Trimming the Fat from Writing (Instead of the Turkey)

Recently as I have been going back through my writings for the Bear and Hunter Series and editing I have discovered how much wasted word nonsense I wrote.  My co-author, Harlow Hunter, and I write via Skype’s messenger service.  In the moment phrases, grammar and mediocre writing is somewhat acceptable if it gets the point across (to each other) and moves the story along.

The editing is a killer though.  Being the story is on a messenger when it is moved over to a Word document all of the time/date stamps and usernames come with it.  Replace has become my best friend. Another thing replace helps me with is a point of intense contention, the double space after periods. I am old school, learned to double space after periods and have done it for so many years it is simply automatic. Thank goodness Word’s grammar check can be tailored and again thank goodness for Replace. My co-author does not have this problem. She learned the single space method and so no corrections on her side of the work.

After the initial clean up of the story then the real editing starts. The first story we edited I did on the computer–and now wish I hadn’t. It is the old schoolness in me again. I have subsequently started printing off the book in question (in double space) to manually edit. With a pen. Then I put the edits into the document, Harlow Hunter gives it her once over and TADA! publishing magic.

Harlow Hunter and I both have our degrees in English Creative Writing so we do a fairly decent job of editing I believe.  At least Amazon’s new policy hasn’t marked us for poor quality–bonus.

Now when I edit on paper with a pen the trimming begins. The pen becomes a knife, the story my Turkey.

Immediately the first thing I change is the word “that.” It is amazing how much “that” is used as a filler word or in the wrong way. The word “that” does have its place but really it shouldn’t pepper the entire prose. Another word which truly has no use (actually two words) are the words “just” and “very.”

The controversial movie about English, “Dead Poets Society” actually has one outstanding point:

Minus the “wooing women” statement.

I say controversial because for some English Literature people this movie seems to offend them greatly.

The point is there are useless words in the English Language.  Words which are in fact lazy, a placeholder.  These words, “just,” “very,” and others, will cause an otherwise outstanding idea or phrase to be watered down and weak.

Now English Language does have an exceptions as well.  While these words may actually serve little to no purpose because they are in the everyday vernacular if you are writing in Modern English tones, meaning not a historical novel, then it is important to capture the character’s dialect and speaking style.  Not every person is an English Language Scholar so they may use the words  “that,” “just,” “very,” etc. liberally in their speech.  This is this exception.

Another spot to trim is being sentences with the words, “but,” “and,” “well.”  These words to have their place and occasionally using “well” to start a sentence is acceptable.  However, being aware of how saturated a work becomes with word such as these is important to keeping tight, yet beautifully written prose.

Watching the use of adverbs, or rather the abuse of adverbs is important. I am a Stephen King fan.  While some find his works to be a bit slow and dull, I enjoy the way he paints a picture without being Charles Dickens.  The majority of publishers out there don’t pay by the word anymore. Charles Dickens while a great writer is, for me, too verbose. Part of my proclivity for sharper, shorter sentences is due to the time period in which I grew up. Please get to the point, now. I am also keenly aware my sense of urgency comes from being part of a society who is ADD and feeds off of soundbites and flashy headlines.  I do not fault Dickens for his writing style and can appreciate and respect how amazing his prose are, however, that style of writing is not enjoyable for me to read. So I tend to enjoy Stephen King, James Patterson, Michael Crichton and John Grisham’s syntax and word use. I also try hard to not abuse adverbs, though I must admit there are times I fail.

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”

–Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

This leads us from word use and the elimination of excess, unneeded words to sentence structure.  Passive voice is the killer of every good story.  Sometimes it physically hurts to read. Besides writing I am proficient public speaker. If I were to use passive voice in my speeches, not only would I put people to sleep but my point would be lost. How can anyone persuade anyone of their position if they use passive voice which tends to sound in a speech like lack of conviction of an idea.  Passive voice also can cause tense confusion in piece of writing. Again there are exceptions and unavoidable phrases which simply cannot be written without use of the passive voice. Yet, finding someway to restate a sentence as to not be passive if possible is always the preferred choice.

Passive voice, excess words, using “and,” “but,” “well,” as beginning to sentences do not help an author do the one thing  she/he wants to do: Show the reader. In an earlier blog post I talked about a girl I am mentoring. One theme I drill into her, as it was drilled into me by one of my English Professors, is Show. Don’t Tell. This is the author’s goal. Paint a scene for the reader. Assist the reader into the shoes of the character. The reader gets to see through the eyes of the character, feel what the character feels, both physically and emotionally.

When I write a scene and find myself crying for a character, with a character, I want to make sure my writing reflects those emotions so the reader cries too. I will say no more about this as it will lead into a rant about the numbness of society, the fear of feeling anything, and the misuse and stupidity of “Trigger Warnings.”

You read, particularly fiction and poetry, to feel something.  You read, particularly fiction and poetry, to escape the realities of a world gone mad.

It is my job, my privilege, as a writer to help the reader on this endeavor.