Tag Archives: intermediate writers

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…


Writing Tip # 72 – “As Such” does not mean “Therefore”

Greetings readers, writers, and orangutans with internet.

I see this one a lot in news articles, non-fiction books, and corporate documents … People using “as such” in place of Therefore, Thus, or As a result. That’s not what it means.

Example of such misuse from a fictional sports article:

“Luigi McGregor leads the National League with 73 home runs this season. As such, he is due for a substantial raise on his current salary of six bucks an hour.”

The problem with this construction is that the first sentence explains what Luigi did, not what he is.

“As such” is another way of saying, “Since he is that thing I just described.” Therefore, the imaginary writer of the above sports article is telling us that Luigi is either the National League, 73 home runs, or a baseball season. I guess it’s our choice.

To use “as such” correctly, the writer would have to say this:

“Luigi McGregor is the National League leader with 73 home runs this season. As such, he is due for a substantial raise on his current salary of six bucks an hour.”

Here, Luigi is described as the home run leader in the NL. In other words, my topic (Luigi) is a thing (NL home run leader). As such a thing, he is due for a raise.

More examples:

Bruce Springsteen is one of the most popular recording artists in America. As such, he should easily be able to sell out Giants Stadium.

Godzilla is a 200-foot-tall monster that spits atomic fire and tramples cities. As such, he has a hard time meeting women.

“Therefore” would have been acceptable in all these instances as well, but it is not interchangeable with “As such.” The latter only works when a topic is described as a thing, be it one of America’s most popular recording artists or a 200-foot tall monster.

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Thanks for reading. Next week I’ll explain how to wash your basement with a live goldfish.


Activate your sentences

 

The emotionally powerful climax of "Wuthering Heights."

 

Today I discuss active writing, which means you should use at least three exclamation points at the end each sentence and must type with ‘Caps Lock’ engaged. Also, when you get stuck, blow something up. Active writing has lots of explosions, even if you are doing a period mystery set in the servants’ quarters of a Victorian manor. Don’t worry if they didn’t have plastic explosives back then. The important thing is –

[Editor’s note: Sorry, my cat was walking on the keyboard and accidentally typed that. Since cats know nothing about literature, please ignore him. The real bit about active writing is below]

*** *** *** *** *** ***

There are better ways to arrange this sentence.

I can start by axing “there are” from the beginning. And every other sentence I ever write, since “there are” and “there is” suck the life out of whatever follows. By using them, you’re warning your readers to expect passive constructions the rest of the way.

In my opening sentence above, “there” is a passive placeholder for my subject, ways to arrange. Why bother sticking a dull abstraction in the beginning? Just lead with the subject and type, “Ways to arrange this sentence better there are.”

Wait a minute. That sounds ridiculous! Maybe I need to rethink the whole thing. I’ll start by asking, What am I trying to accomplish? Well, I’m trying to fix that sentence, so I should probably move the word “sentence” forward. And I know from reading my last blog post that fewer words are usually better than more words. Which words do I need?

I need sentence and better, plus some verbs or something. How about:

“This sentence could be better.”

Not bad, but better is relative (better than what?) and could is a wishy washy, like I’m not sure. When a word has more than one meaning and you’re not aiming for a clever play on words, find a more specific term. My goal is to improve the opening sentence, so why don’t I just use improve instead of better? And could is for when you are weighing options (We could follow the 2012 elections, or we could run face-first into a brick wall and get the same experience). Can is more confident, and confidence is convincing to a reader. Thus:

This sentence can be improved.

In an ironic twist, it can’t. Since we have nowhere else to go with this discussion, my cat says I have to blow something up (now is a good time to don your Kaiser helmet).

3…2…1…


Tighten your writing

Tighten your writing

Dear reader: Instead of launching my 814-part blog series entitled, The Forgotten Needle-Point Artists of Baroque Outer Mongolia, I’ve decided to dish more writing advice. This one is for the post-beginner, pre-intermediate writer, whom scientists call begintermediate. Unless you prefer the archaic form, intermeginner.

Start…

Perhaps you are no longer a novice writer and have figured out compositional mechanics. Commas fall in the right places, and your paragraph breaks are where they should be. You’ve gotten pretty good at developing and presenting your ideas in a logical sequence. Irrelevant tangents are in the past. Your mom has started telling people you write “just like J.K. Rowling.”

Yet you look at the page and wonder why it doesn’t quite sound professional. You went over the damn thing 50 times, for God’s sake.

You show it to a more experienced writer, who says, “This isn’t finished,” and throws it back at you without explanation. Instead of thinking writers are arrogant pricks, you should be realizing you need an editor, not a writer. An editor would say you have too many superfluous words.

Superfluous words are invisible, yet they sit in plain sight. As an example, read this fictional confession to a crime:

Dear Federal Agent,

It was I who committed all those bank robberies! While you ran around like chickens with your heads cut off, I successfully knocked over ten different banks in ten different states, and I did it while I was wearing a Barney costume. It’s hard to believe that you never caught on. After the last score, my colleagues and I went over to the deli next door, ordered some ham sandwiches, and calmly watched while you raced up and down the street with your lights flashing and your sirens wailing. Idiots.

If you have any questions about my claims, you are welcome to visit me here in Switzerland, though I think it’s outside of your jurisdiction.

Best,

Finster

That’s not the most poorly written confession/boast ever, considering that Finster dropped out in the 8th grade, but it can be tightened.

Let’s make some cuts:

 

Dear Federal Agent,

It was I who committed all those bank robberies! While you ran around like >headless< chickens with your heads cut off, I successfully knocked over ten different banks in ten different states, and I did it while I was wearing a Barney costume. It’s hard to believe that you never caught on. After the last score, my colleagues and I went over to the deli next door, ordered some ham sandwiches, and calmly watched while you raced up and down the street with your lights flashing and your sirens wailing. Idiots.

If you have any questions about my claims, you are welcome to visit me here in Switzerland, though I think it’s outside of your jurisdiction.

Best,

Finster

Here’s what it looks like with the cuts. Finster is still a bad guy, but his confession pops off the page now, thanks to some surgical editing:

Dear Federal Agent,

It was I who committed those bank robberies! While you ran around like headless chickens, I knocked over ten banks in ten states, and I did it wearing a Barney costume. It’s hard to believe you never caught on. After the last score, my colleagues and I went to the deli next door, ordered ham sandwiches, and calmly watched while you raced up and down with lights flashing and sirens wailing. Idiots.

If you have questions about my claims, you are welcome to visit me in Switzerland, though I think it’s outside your jurisdiction.

Best,

Finster

You’ve heard professional writers say, “Cut anything that doesn’t add meaning.” I try to avoid such absolutes, as sometimes words can improve rhythm or punctuate humor without being technically necessary. However, some words are frequently extraneous, and the biggies are Any, All, That, and Some. You can often lose these without confusing meaning.

I cut others above for redundancy. Ditch “different” when it follows a quantity, like “I’ve owned seven different cars.” So goes for “successfully” finishing a race, as you either finished the race or didn’t. Similar words that can often be chopped are “completely” and “totally.”  It suffices to say the rebels destroyed the Death Star. Completely destroying the Death Star is just cruel, and, frankly, unbecoming a Jedi.

If you read through your prose and decide it needs more professional sheen, seek and destroy those formerly invisible, needless words, and the ones that remain will pop out. Better yet, totally destroy them.

 

Questions, comments, and insults are welcomed…