I recently became an editor and I have been doing it most of my life.
Did you feel that? How that sentence changed from ultra ordinary to a little bit more interesting because of a tiny conjunction? I chose “and” instead of “but.”
I chose to trip you up a tad because I want you to flex your mind muscle instead of skim as usual when you read whatever I produce. I am willing to wager that you re-read that sentence. This is the power of the pen. You can get people to do things.
You make minor choices in your writing that combine to powerfully influence others.
One of my personal literary heroes, Haruki Murakami, is adept at this. He once got me to youtube a symphonic poem in three movements by a late 19th Century Czech composer because I couldn’t fully appreciate the opening scene, or the rest of the book without doing so. That’s not the kind of thing I youtube regularly.
His writing, his word choices, compelled me to that action. I didn’t even want to do it, but he wrote it like I had to. It’s a nine hundred-page tome, and I am already cross-referencing the first few pages to better understand his characters. Woah.
All writers have this potential. Published authors, in any genre, earn this privilege. It happened again this week when I finally took the advice of my artist friend, Natasha, and downloaded a Kindle copy of a nonfiction book about (gulp) relationships. Because of a certain charged word in the title that starts with “B” and ends with “H” I was super reluctant to read the book.
Turns out, the author completely redefines the word in her potent argument for women getting real about the appropriate proportion of relationships in their lives. I adopted the philosophy and implemented her suggestions to immediate positive effect. I will share it with every woman I know of high school age and up.
Mind your minor choices; a piece of punctuation or simple swap of synonym can add up to alter meaning and ultimately affect your message.
Word Choice Matters
So, how is your message strengthened or diluted by the minor choices you make while crafting your creative work?
I know, I know, we are supposed to just write and not worry about grammar and the little stuff because it disrupts our “flow” and who cares about commas and capitalization in the post-post modern era anyway, and (ack!) I will clean it all up in a later draft and (double ack!) my editor will catch it.
Relying on professional editors to clean up your mistakes is one thing. Assuming they’ll know the intent behind your minor choices is entirely another.
Well, let me tell you from personal experience that two out of the three reasons for putting proofreading on the backburner during your writing process that I just mentioned are bona-fide B.S. I believe wholeheartedly in what one of my mentors calls frictionless writing, in which we share “shells” of chapters or vomit drafts right away, errors and all, sans editing, fleshing out and formatting.
Why? Because our thoughts come streaming forth fully formed and perfectly poetic as if delivered direct from our ether-dwelling muse. No. To put a major hot fire under our perfectionistic, procrastinating bums. That’s why. It does work. Fear of further shame is a mighty motivator. But, writing multiple drafts and chipping away at a novel length manuscript can wipe a writer out.
When you have crested wave after wave of insecurity, a dry spell or two that had you so mired in doubt you almost abandoned the project, and you are in spitting distance of the finish line and the prize of publication it is too late to think about how minor choices could have made the difference, sentence by sentence, in comprehension, effective argument, and memorability. You need to address these details earlier—
Sometime after cleaning up the vomit draft and before booking your I-Finally-Finished-That-Effin-Book flight reservations.
The great news about Kindle, and other ebook platforms, is that even after you have published your book and are successfully selling copies, you can still make changes to your book and upload the new file at any time.
3 Subtle Choices to Be Aware Of
Again and again I notice the same trends in the material people give me to edit.
Most people have the same basic set of usage habits. To help you ensure your credibility, I want to alert you to the three areas in which you can make minor choices as you develop your writing pieces that have the cumulative effect of strengthening your message by making your voice more natural, trustworthy, and interesting. The first seems obvious and is therefore overlooked.
1. Review your habitual word choices.
I am not suggesting you stall the process by agonizing in advance over what word to use to convey some lofty ideal. I just suggest looking over a few passages after they have mellowed awhile on the page and scanning for repetitious crutch words. Every writer falls in love with certain words and then, utterly subconsciously inserts them too often. I do it.
I used to do it with what a friend once called “grad school words.” Grad school words are esoteric academic terms that beginning writers think make them sound engaging but really just alienate readers. Esoteric is a grad school word. So are diaspora and anthropomorphize. I still do it with poetic words. I like words that sound pretty.
But I make all kinds of assumptions about what my reader values when I use them. If I am not cautious, flowering up the language beyond what is my natural usual speech, comes off as confusing, forced, and at worst, unkind.
The last thing I want my reader to feel is that I have wasted their time.
