You’ve got a piece written and revised to your satisfaction.
Now, pull on the “picky editor’s coat.” Get your tool kit out (colored pens and highlighters). It’s time to dissect your piece – sentence by sentence, word by word.
A few weeks ago, I asked a fellow writer to read the first 15 pages of the novel I’m working on. I planned to send it off to a contest; I thought it was ready. She was honored that I had thought highly enough to ask her opinion; I valued her opinion.
She emailed me some comments, but she also asked if I was looking for a deeper critique. I sent the email back. I wanted to know what she thought needed improvement. She was delightfully brutal and honest. I had too many telling sentences, too many passive sentences, and too many places where I could have chosen a more powerful word.
Why am I telling you this? Because, even though I have taught writing, grammar, and mechanics; I don’t always see what needs improvement in my writing without using the tools I will be sharing here.
There are three concepts to master to dissect/edit your writing at this stage.
LET YOUR READER FORMULATE IDEAS
If you have done any reading about writing and editing, you may have come in contact with the phrase “show, don’t tell.”
SHOW: Dark clouds slowly drifted over the mountain. Lightening illuminated each individual cloud. I counted to ten before I heard the first rumbles of thunder.
Most readers are savvy enough to realize that a storm is approaching.
TELLING: There was a storm coming.
When you show your readers what the world is like and what is going on, you allow them to link to your writing. If I had a circle of people listening as I read the “show” example, each person would draw to mind a specific storm and how they felt. This feeling can help them relate, positively or negatively, to a character or situation.
If I simply tell them a storm is coming, I rob them from experiencing the story as it unfolds.
EXERCISE: Pick up one of your favorite books, and re-read the first couple of pages. Does it allow you to experience the story? Does it draw you in? Or does it simply tell you what is happening?
DRAW YOUR READER ALONG THE PATH
Another concept of today’s storytelling is that you should draw your reader along the path of the story by using active sentence structures rather than passive sentence structures.
“What?” you shriek, “I have to recognize different sentence structures?”
ACTIVE: Sally baked a cake for John’s birthday party.
PASSIVE: A cake for John’s birthday party was baked by Sally.
In an “active” sentence, the subject does the verb.
In many cases showing requires a writer to use active sentence structures.
CHOOSE POWERFUL WORDS
Let’s face it, some words are just more powerful than others. They allow the reader to develop a more precise image or video of what a writer is trying to say. Using powerful, precise verbs (words that identify action and state of being) and nouns (names of people, places, things, and ideas) helps a writer to eliminate the need for overusing adjectives and adverbs (words that describe).
Max walked down the road. (So many questions I want to ask here.)
Max walked quickly down the road. (Quickly, an adverb, wouldn’t be needed if a stronger verb was used.)
Try these on for size –
Max meandered down the road. (Meander = a slower pace where someone is observing things as they go.)
Max strutted down the road. (Strutted = gives the impression that Max feels good about himself – good to the point of bragging.)
Oh, the power of words.
TECHNIQUES TO MAKE YOUR WRITING POP
Are you ready? Do you have a couple of highlighters and colors of pens?
Let’s get started. It identification is easier than the corrections.
HIGHLIGHT “TO BE”
All forms of the verb to be can be considered villianous. Yes, I do realize that there are some valid places to use them, but for today, go through your piece with your yellow highlighter and either draw a line under or highlight every word in your piece that appears in the following list.
(Note: I have used a red font for the highlighter.)
AM – ARE – IS – WAS – WERE – BEING – BEEN
Now, you can edit out these words.
If the “to be” verb is followed by a word ending in -ing, you can eliminate, for the most part, the “to be” verb, take of the -ing, and use the correct form of the verb.
Sally was baking a cake for John’s birthday party.
Sally was baking a cake for John’s birthday party.
was bak ing a cake for John’s birthday party.
Sally baked a cake for John’s birthday party.
If the “to be” verb stands alone, look for a verb that specifically states what is going on.
The sun was in the sky.
was in the sky.
The sun shone in the sky.
If the “to be” verb is taken out and the sentence sound awkward, check the word that follows the “to be” verb. Then ask “who or what did the action?” If the word you use to answer the question follows the “to be” verb, flip your sentence around.
The cake was baked by Sally.
was baked by Sally. (Who did the baking? – Sally)
Sally baked the cake.
Read your piece out loud to yourself. You are looking for the work as a whole to make sense.
NOUNS & VERBS: ACTIVE & PRECISE
Change the color of highlighter you are using. I like to use orange next.
This time go through your piece and highlight or underline all nouns (words that name a person, place, thing, or idea) and all verbs (words that identify action)
By going through your piece and evaluating your choice of words, you can choose the most powerful and the most precise words.
Mitchell walked into Eric’s office. Orders for more toys were being taken by Eric. Mitchel sat in the chair. His back hurt.
Mitchell marched into Eric’s office. Eric motioned for Mitchell to sit while he recorded the order for toys on an invoice. Mitchell lowered himself into the armchair, but sat on the edge. Pain throbbed in each of the back muscles.
Yes, read the piece again after you have made any and all changes. AND YES, read it OUT LOUD! You need to hear your words with your ears and not just your mind.
This is not an easy edit so don’t get frustrated and what ever you do, DO NOT QUIT!
Find a writing partner or a critique group, especially one where you can read your work and get both written and immediate feedback.
Writing is a life-long learning experience. So, keep writing; keep editing; and keep learning