Writers in the Storm often supply good lessons. This is a particularly cogent first-page critique that takes aim at some my worst foibles: too many metaphors, authorial intrusions, details readers don’t need, details they do need–what about you? How would you rate this first page?
Category Archives: Editing
Via Jane Friedman and Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur, I came across this delightful exercise from The New Yorker. Dave had reviewed four top “editing” programs, Grammarly, Ginger, Hemingway, and ProWritingAid. He linked to an article in which writer Ian Crouch takes Hemingway the App on a spin in Hemingway’s actual prose.
You probably know somebody who claims to write like Hemingway (I do). Or who claims to want to write like Hemingway (I sometimes do). So it’s interesting to see that Ernest’s scores vary from a bad, bad 15 to an excellent 4—which means a fourth-grader could understand it— depending on which text you choose. Crouch’s analysis of a passage from The Sun Also Rises also shows how sometimes it’s the broken rules that make a passage work.
Hemingway the App has a free online editor you can play with. I thought that would be fun as well. In general, I find these editing apps annoying, not least because they miss some really basic stuff. For example, in the first page of my novel Blood Lies, published by Bantam/Doubleday way back when and republished by me online, the sentence that is tagged as VERY HARD TO READ (bad, bad, really bad) is actually two sentences connected with a semicolon. Yes, I know some people think there’s a rule: no semicolons. I’m not there yet.
On the other hand, I do find that much of my line editing involves simplifying those sentences that rolled so sonorously through my head when I wrote them. I find that I’ve become more skilled at hearing the ones that need a weed trimmer taken to them. The trick is to give yourself some distance from your prose and come back to it with a stranger’s ear, as much as possible.
In any case, here’s my annotated page with the Hemingway comments. They gave me a Readability grade of 3, only “good.” Crouch says, “The app suggests that anything under Grade 10 is a sign of ‘bold, clear writing.'” Maybe my writing is too simple! See what you think.
red—adverbs (I am supposed to cut one);
yellowish—my 4/51 “hard to read” sentences;
green—passive voice (they say I’m okay with only 3, but I take exception to “was scorched’; “scorched” is a predicate adjective in this construction;
purple—my VERY BAD HARD TO READ sentence. But I had only 1.
I came across this in a blog post on “Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing“:
“Is, am, are, was, or were—whatever form your “is” takes, it’s likely useless.”
“Students need to memorize the “to be” verbs to avoid using them and to revise those that they have used in essays.”
Now, in both cases, the authors don’t mean that all “to be” verbs should be eliminated. But for writers trying to develop their skills, such well-meant exhortations all too easily become sacrosanct rules.
Wearing three hats (at least)—as a writer, as a member of critique groups, and as a student of language both as a teacher and writer—I have an ambivalent relationship with “rules” like this that I encounter in my groups, in Facebook posts, and in conversations where my identity an a “English teacher” apparently defines me irrevocably as a language crab.
On the one hand, I believe that anyone who aspires to be a “writer” should make him- or herself an expert in the conventions and usage of Standard Written English, if only to be able to make sound judgments as to when the rules should or should not apply. If you’re going to set yourself up as a writer, you’re claiming to practice a craft, and you should know your tools.
At the same time, I know from long study of language that many of the supposed rules are actually judgment calls (I’ve posted about this issue several times).
And some of them aren’t rules at all. They’re myths passed down and around because they give the impression of expertise when they’re really evidence of hearsay, or of history at work. How many times have you been told you can’t use adverbs because Stephen King said so? Or that you can’t say “hopefully” because Strunk & White say you can’t? (You can’t chair, host, or debut, either, if you worship at that fount—though I must say I do wish that people who cite Strunk & White would actually follow it more often than they do).
The trouble is that too much reverence for rules can banish perfectly good writing strategies. And approaching “to be” with a silver cross brandished before you is one way to kill off some useful and even necessary tools.
I have always been among the first to argue that strong, precise verbs are the crux of good writing, and that a sentence built around an active verb is more compelling and often clearer than one built around “is” or “was.” But fearing “to be” can result in some painful sentence contortions. More to the point, here are three things you can’t do without “to be”:
1) The progressive tenses
Fear of “to be” means that all actions have to take place in the simple past or one of the perfect tenses (the ones with “have” or “had” as auxiliaries). Nothing can be in process, ongoing, when another action occurs or interrupts. Intolerantly striking every instance of “is” or “was” leads to absurdities like “She read the newspaper when he entered.” The sentence says either that his entering caused her to start reading the newspaper or that the two actions occurred simultaneously. The natural layering of time and events in narration inherent in “She was reading the newspaper when he entered” disappears. (Yes, I see people doing this all the time.)
2) The “it cleft”
I refer you to Martha Kolln’s discussion of this device for controlling rhythm and emphasis if you would like more examples. In short, read these two sentences aloud:
a) It was Thursday that I fell off my horse.
b) I fell off my horse on Thursday.
Same information, but different meanings. In a), it emphatically wasn’t Monday or Friday when I fell; it was Thursday. We can hear in this simple arrangement the implication of doubt or disagreement as to what day it was. And while falling off a horse matters in both sentences, in b), it’s far more foregrounded, a simpler assertion bereft of the undercurrents in the first. Which you choose should be dictated by your needs in that particular language situation. Fear of a word removes the first option from your repertoire.
