For many of us, warmer weather inspires us to want to clean out closets, wash windows, declutter. And with the latest onslaught of “organizing” books and blogs telling us to let go of items we don’t use, don’t wear, or don’t really like, the message is clear: use it or lose it.
I realized that this also applies to writing and to my efforts in editing. The goal is the same: help writers organize their thoughts, declutter their stories, and clarify their meaning. To put in more tangible, spring-cleaning terms:
- Like washing windows, choose words and use words that sparkle and allow the light to come in. Instead of “She ran around the room making sure everyone was comfortable” … “She fluttered …”
- Donate (or delete) words that take up space. “… with a smile on his face” is just as effective using “… with a smile.”
- Throw away worn-out phrases like, “Her eyes twinkled like diamonds,” “Little did he know,” “Needless to say,” blah blah blah.
- Say goodbye to that old sweatshirt (your go-to favorite words) that you unwittingly sprinkle throughout your manuscript. This is tough, because you probably don’t even realize how often you are using your favorite words, but they usually pop out to me when I’m editing. They can be anything from “just,” “so,” “that,” to “quickly,” “suddenly,” “longingly,” or any “ly” words.
- If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it (or save it until you lose those ten pounds). That is, pulling out the thesaurus to find a word for “happy” sounds like a good idea, but replacing it with “jubilant” or “whimsical” might be overdoing it. Use alternatives with care.
- Maybe go-go boots and polyester pantsuits work at a 70s costume party, but they don’t fit well in today’s world. Same with words; be sure to use words and phrases that reflect the time period. Writing “on the world wide web” is awkward now, just as “swipe right” doesn’t mean a thing to that go-go dancer.
Good luck – and good riddance!
If you don’t know what’s wrong with this picture (or rather, T-shirt) and you intend to write
—a literary masterpiece or a letter to Grandma—you need an editor.
NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is over. You’ve completed the challenge—writing 50,000 words in a month. Congratulations!
Now comes the real work. Making every word count. Getting rid of the words that don’t.
Case in point: “began.” They began arguing. He began acting suspicious. I began to get irritated.
(The truth is, when I get irritated, I don’t begin to get irritated. I just am.)
Another word to think about deleting is the word think! If you’re writing a memoir and write “I think I was about five-years-old,” I suggest instead, “I was about five-years-old.” A small difference, but cleaner.
And just for fun, how about that word just? It’s a word that just isn’t needed. Search your manuscript – you might be surprised how often you’ve used it. Try deleting just a few of them; you probably won’t even miss them.
Enough of that. I mean it. “I wish that we could … whatever.” How about “I wish we could …”?
If you don’t miss it – if your story reads (just) as well without it, you will (begin to) write a much tighter, better story.
As I’ve mentioned before, writers have a tendency to rely on favorite words and phrases … often without even knowing it. Maybe it’s considered part of your style or personality, but from an editor’s standpoint (who advocates for the reader), these “catch phrases” can become annoying and distracting.
Because I’m being objective and looking at a manuscript with fresh eyes, I can easily see the repeated words (and can make suggestions or revisions). I can search for how often the word or words have been used. But you can’t do this, because you don’t know what you’re looking for! It’s like looking up the correct spelling of a word in the dictionary … when you don’t know how to spell it.
But now there’s help. Word clouds. Thanks to an attendee at my recent writing workshop, I learned of an amazing tool to self-regulate your pet prose. There are many Word Cloud programs available, which take your text and visualize your repeated words. I found one, TagCrowd, which not only creates a very cool image of the words you use most frequently, but it can also tell you how many times you’ve used them.
I worried for a minute that I was shooting myself in the foot by revealing this trick of the trade, but then I realized, if I can help one memoirist from repeating “I remember when,” one mystery writer from abusing “He couldn’t help but notice,” or any number of storytellers from plastering “In fact,” “Of course,” “That being said,” it will be worth it. I’m sure I’ll still have plenty of work to do.
Imagine my surprise when one of the detectives on the new TV show Murder in the First (TNT) realizes that a suicide note is a fraud based on an unusual use of an apostrophe! Punctuation meets Prime Time!
Noticing that “shouldn’t’ve” (as in “I shouldn’t’ve killed that girl…”) in the supposed typed confession was—coincidentally—exactly the same as in a workplace email communique, the ace detective (as in A+ in English!) researches the statistical commonality of the double contraction … checking with UC Berkeley’s linguistics department (a nice plug for my own alma mater!) and voila! a killer is identified. (In case you’re interested, according to what the detective told the suspect, only 1 in 800,000 use this particular double apostrophe.)
Enough of DNA matches, fingerprint comparisons, text message threads, bloody footprint trails. This is true detective work. Which gives me an idea; rather than referring to myself as an editor, I think I will now consider myself a grammar gumshoe.
Now you know when I say I’m getting a new piece … or working on a magazine , I mean of the Smith and Wesson kind. A big thanks to the clever writing at the ONION.
4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence
(New York) Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style.
“At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.” “The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.”
Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
For the original ONION story:
(Photo courtesy of Arvind Grover
Strange that the last three writers I’ve worked with have all told their stories from the seat of a motorcycle.
John Andrews’ Outlaw Preacher series follows legendary “Nine Ball” of the notorious Doomsayers outlaw motorcycle club from the gates of Folsom prison back to his home in Southern California, only now passing out bibles instead of throwing punches.
Next up, Kevin Parsons’ 50 Stories in 50 States, fictional tales — sometimes funny, sometimes not— but always entertaining, as Kevin and his wife explored the great US of A.
Most recently, From Iron Lung to Iron Butt, Bob Mutchler’s true story of his struggles with polio and his dedication to eradicate the disease worldwide, told to and written by Lynda Lahman, a motorcycle rider herself. Who would have guessed, as Lynda reminds me, that having sat behind her in US History years ago would have brought us together once again.
At this rate, I may have to strap my laptop to the back of a “hog.”