Twisted Sister Nonfiction Twisted Sister On Writing

ON WRITING POST — Thoughts on Editing, Grammar, and stuff

 

Photo credit - Kyle Hemmings
Photo credit – Kyle Hemmings

It’s Angela here, I’m sort of a chief editor around this place.

*deep breath*

At the risk of sounding ridiculously pretentious, and obnoxious, I have to say, I kind of like editing. I see things others don’t. Writing can be pretty hard, but fixing it up is easy-ish. (The old word-vomit first, and mop it up after approach to writing works for me.)

You might notice I’m fine with made-up words and grammatically incorrect sentences, so long as things flow and make sense. And sentence fragments. All over the place. For emphasis, you know.

My approach to editing is to look at the big picture first, where’s the story going, and then add and subtract details to support it. I try to focus on strong openings, end of chapters that hook the reader, and if I’m dealing with a short piece, the early introduction and repetition of a theme.

It sounds like a big deal, and it kind of is, but if you think of the basics of advertising copy (writing text to promote products and basically sell stuff), it’s all about giving the customer what they need.

As they say, you can’t sell snow to Eskimos (although I’m sure some people would try); so you need to take your reader’s perspective when doing those final edits. What does the reader need to know to ‘get’ your story? What are you selling to them? A fun time, sure, but there’s more to a story than that. You’re selling yourself here, your heart, and your soul. What’s your story about – here, I’m talking central theme, i.e. love, desire, etc., and your take on it. What is the intrinsic truth of your story? How can you let that shine?

Shape the structure to help your story along – a little nip here, a tuck there, and maybe add in a detail or two.

Only once you have the structure in place do you bother dealing with the nuts and bolts of SPAG (spelling, grammar and punctuation, or, spelling, grammar, and punctuation, if you prefer an Oxford comma, which I do 😉

Don’t worry about bogging yourself down with style guides (although I favour Chicago, but do APA on academic pieces) and if you have no idea what I’m talking about, consider it a good thing. Just keep writing, it will sort itself out.

Which leads us to grammar.

If in doubt, use simple, direct sentences with an active voice with NO adverbs or adjective (no descriptive stuff). My favorite one is from Stephen King’s On Writing, “Plums defy.” Perfect. Subject, action – done. Check my guide to writing and grammatical tweaks over here, and if in doubt, the classic guide, The Elements of Style by William Strunk is still a standard for all things grammatical. (Various versions are available online at low cost or free, including a more recent version with E.B. White; this one’s absolutely free at Project Guttenberg) Download it now, and it’s yours forever.

But I digress.

Have you ever run across sentences that don’t sound right?

The round man found that the sound was off.

What’s the problem here?

Sound. Too many rhymes close together (it can also be similar sounding words or too many of the same letters/sounds together. Write about wrapping paper in the rain, alright, and you’ll see what I mean.

And the best way to find those clunkers is to read the story aloud. You can also catch sentences that all follow the same pattern (five words here, five words there, five words again). Switch your length up a little fer crissakes.

For punctuation, most of the time (if not all of it) a simple period, comma, and maybe a dash (–) or semicolon will do. Maybe parenthesis (like this) if you don’t overuse them (like I am). KISS (keep it simple sexy) and you can’t go wrong. Check with Strunk for correct usage and basic punctuation ideas, I’m not going there today.

Of course, throughout the entire editing process it helps to have a printed out copy of your work in front of you so you can mark it up to your heart’s content. Even better if someone’s willing to read it aloud while you edit in true grammar nerd style.

But, before I absolutely bore you to death, let’s have a word about description.

How do you paint a picture in someone’s mind using only words?

Here’s the challenge – too much description and you bog things down, too little and nobody can figure out what’s going on. You need to trust your reader on this one, and reading and writing is a dance, both partners need to be on their toes as it were.

Picture a tree.

I’ll bet we both thought of different trees; which is fine, unless that tree is somehow essential to the story, in which case both you and I better be thinking of the same thing. (Or something similar.) If you think tender green sapling while I’m thinking ancient gnarled oak, we’re going to have a misunderstanding, consider it a misstep between reader and writer — it could be a hiccup, or a disaster, depending on the significance of the tree in the story.

Which brings us to the balancing act of writing description.

Description is subjective, unique to both the writer and the story itself. I tend to leave stuff out, and trust the reader to figure things out; but – and it’s a big but – it depends on your story. Much of the joy of fiction is immersing yourself in the world the writer created.

Think of this one – a bunch of short dudes and a tall guy set off to save Middle Earth.

Somehow, without description it’s lacking something, which leaves The Lord of the Rings falling flat.

Other stories are so choked with description (adverb and adjective overload) there’s no room to breathe, never mind a plot to unfold and characters to develop; which is what the story’s all about anyway. I tend to like folks like Hemmingway (uber sparse text) and Kurt Vonnegut (high action, with minimal description); but those lush poetic pieces of historical novels will always tug at my heartstrings because they create a world I can escape into.

So before I go into grammar nerd overload, I’m backing away from the keyboard, and letting some other folks say their piece – because, my friends, good writing is ultimately about voice and heart, and if you have those things, you’re doing just fine.

Don’t believe me? Check out this reblogging of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice on “You’ve got to sell your heart.”

*

Hit me fast, hit me hard, hit me write where it hurts (pun intended). Check out more on the craft of writing back here. And don’t forget our New Releases and Greatest Hits – crank ‘em up and let ‘em roll.

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