Repetitious crutch words smack of authorial laziness. Use a Thesaurus when you have to. Better yet, think of a new way to say it with simpler words. Profanity is almost always a crutch. If you struggle to find and replace your redundancies at first or second blush, mark the draft and move on. You will hear a great word later in your everyday life and adopt it. I promise you will strike a balance somewhere between crying blood boring and so overwrought this person has no idea what they’re talking about. That middle ground is the champ’s ring of successful writing. End up there.
Another area of minor choices making a major difference made by you is regarding the use of the passive voice.
Did that sentence sour your stomach? I hope so, because it absolutely sucks. Passive voice is the bad ninja of poor grammar. It is so stealthy it just sneaks up or drops in silently out of nowhere. No one is one hundred percent safe. You almost always have to hunt it down and rid your work of it retroactively because it’s too damn hard to catch on the way out.
2. Warrior of the word, you must choose the active voice!
Use of the passive voice is hard to explain which is probably why our high school English teachers had a hard time getting us to identify it, and why so many excellent writers continue to let it drain their sentences of power. The best way to understand how to make passive sentences active is to show examples. Grammar Girl has a great little lesson about this I strongly recommend at Quickanddirtytips.com but here’s what we are basically talking about:
In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. “Steve loves Amy.” In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. “Amy is loved by Steve.” The subject of the sentence becomes Amy, but she isn’t doing anything.
It gets trickier with more complex structures of course. Here is one example I encountered today, while editing a college student’s literary analysis paper:
“If Lady Macbeth can have these characteristics removed from her she will have no feelings holding her back from making Macbeth into the man he ought to be.”
We can activate Lady Macbeth by empowering her as the doer of the thing. I chose this alternative:
“Lady Macbeth transcends her innate feminine characteristics so she can better use Macbeth as a vehicle toward power.”
Do the characters you painstakingly developed justice. Keep their dialogue and actions concise and authoritative through proper use of the active voice.
Adherence to this principle is incredibly important for nonfiction writers.
A single inopportune instance of the passive voice can permanently erode your agency. You likely researched for months. You definitely know what you are talking about. Don’t let your audience doubt that because you accidentally left a subject where the object goes.
There are a few circumstances where use of the passive voice can lend a sense of mystery or vagueness about who is doing what. Unless you are a mystery writer or reporting on actual crime cases in which the subject is unknown, the passive voice is probably inappropriate and stuffs your sentences with a bunch of extra words you don’t need.
Remember, minor choices are not theme, plot, structure, or formatting.
They are semicolons, a well-placed ellipsis when a voice is trailing off. They are favors you do for your readers by using the cues that let their eyes and minds absorb what came just before. Sometimes, they are purposeful omissions, even of words or phrases you really liked.
3. Be selective with emphasis.
This covers all the little things like punctuation or lack thereof, capitalization, use of en-dashes, em-dashes and ellipsis, as well as putting things in bold, italics or quotations. If you can’t say it without an addendum length parenthesis, come back to it later and, unemotionally, tweak it, pare it down, or cut it out. Don’t get all trigger-happy with bullets. Neologisms are fun, like ice cream is fun; once in a while.
When we get addicted to emphasis, as with unnatural word choice, we have lost our humility. We are asking the reader to mentally apply undue importance, urgency or drama to nearly everything we say.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.” Dashes assert, speed up, interrupt or show simultaneity. It is the caffeine of structural choice, rivaled only by polysyndeton for creating a sense of anxious fragmentation or overwhelm. Only use an em-dash if there is a lot going on, fast.
In fact, as NaNoWriMo Executive Director Grant Faulkner points out on Quickanddirtytips.com, the dash wasn’t even commonly used before the 1700s. It’s a punctuation mark that has only found its place in the modern world’s multiplicity and speed. We know the so-called rules of grammar and the English language are bending as quickly as information dispersal systems and sources of knowledge change.
My advice as a writer and working editor is first to write, with whichever tools and in whatever spirit moves you.
Then, above all things, be kind to your reader. Speak to them, mostly as you would a mentor or respected, elder friend.
Ask yourself constantly if you have said what must be said as clearly as possibly. Befriend a poet; they are preternaturally skilled at being the most compelling in the least amount of space and time. Every syllable matters to them. Every line break is a decision. Draft with discernment, and I promise you, the sum total of these smaller scale efforts will be optimal work that is a worthwhile experience, not a chore.
Whatever you have to communicate to the world, you want it delivered cleanly, and in an engaging manner, right?
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