Monday, May 24, 2010

Mentor Monday - Thoughts on revising: Real Writers are re-writers.

One of the best things about writing the Notable Women profiles is also one of the hardest. They are SHORT! And it’s hard to write tight. The good thing is that trimming and tightening to come in under that word count is good training for any other writing we do.

Most of us tend to write weakly. We hedge our statements (with words like “most of us” and “tend to”) so we can’t be wrong. We buffer our words (“almost,” “rather”) to avoid giving offense. We write in the passive voice (“was spoiled”) so we don’t have to assign responsibility. Like politicians, we generate lots of words with very little content. Weak writing is innocuous, but bland. Readers don’t enjoy being bored, so editors don’t buy boring writing. 

Cutting waffle words strengthens writing. Believe what you write, and proclaim it with confidence. (This applies to fiction as well as non-fiction. Although your characters and plot are fictional, you must “believe” in them if you want them to come alive for your reader.) Watch out for “usually,” “probably,” “basically,” “kind of,” and their wobbly-kneed brethren. And no impersonal pronouns! If you catch yourself writing “one knows” or “one does,” stop and ask, “Who, exactly, is this ‘one’?” If it is you, say so. If not, rephrase the thought. (I know, your sixth grade teacher told you never to write “I.” That was to force you to focus on the subject, not on yourself. Still a good guideline, unless you’re writing op-ed pieces. What are you doing in this story, anyway?)

Be ruthless with the passive (“was broken,” “has been lost”). Ask “by whom?” Chances are, if you find passive constructions, you’re “telling” what happened. Back up and show it happening instead.

Good fiction techniques make for strong writing, even in non-fiction. Set the scene, develop the characters. Anecdotes illustrate points and draw the reader into the subject. Believable people capture readers’ interest, so they want to finish, to find out what happens. Sensory details bring writing to life. Your reader should not only see the scene you describe but hear the voices on the street, smell the passing bus, taste the smoke and feel the heat of the fire. Or taste the chocolate soda, hear the jukebox and feel the cool plastic restaurant seat.

All those details take extra words – which means cutting even deeper into the text. Make every word count, and you’ll make your word count.

Ready, set – trim!


Diane Mayr said...

Great advice! The passive does me in all the time--I'll try to remember to ask "by whom?"

Mur said...

"Make every word count, and you’ll make your word count." We need a poster or bumper sticker or magnet with that saying!

Andy said...

Excellent advice, Sally! The "blah-blah-blah" factor is deadly, and easily overlooked in your own writing.