All writers need an editor. Even editors need editors. Family-only writings can be held to looser standards, but have a few people read over the manuscript to look for typos and improper grammar and anything that does not make sense, is not clear, or is phrased awkwardly. Friends who don’t know your past very well would make good “beta readers.” After all, the great-great-great grandchildren may someday read your book and you want them—strangers—to understand everything you wrote and not stumble over twisted, rambling sentences.
Yesterday I attended a talk by Suzann Ledbetter Ellingsworth, a writer and editor, or “wreditor” as she calls herself. This woman is a no-nonsense ace editor quick with rapier wit and red pen. She taught us what to hack out of our manuscripts. “Trim the fat, make every word count.” She is passionate about her work—and everyone else’s. I thought she would discuss how to “show me the glint of light on broken glass” per Anton Chekhov’s show-vs-tell admonishment to writers not to tell us the moon is shining. Mostly she showed us how to find useless, distracting words and stab them with that broken glass. And there are a lot of useless, distracting words. When those words are removed or replaced, the showing happens, and the reader becomes more engrossed in the story.
I’ve read several recommended books on how to write. They were disappointingly vague, full of chatter and prompts, without much talk on the technical aspects of writing well. Only Stephen King’s book, “On Writing,” stood out. Mr. King said the most valuable learning experience he ever had as a young writer was when an editor slashed his newspaper article to bits, showing how he could improve his writing. Suzann did that for us Saturday by using examples of common writing language (found even in bestsellers) to explain why they make for wishy washy sentences. And oh, the difference she made by fixing them.
I’m sure you’re dying to know what Suzann said. I’ll give a few examples, using both her and my explanations, but she gave too much advice for me to repeat in this little blog post.
1. Most adverbs are bad. “She went quickly” could be replaced by “She ran” or “She scampered.” Many adverbs are redundant, too, as in “She ran quickly” (running implies speed). “She raced” might be better wording. Use more accurate verbs, or explain the situation better.
2. Remove most instances of the word “that.” The sentence will probably mean the same without the useless pebble in the middle. “The flowers that I held…” become more fragrant as “The flowers I held…” and may be intoxicating as just plain “The flowers…”
3. If you saw something happen, just say what it is. “The car came up the road,” not “I saw the car come up the road.” Not everything should be about you.
4. Size adjectives tend to be meaningless. The dog may be a large brown mutt, but maybe it’s a St. Bernard mix (or he had a dog the size of a St. Bernard). Maybe it’s a Chihuahua (and not a little Chihuahua – redundant!). Let the reader see the dog in her mind. Question: What is a small mountain? Answer: a hill.
5. You are not going to do anything. You did it. “I walked to the store,” not “I’m going to walk to the store,” unless you’re going to walk to the store tomorrow.
Suzann also emphasized using active voice. Passive voice is commonly identified by “ing” verb endings, and the MS Word spell checker usually flags this. Suzann said we often speak using passive voice, but we should write using active verbs, even in dialog. I call this “writing strong sentences.” Not “I had been thinking about that,” but “I thought about that.”
I recently gave a sample edit with explanations to someone who was astonished by all the redlines. He said, “I know this stuff, why couldn’t I see it?” Even writers who know this stuff are blinded because they are too close to their work. Our minds see what we meant to say, and there are just too many ways to write weak sentences. That’s why we all need editors. Usually we all need several proofreaders, too.
You’re welcome to comment on any writing errors or weaknesses in this blog post. If you find any and you are an author or editor, I’ll tweet you some publicity. You’re also welcome to leave your own writing tips in the comments.