Practical Lessons from Editing

Part 2 of an editing series

Editing my manuscript has been a long process, mostly because I keep teaching myself editingthings as I go along. Herewith, a cheap way for you to learn from my expensive lessons.

1. Specificity Outperforms Vagueness

Specific words trigger your mind while vague words don’t. Want evidence? It’s all around you. Go from vague (sports) to specific (basketball), and you’ll instantly see the difference. Joe loves sports versus Joe loves basketball. The second sentence puts a clearer picture in your mind because basketball is specific.

Try another sentence where you’ll even feel the difference. The waitress served our food versus The waitress served us fried eggs and bacon with buttered toast. Which scene can you visualize better? Same with your reader. This is a sliver off the “show, don’t tell” rule for writers.

2. Concrete Usually Tops Abstract

Slightly different from Rule #1 above, but equally profound. A concrete word is a word we’re familiar with through the senses. Think of laptop or bacon. They’re easily definable, and everyone defines them pretty much the same. An abstract word is a word we’re familiar with through the intellect. Think of justice or happy. It’s much tougher to picture one of these words instantly in your mind, right? Moreover, we all have a different picture of what they look like.

Try it yourself and see. The cute cat versus the orange-and-white striped tabby. Or, the kid walked away happy versus the kid walked away with an ear-to-ear smile. One gives you a concrete picture. The other doesn’t.

3. Syntax secrets

Syntax is the arrangement of words and phrases to create a sentence. But there are some syntax tricks based on the way people read.

Example: If you want to drive home a point about something, it is best to put that something at the end of a sentence. When people make a full stop reading, they tend to remember that word or phrase that came before the stop. Putting something at the end of a paragraph is even stronger. And, of course, if you end your chapter with a cliff-hanger, you’re assured that ending will resonate with your reader.

So, what if you want to hide something? What if you’re writing a mystery, where it’s only right to give your reader all the clues necessary, but you don’t want to make it obvious? Then it stands to reason you can do the exact opposite. Put a clue in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of your chapter. Your reader will begrudgingly thank you for the clever move!

The hard part, of course, is finding all this in your manuscript and fixing it during the editing process. But you’re good. You’ll get it. Couple more editing lessons around the corner, and then we’ll get back to the good stuff. Unless you love editing like I do, in which case this is the good stuff!

 

13 thoughts on “Practical Lessons from Editing

  1. I am right there with you, John. I am learning as I revise and it is costing me time. Once one part of manuscript is strong, it feels imperative to make the rest of it equally powerful all the while killing your darlings and removing as much passive voice as possible.

    This is hard. Good luck. I really can’t wait to read your book.

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      1. And therein lies the problem. 100,000 words. Change word 76,123 and you might have to go back to word 1 to make sure everything flows with the change made at 76,123.

        Then the beta readers have you second guessing. One says I should reveal less, trust the reader, and another says they want me to reveal, explain more. *sigh* Are we sure beta readers are a good idea?

        Why are we writers? Surely, it would be easier to drive nails into our eyes. But yet, here we are- compulsively writing our life’s blood away

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        1. So true, Elise. It’s a shame how sharp nails are, but you hit THAT nail on the head.

          And what you’re wondering about beta readers, I’m wondering also about critique groups. It’s as if everyone agrees on everything in life from ice cream flavors to the color of their car, so they should all agree on what to do with your ms. Not a chance.

          And if that’s the case, do you listen to a beta reader who likes vanilla and wants everything spelled out or do you listen to the person who likes to jazz it up with bear claw almond crunch and wants to be surprised at every turn.

          I’m going for my nails. Just keep me from finding a hammer…

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  2. As you know, John, I treat these rules as “guidelines,” because sometimes the vague and abstract do the job. After all, if you never just say “lunch,” and always specify what every character eats, your novel could start to sound like a Bobby Flay cook book. The art of writing is knowing when to be abstract, and when to nail it down; when your reader needs to be told, and when you want to give their imagination freedom. And I don’t know that’s something you can teach. You just have to read and write a lot to get a feel for it.

    Nevertheless, on the whole, I agree with you that these are useful techniques to make your writing stronger and more compelling.

    All the best with the editing! 🙂

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  3. Sticking my hand up as another who loves editing, John. But I need to second Elise:

    >>Why are we writers? Surely, it would be easier to drive nails into our eyes. But yet, here we are- compulsively writing our life’s blood away<<

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  4. I read this the day it came out, meant to comment and I can’t ‘splain myself beyond the fact I’m here now and commenting. Oh, I know. I was EDITING. These are great suggestions and I love how, even in this post, you keep it short and sweet, and give just enough information to not overwhelm writers. I mean, don’t we do that to ourselves already???

    I’ve got my own work from 126K down to about 103.5K as of this morning. Woo hoo! And you’re right about being vague, and using a bit more detail to draw the picture more clearly. Great post, John!

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    1. So, 22.5K chopped on the editing room floor. I’m happy to hear that. Sometimes I wonder if everybody else gets it right the first time and doesn’t worry about editing and I’m the only one in the remedial group.

      Thinking of your “first sentence” posts right now, Donna, because I’m on the seventh first sentence of a short story I’m writing. The story is finished, but I’m still not happy with the opening line. Grrrr. It’ll come.

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