each characteristic to something roughly opposite. (A job in education vs a job in the trades vs a long-distance truck driver vs…). You can have a bit of fun here, redress balances, etc.
  • In the fourth, make a note of how that would require a change to the Thing You Are Making. For example, in the first set of examples, would it need to be more durable, or have different accessibility, or a less (or more!) mystical application, etc?
  • Finally, make a note of any that are genuinely useful, or could improve or add to the original idea. This exercise wasn’t about changing an idea, but making it stronger.

Densely hand-written page of observation journal, flipping stereotypes of an ideal audience.

The writing approach: In the second round, lower down the page, I tried it out on a story I was editing.

  • The story was written very much at a friend, but also for me — and we are quite similar. Going through the process highlighted a lot of things I take for granted, and ought to be aware of (at least for editing).
  • For example, it brought out the lack of physicality in the manuscript, and the degree to which I assumed anyone reading it would also be familiar with a very specific set of obscure books.
  • While I like the somewhat cerebral context of the story, and thoroughly enjoy allusions, these could easily turn into weaknesses. So when editing the story I want to go back in and look for places where I can anchor the story with a little physical action/description. I also plan to buttress or reinforce the more esoteric allusions with enough information that someone who hasn’t had a particular shared experience can still follow the story. In other places, it was a reminder not to be subtle or aim for plausible deniability, but to be honest about what I was doing and double-down on it.
  • This wasn’t about changing the ultimate “ideal reader”, but about clarifying and streamlining my approach, and creating an immediately useful checklist for when I sat down to edit.
Drawing of a bottle of hand soap.
(soap, not sanitiser)

Writing/art exercise:

Try this on a story you’re editing, or a picture that’s at a fairly advanced sketch stage.

  • Make a list of categories of characteristics.
  • Quickly and lazily note down your assumed ideal audience.
  • Flip those characteristics.
  • Consider how the project might change if it were to be adapted to that person.
  • Find things to clarify/tighten/commit to/adjust, etc, and try them out on the project.

On silhouettes and further points of connection

This follows on from yesterday’s post about the structural role of triangles in editing and silhouettes. It’s about the points that connect and strengthen fragile pieces of a design (or, if you wish to extend the metaphor in yesterday’s post, of a piece of writing).

This image is my cover design for Kate Forsyth and Kim Wilkins‘ Aurealis-Award-winning collection of linked stories, The Silver Well (Ticonderoga Publications, 2017).

The Silver Well

It’s originally a cut paper silhouette that I then used to make a cyanotype print.


The physical silhouette is delicate (see yesterday’s post for some examples of scale). While structural requirements of cut-paper silhouettes don’t technically matter for a printed cover, they do for the original art (and I enjoy the constraints it gives me to push against, and the physical possibilities and effects they open up for the illustration).

In this case, there were competing requirements. The silhouette needed to look open, airy, and leafy — not like a complete net. But it also needed to be robust enough to (a) withstand the cutting-out of neighbouring tiny pieces, (b) tolerate being picked up, turned over, scanned, printed with, etc, and (c) hold up when framed, and not tear or sag under its own slight but not insignificant weight.

I dealt with this by tiny overlaps and glancing tangents. These can be a problem in some styles of art, but they’re largely invisible in silhouettes — and need to be, to help with the illusion of twigs and leaves waving free in the wind.


Red circles showing points of connection

These points mean that the tiny twigs support each other in space. They lock together to create a larger rigid areas. I’ve highlighted those areas below.


Green areas are the strongest, red areas are more isolated

The strongest areas are the ones in green  — roughly triangular, they’re joined to the larger design along one whole edge, which makes them very stable. The red areas are stable in themselves, but they only connect to the larger design at one point, which means they can still shift about, and that all their weight pulls on that one narrow connection.

In that case, I’d usually at least pay some extra attention to that one point — flaring or thickening it slightly. But I could also have locked the design down further by joining it at least at the yellow circles shown below.


Yellow circles show likely connection points that would add physical strength

Joining it there would have created a much larger rigid area, as shaded in yellow below. But it might also have made the design that bit too dense and self-enclosed for an illustrated branch, more suited to, e.g., a lace edging.  But it is an illustration, and some parts have to be given their freedom.


The extra connection points would have created this larger area

When I begin a silhouette design, I don’t sit down and count up the connections. The process itself, born of experience and accident and a bit of lacemaking at one point — feels more organic.


Thumbnail sketches for the cover of The Silver Well

The designs starts with looping scribbles and works its way towards a final arrangement that pleases me. And yet the points where those sketched loops cross over each other have power, and by the final stage those points of connection come into play, tying it all together.

To link it back to writing and editing: those points of connection are often the ones that need to be tightened during editing — little clarifying comments, ambiguous foreshadowing, word choices that resonate across apparently unrelated sections.

Here, by the way, is the final cover — the Aurealis-Award-winning book (which is lovely, and has internal illustrations too) is available from Ticonderoga Publications.

