writers’ workshop recently examined one paragraph in the manuscript of
a student’s novel. After we took the paragraph apart word-for-word,
phrase-by-phrase and discussed each component and its potential
function in the chapter and the novel as a whole, one student asked,
“So, that means every word counts?” I considered the question for maybe
a second. The answer is yes, every word counts.
In today’s virtual world of
largesse, many factors mitigate against this maxim—the surfeit of
writing venues, lack of time, lack of scrutiny before content is
uploaded for mass consumption, lack of knowledge of what makes for good
writing, to name but a few.
For writers serious about craft,
that last factor is crucial—not so much in the sense of good grammar
and punctuation, though these are essential, but in the sense of the
writing as a whole. Learning to listen to and edit your work is one of
the best and fastest ways to raise its quality.
A good way to begin is to slow
your reading pace, pondering your writing word-by-word. To start,
select a paragraph—description and narrative work best—and as you read,
consider how the phrase, sentence, and paragraph would read if you cut
unnecessary words, reorder what remains, and substitute a more precise
word or two for a phrase, even an entire sentence.
Let’s see how this works. The
paragraph below has a lovely voice that’s obscured by lack of order,
repetition (especially the character’s name), self-conscious prose, and
lack of clarity. The scene is confusing, too, because it’s part
flashback and part present moment. An even subtler problem is that
equally powerful words and phrases are fighting to one-up each other in
an effort to push their concepts to the fore of the reader’s minds. The
result is misplaced and confused emphasis. Each word and phrase is so
charged with imagery, we can’t tell what’s important. These last two
problems make it hard to see how the scene fits into and propels the
story as a whole, in this case, a novel.
the day at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It had been a relief for Adrienne to
wander through the echoing, cavernous rooms, finding peace and solace
from the grinding friction of the city outside the museum’s thick stone
walls. Adrienne thought about one painting in particular entitled Romantic
Landscape. It was by the English landscape painter Thomas
Gainsborough. The scene showed a tranquil valley in the foreground,
unruffled by any breeze, leading the eye to a hazy mountain in the
distance. Clouds filled the sky among the mountains. However, they were
not threatening, not gray, only vaguely
portentous. The clouds gave an
unearthly sheen to the sky, casting the whole picture in a hue of
luminescent serenity. The world in the painting dozed, as with
half-closed eyes and oblivious to the storm that would rumble in later.
Here’s a revised version:
had arrived at
the Metropolitan early to wander the echoing rooms cloistered away from
the grind of the city. She paused at Gainsborough’s oil, Romantic
Landscape, of a secluded valley, mountains looming in the
distance. Clouds filled the sky, weak sunlight casting an unearthly
sheen and luminescent serenity where sheep grazed in the foreground,
oblivious to the coming storm.
go from the first example to
• Set the scene firmly in flashback; presumably you’ve just mentioned
the character, so the name doesn’t need to be repeated.
• Order the sentences chronologically for clarity and to build suspense.
• Cut unnecessary words and make sure what’s left says precisely what’s
Once the paragraph is cleared of
verbal underbrush, we see the scene’s twofold purpose: to show
Adrienne’s desire to escape and to foreshadow calamity.
The best time to edit your work
in this much detail is after Draft 1, where you’re still telling
yourself the story. It could be in Draft 2—if you can juggle revision
(wording), rewriting (scenes and characters), and restructuring (plot)
all at the same time. Most likely, the best time for this drilldown is
in Draft 3, after most of the heavy lifting has been done.
Slowing your reading to hear and
see each word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph for itself and the work
as a whole is a great way to learn to write better. At this pace, you
can listen to how the individual elements support and reveal character,
dialogue, motif, theme and plot—how they work together, or don’t. And
you’re teaching yourself. That’s a great way to always be learning—the
price is right, too.
To pose an editing query,
contact Adele Annesi. To see my online writing workshop.
Press Pause Moments: Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers