Self-Editing Your Prose

Hola, amigos. This is a writing blog, so I suppose I gotta throw a writing-themed post in here and there. Today’s is about self-editing your prose to make it pop (in case the title wasn’t clear). Read on…

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Practical writing advice is often targeted at beginners: Don’t start your story with, “It was a dark and stormy night.”  All stories need conflict, so make sure yours has one. Don’t end it with, “And then I woke up.” Those are pretty straightforward and easy suggestions to follow.

As we develop, expert suggestions become less tangible: Try not to rely on exposition. Find a consistent voice. Get rid of unnecessary words.

Holy crap. How do I know which words are unnecessary? I needed them to tell my story in the first draft, so why don’t I need them now?

A good, typical answer is, “Get rid of words that don’t add meaning.” However, if you truly eliminate words based on functionality, you might lose a little poetry and end up with something that reads choppy. We’re talking about fiction, so let’s pull back from absolutism and say, instead, “Assume your reader is smart enough to make connections on her own.” Then get rid of all the handholding words.

By handholding words I mean text that spells out the obvious for the reader. Like, “I squeezed the trigger on my gun and felt a sense of exhilaration when the bullet exploded from the barrel.” A bullet and a trigger signify a gun. Exhilaration is a sense. Your reader can make those connections herself.

The difference between intermediate writing and professional-quality prose is often the presence of handholding clutter in the former. Here is a before, during, and after-editing micro story I’ve put together as an example.

Before

I was sitting on my chair at the table drinking a cup of Earl Grey tea when the massive explosion went off outside, rattling the windows. I leapt up from my seat and, like a fool who has no regard for his own safety, quickly ran outside to investigate. I headed down the front steps and, just as I reached the bottom stair, a huge, flaming hunk of debris fell from the sky and landed five feet in front of me.

The intense heat of the thing sent me flying backward, and I fell onto the stone steps. I looked up, and my eyes darted rapidly across the sky to see if any more flaming hunks of debris were headed my way. Lo and behold, who do you think I saw floating up there but Zeus, the Greek god.

“Er, apologies old chap,” he said to me from on high. “I seem to have dropped a lightning bolt. Dreadfully sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Even though it turned out that 172 homes were destroyed and property damage from the explosion was in the neighborhood of over a billion dollars, I think a guy who fesses up to his mistakes is a guy who has already paid his debt to society.

No hard feelings, boss daddy.

During

I was sitting on my chair at the table drinking a cup of Earl Grey tea when the massive explosion went off outside, rattling the windows. I leapt up from my seat and, like a fool who has no regard for his own safety, quickly ran outside to investigate. I headed down the front porch steps and, just as I reached the bottom stair step of the front porch, a huge, flaming hunk of debris fell from the sky and landed five feet in front of me.

The intense heat of the thing sent me flying backward, and I fell onto the stone steps. I looked up, and In a panic, my eyes darted rapidly across the sky to see if any more flaming chunks of debris were headed my way. Lo and behold, And who do you think I saw floating up there but Zeus, the Greek god.

“Er, apologies old chap,” he said to me from on high. “I seem to have dropped a lightning bolt. Dreadfully sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Even though it turned out that 172 homes were destroyed and property damage from the explosion was in the neighborhood of over a billion dollars, I think a guy who fesses up to his mistakes is a guy who has already paid his debt to society.

No hard feelings, boss daddy.

Most of the excised passages are handholding text. My reader probably assumes the character is sitting at a table drinking his tea, and she probably knows that Earl Grey is tea. Even if she thinks it’s coffee, it doesn’t hurt the story. She also knows why it’s foolish to run outside when an explosion just occurred. I also got rid of clichés like “lo and behold,” because clichés are simply bad writing. I removed “I looked up” as well, because it becomes clear in the next clause that the character is peering at the sky, which can only be up.

I could have kept “rattling the windows,” because it adds a cementing detail. However, one assumes that explosions rattle windows, and it borders on rote to say it. On the other hand, I kept, “who do you think I saw floating up there,” despite its wordiness, because the rhythm of it accentuates the (allegedly) humorous reveal. Also, I retained “the Greek god,” though my reader almost certainly knows that. Again, with a humor line, timing and rhythm are important too.

Note that I added or moved a couple of words (in bold) for flow.