Try these two:
a) It was on my fiftieth birthday that I fell in love.
b) I fell in love on my fiftieth birthday.
I leave you to unpack the subtle, but potentially important differences, in these two ways of saying the same thing.
3) The Passive Voice
Out, dreaded fiend. Let me get my silver cross.
I am well aware of the ways that careless reliance on the passive voice can lead to disaster, and certainly to a gush of red ink from an editor’s pen.
But the passive voice, used with deliberation, can serve many functions, among them the same function as the “it cleft.” It allows you to manage where emphasis falls in your sentence.
a) Maggie had long been traumatized by flying insects.
b) Flying insects had long traumatized Maggie.
(By the way, before continuing, it might be a good idea to make sure we all agree on what the “passive voice” actually is.)
I submit that the next sentence after sentence a) is likely to begin with “She.” We will immediately learn more about Maggie. She will be focus of our attention–the why of her terror.
In contrast, the sentence following example b) will begin either with “They” or some synonym for “Flying insects.” The nature of these insects, including how they acted on her, will take precedence. We may end up with the same information. But if we want Maggie front and center, sentence a) puts her there.
As Kolln and Loretta Gray’s book Rhetorical Grammar and Joe Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace will tell you, the passive voice has other important functions. For example, as Kolln points out, you couldn’t write
Joe was wounded in Vietnam
without it. It also supports the “Known-New Contract” (more about that in a future post).
You can’t benefit from these options without that much-disparaged verb “to be.”
Nuances this subtle should matter, and be within the reach, of any writer. They should be choices, made with mindful attention to their effects and whether or not these effects serve a writer’s needs at any given moment. Don’t kick them out of your bag of tools because somebody said they were “weak” or “passive.” They have jobs to do. When you need them, use them.
(You may have noticed that I just love this “grammar” stuff. What about you?)
Here’s an article that breaks down the basic elements of story structure to the scene level, with excellent, clear examples. Sometimes I suspect writers think they’re too “literary” to observe the basics that this article (from The Creative Penn via Chris the Story Reading Ape) lays out. But these guidelines are just that: basic. Because they work. Pay special attention to the discussion of the “literal” and “essential” elements of a scene. Enjoy and apply!
on The Creative Penn:
Intro by Joanna Penn:
It can be easy to assume that writing a story is just about getting words on the page. After all, we’ve read and watched and listened to so many stories that creating one can’t be difficult, right?
The truth is that writing a compelling story involves a lot more than words. You need to understand aspects of story structure.
In today’s article, Valerie Francis breaks down the elements of a scene.
This a long piece, but it is so on the mark! I find Kristen’s advice especially good for those of us involved in critique groups. It’s so tempting to try to fix every little thing some (wonderful and much appreciated) reader suggests. NO! That way lies madness. Keep the critiques and come back to them when you have a sense of how the whole book played out with your group. And you will read your work very differently after a long interval of absence. So check out this advice and let me know what you think!
By Kirsten Lamb:
Editing is essential for crafting a superlative story. We clip away the excess, delete the superfluous and prune away the detritus to reveal the art. Yet, editing is something we’re wise to handle with care.
While lack of ANY editing is a major problem today, editing too much, too soon is just as big of a problem. Perhaps an even a bigger one.
For clarity, not all ‘editing’ is the same.
From Ruth Harris at Anne R. Allen’s blog via Chris the Story Reading Ape! My pet peeves fall into the category Ruth discusses as “plot contrivances.” Pet peeve #1: The cell phone somebody forgot to charge, so that the hero can’t call for help. #2: Police who are so abysmally stupid or unprofessional that the hero gets thrown in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, with no hearing or Miranda rights or lawyers; #3: This is more or less related to Ruth’s No. 1, Lapses in Logic—the rescue or physical action that couldn’t possibly happen unless sixty million stars were aligned and even then would need divine intervention. Example: a book I read in which the villain supposedly killed the victim by throwing a rock and hitting him in the head while the victim was riding a horse a hundred feet away. Next time I want to commit a murder, will have to try that one!
Right now I’m working on a variation of the “girl walks into the warehouse to confront the killer alone” pot hole identified in the comments. My girl does something pretty stupid. The payoff is spectacular, though. Waiting to see if my group readers will buy that as her excuse.
What “plot holes” are your pet peeves?
by Ruth Harris on Anne R Allen site:
We all come face to face with them, those pesky glitches, oopsies, OMGs and WTFs that ruin a story, turn a reader off, guarantee a slew of one-star reviews—and kill sales.
Beta readers will often point them out. Editors are professional fixers, always on the lookout for booboos. You will realize them yourself when you wake up at 3AM sudden realizing that the MC’s beloved pet who started out as a friendly, tail-wagging Golden Retriever, has somehow become a snarling, saber-toothed attack dog.
These unforced errors range from plot holes, small and economy-size, to lapses in logic. They also include poorly conceived characters, blah settings, pointless dialogue, and momentum-killing info dumps. Even a few will make your book—and you—look like a loser on amateur night.
You need to find them—and fix them—before readers do.
Not whether to hyphenate, but why so many indie writers don’t use hyphens when they can be of so much help.
Connie Jasperson has pulled together a wonderful, easy-to-follow (note hyphens) guide to when and why to use hyphens in compound modifiers and expressions.
Check it out! Then get a box of hyphens to use in your own writing. They cost only a few cents at the dime store.