The Silver Well

Art & editing: three points

I mentioned the “rule of three” in my post about keeping editing checklists (aka lessons repeatedly instilled in me by Angela Slatter).

It’s a principle I work with when cutting out silhouettes. Paper is fragile, particularly when cut this fine, and although it’s light, it still has enough weight to tear itself.


There are variations and opinions on the the idea of the “rule of three”. But tradition and culture and habit aside, it’s in the editing checklist less for its fairy-tale echoes and more for its properties as a physical structural corrective to floppy story elements.

One of the few practical constructions skills I remember from helping (helping?) my dad around the property (apart from the fact a Cobb & Co hitch is often one of the strongest elements of a building), is the importance of a brace — the beam or pole or cross-limb that creates a rigid triangle and stops objects leaning slowly sideways. Think of the planks that make the diagonals of the “Z” on the stereotypical barn door.

That inherent structural stability of triangles is the reason that finally made the idea of three references or repetitions of a clue, background element, etc, make sense to me.

2020-05-15-KJennings Leaves Wip

One reference (or hint, or point of contact) can be fine, if the material is sturdy enough — which paper isn’t. Lots of references can be stylistically fun, if not unwieldy — in a silhouette, they can create confusion, until you only have a field of light and shadow with no sense to it.

But in case of doubt, three little anchor points can be enough to create a stable field within the story, and enough of those form a spiderweb that can hold together quite a fragile lace.

2020-05-15-KJennings Corella

Four linked covers for Corella Press


Editing checklists

A little while ago I posted about my art checklist, which also doubled for writing reference — but for writing, those elements were mostly general storytelling principles and/or diagnostic tools for stories I could tell had some internal failure.

This is my current actual high-level general editing checklist.


I usually maintain a list at the bottom of a story of things to go back and deal with once I get to the end — known problems, and so forth. And there are others I generally notice when I’m reading through a piece. But this list is — well, to be frank, it’s the things about which Angela Slatter, who does exceedingly thorough critiques, has most frequently scolded me.

Not all of these are necessarily problems at the draft stage — some are useful tricks to get a draft on the page. But I definitely need to remember to take down that scaffolding again when I’m done, and without a list I invariably forget.

Your list may vary! But, speaking as both a writer and someone who marks writing assignments, I highly recommend keeping one.

  • Repetition: I’m not great at noticing overused words, but I’m very fond of using them. They are usually in a draft because I’m going for a particular aesthetic, and the words (in the latest story, “bright” and “glass”) are useful shorthand. But I do need to go back and add some strength and subtlety in the draft.
  • Long sentences: They flow out so nicely! But what’s nice for the writer isn’t always intelligible to the reader. Occasionally they’re justified, but they’re more often a place where I haven’t clarified my thoughts yet.
  • Emotions: I tend to leave emotions out on early drafts, and either assume readers will work them out, or that it will be more efficient to add them in once I’ve locked down the plot. In the second case, I need to be reminded to put them in. In the first case, it’s a disconnect between how I experienced things as a reader of my favourite books, and what the writers actually did to create that effect.
  • Ands: One of the culprits behind long sentences. I can usually drop about 4% of a word count by replacing a judicious number with full stops.
  • Page numbers/headers: Formatting changes sometimes strip these out, and it also reminds me to tidy up the rest of the manuscript formatting.
  • Helicopter descriptions of locations instead of white rooms: This, again, is the disconnect between how I experience things as a reader, and how I need to set up that experience as a writer.
  • “Green”, “pale”, etc: A subset of repetition, but in this case specific words I will almost always overuse, whatever the aesthetic: green, pale, dim, dull, etc. I just like them.
  • I need to add in a few more: “rule of three”, in terms of setting reveals, etc.; “em-dashes”, because they proliferate; and “italics” because even if I don’t describe emotions, that doesn’t mean characters aren’t melodramatic.

If you get the chance to do a workshop with Angela Slatter, or have her critique your story, I thoroughly recommend it.

And the story I used this version of the list on has been accepted and should be coming out late this year or early next! More on that in due course.

Silhouettes, or: Outline View

Occasionally when I talk about silhouettes, I don’t mean silhouettes-as-finished-art but silhouettes-as-part-of-the-process. See, for example Art Checklist (and writing) and the activities in Party Portrait.

Liking silhouettes as I do, I enjoy hiding line and colour layers occasionally, just to see what’s underneath them. But it’s also a useful way to assess the clarity of a design. Most of these unicorns (from this month’s calendar) are fairly self-explanatory, for example. But the one scratching itself needs a little more effort/horse experience to parse: not itself a bad thing, sometimes a silhouette can function as a gestural sketch, and compact designs are appealing.


Just seeing them in silhouette can also help show up anatomical or perspective vagaries — not always a problem, depending on style, but it’s nice if they’re deliberate (or at least plausibly deniable).

They’re also useful for assessing whether a certain mood is conveyed (this is from March’s Giants).