Here’s the revised version:

I was drinking a cup of Earl Grey when the explosion went off. I leapt from my seat and, like a fool, ran outside to investigate. Just as I reached the bottom step of the front porch, a huge, flaming hunk of debris landed in front of me.

The intense heat sent me flying onto the stone steps. In a panic, my eyes darted across the sky to see if more flaming chunks were headed my way. And who do you think I saw floating up there but Zeus, the Greek god.

“Er, apologies old chap,” he said. “I seem to have dropped a lightning bolt. Dreadfully sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Though 172 homes were destroyed and property damage was over a billion dollars, I think a guy who fesses up to his mistakes has already paid his debt to society.

No hard feelings, boss daddy.

What I did here was tighten up a so-so little vignette. If I really wanted this story to grab people, I’d have started it this way:

The explosion knocked my tea cup from the table…

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12 responses to “Self-Editing Your Prose

  • Bryan Edmondson

    Thanks Mr. E.J.B.This article was very helpful. I think that you are aware of how guilty I am when padding sentences.
    I have a question regarding balancing descriptive, image-driven writing versus sentences with simply unnecessary words. Sometimes I feel like some scenes are more exciting and visual if I use words that pain more of a visual picture..
    For example I am writing a story about a man who sees others running in Hell.
    Instead of, “Fire exploded underneath the skeletons.” I am leaning towards,” I saw the place for what it was–a raging inferno of conflagrations, explosive flaming that rose taking them up in the air.”
    Which should I use and why? Thanks for your help. This blog has been updated often and full of information that I have no other access to. Thanks for the hard work. I am impressed with the blog as of late.
    ————————————————————
    Just a personal reaction to this article—.is the flavored stump water named “Earl Grey,”really something you absolutely feel the need to say? It is just so much like a dandified pretty-boy, sipping and blowing on an effeminate little china cup full of tepid estrogen..
    You know a tea and crumpets sort of thing for one lad who does not even have an imaginary friend.. Something like Calgon to” take him away,” after it rains on his hopscotch chalked squares–tragically washing them off the sidewalk?,
    It is mainly the the sinking feeling that the appellation “Earl Grey,”that makes me want to hang myself in the closet–because those two hideous words fill me with an overwhelming sense of shame and cover me in a film of failure that I just can’t seem to wash off–no matter how many times I shower.
    I think I will go have a hot cup of black coffee now, and go kick a dog.

    Thank you for letting me get that off of my chest.

    .

    • ericjbaker

      I’d say to be careful of using too many $5 words. Well placed, they can give your story gravitas. If overused, it sounds like you are trying to impress with your vocabulary. Keep in mind that “inferno” and “conflagration” are synonyms, so you essentially saying “the water was wet” in a construction like that.

      Your writing style is much heavier on imagery than mine, so I wouldn’t want to discourage that. We’re just different in that way, and neither is better. However, too much fire and brimstone becomes melodramatic after a while, and it slows down the story. Save the big flourishes for those moments when you want to rouse your reader, which will allow you to move the story forward more efficiently in other places.

      As for your second set of comments, I have no idea what you mean.
      ****************************************

      [This blog brought to you by Earl Grey Tea, the world’s finest beverage. Enjoy a cup today!]

      • Bryan Edmondson

        Thanks, that helps. I really like this blog. I know how busy you are, so I appreciate the posts.
        I know that music is hard work. However when you finish and sell the album on I Tunes please let me know.The only other musician that I am friends with is a guy named Bonno.

  • nrhatch

    Great editing, Eric. A favorite quote to highlight the need to self-edit:

    I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter. ~ Blaise Pascal 😉

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Fantastic post, Eric! I’m a huge fan of examples. Next year when I begin my quest to read all of my writing books,Write Tight is near the top of my list.

    • ericjbaker

      I read that, but, unfortunately, I’ve become too feeble-minded to retain information. I’ve skipped “wise” and gone straight to “senile.”

      Thanks for reading and commenting, and good luck on your NaNoRiMo project.*

      *notice how I’m laying on the pressure. You almost gotta write in now…

      (imagine sinister smiley)

      • Jill Weatherholt

        My retention abilities aren’t what they used to be either. That’s why examples are so great, at least for me. Thanks for the well wishes. Oh, there is no doubt I will participate and I will reach that 50k word count!

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  • zcarstheme

    Really love this post. Sums up beautifully something that I’d have used far too many unnecessary words to describe…

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