They’re also useful for assessing whether I’m happy with how the space is filled — whether it needs more variation, or pollen-dots to fill in vacuums (this one is from October’s “Cold Hands“).


I’ve been marking essays and commenting on scene cards, for uni, so I suppose the writing application for all this is — as for illustration — really an editing one. The effect can be replicated by writing an outline after the draft is finished, in order to see the clean shape or if any rowdy elements need to be pulled into line.

Art Checklist (and writing)


I wanted a bookmark-sized list of things to remember when working on an illustration — or, more to the point, of things I know but sometimes forget to do.

Most of the techniques have a parallel for writing (or at least editing).

This checklist is tailored to my own forgetfulness, and is a work in progress. There are already a few more to add, including “emotional key” and “texture”.

  • Give sketches room — Personal. I tend to crowd-out the page.
    Writing: Probably related to legible handwriting and developing ideas a bit more.
  • Movement — Push everything a little further off-balance, like King Pellinore and Sir Grummore jousting.
    Writing: Stories, like sharks, die if they don’t keep moving.
  • Flip it! — Literally why am showing things in this order? What if I force the eye to travel bottom right to top left?
    Writing: Why am I telling things in this order?
  • Mirror — I keep an old bakelite-framed mirror to hold up to art and see if e.g. eyes match. It’s an old art technique.
    Writing: This is the same as looking at things with fresh eyes when editing — leaving it for a time, changing the font, printing it out, etc.
  • Posture — A subtler version of “movement”: what does pose say about thought/personality/tension, etc.
    WritingI actually made this note after listening to David Suchet talk about how he tried to capture Poirot’s posture as Agatha Christie wrote it, so I think it’s the same thing.
  • Exaggeration — Related to movement and posture, but more general: emphasise the telling/important details, make them bigger, abstract until things are meaningful.
    Writing: Same same.
  • Caricature — More personality-based version of the above. Clearly it’s a point I need to come back to.
    Writing: The principles of caricature are useful for descriptions — catching the key/memorable/meaningful elements of a person’s appearance and mannerisms and using them as a touchstone.
  • (Silhouette) — I think this is in parentheses because I mean it two ways: first, does it read clearly in silhouette (a composition question, but also one of character design); second, could I be doing this as an actual silhouette.
    Writing: The first principle is useful for thinking about structure in more physical terms. The second is more idiosyncratic, but sometimes there are stylised structures I’ve forgotten I wanted to play with, and which end up solving all the problems (e.g. for “Kindling” I realised part-way through I wanted to tell it in two points of view from two directions in time, and for Flyaway I was stuck at one stage of the edits until someone suggested one story be embedded within another and I had the epiphany that that’s mostly how I write long things anyway). Strict structural requirements (and silhouettes have those!) often force a story to tell itself.
  • Angle/POV — Worm’s eye? Bird’s eye? Whose eye? Whose distant city? I default to a straight-on eye-level view. Changing it up, even if I revert to habit, can at least reveal new things about the world.
    Writing: The same. What if I describe this room from floor-level? What if it’s told by the maid? Even as a mental exercise, it helps crystallise a scene.
  • Why this scene? Lean into it — Ask the scene to justify itself, and then strengthen (or stylishly misdirect the viewer’s eye from) those reasons.
    Writing: same.
  • Swap or flip or lean into stereotypes — What if the cats in this picture are loyal and foolish and the dogs are aloof and independent? Whenever I play with this I remember so many dogs and cats (or whatever the subject of the stereotype is) who are left out of usual pictures. On the other hand, you can lean so hard on a stereotype it comes around again to being an archetype.
    Writing: I learned this from Sarah Caudwell and Charles Dickens.
  • What is left out? — This is a reminder to myself to use negative space as part of the design, to feature it. Midcentury commercial art is fabulous at this, but I think I was thinking of Evaline Ness when I wrote it. But it’s also a reminder to think of which/whose stories aren’t being told — whatever I do with that thought.
    Writing: There’s negative space in books, too, and stories that are avoided or hinted at. Sometimes consciously and melodramatically leaving a gap is more honest than trying to paper it over. Plus the whole unreliable narrator thing.
  • De-elongate/squash it — I tend to attenuate my figures. This is a personal reminder.
    Writing: This would be like keeping a list of overused words to go back and deal with (in my case, this includes replacing up to 10% of the “and”s with full stops).
  • [Emotional key] — Pick one word or emotion and use it to key an entire scene, to inflect the composition and colour choices. This was a tip from Winona Nelson at 2012 Illuxcon.
    Writing: This tip works very well for editing, too — picking a word or emotion and adjusting sentence length, word choice, etc, to evoke it.
  • [Texture] — Add it, take it into account, don’t keep everything smooth.
    Writing: Primarily descriptive, it’s a reminder to take into account the surfaces of things. One of the patterns I noticed in researching the MPhil dissertation was that (particularly in a genre where things are often not what they seem) paying attention to the surface and texture of beautiful things made them seem truer and more reliable.