day seventeen: how to make your writing pop (editing tips)

I noticed it the most when I started grading papers. 

The things that drove my professors crazy within my own writing I was now noticing within the papers of my students. 

My comments sounded eerily familiar to me. 

Be specific. 
Develop this. 
Resist supposition. 
mbed your quotes within a sentence. 
I need proof.
You only need one space in between sentences. 

It got even worse when I started grad school. My favorite professor, a poet who spoke often about finding a piece of land with his family and going off the grid, pushed me and my writing in ways I never imagined. 

All of his suggestions soon found themselves written in between the lines of my students' papers.

I keep these phrases with me as I write, sometimes editing as I go if I'm able to catch an old habit inking its way into my words. Below are a few.

Take Away any Unnecessary THATs

This really should fall under the heading don't be so wordy but we're all about specifics here and this is one that I always-always-always find in writing. Take a look at the sentence I just wrote. Do you see the phrase this is one that? Take out that and the sentence makes just as much sense: this is one I always-always-always find in writing. I'm adding words where they aren't needed, and they need to get out. You will hear this everywhere once you get the hang of it and often, you'll begin self-editing yourself — even if you're talking. 

I mean, not that I know anything about what that's like. 

(An example of a sentence where THAT is needed) 

People Are WHOs and Things are THATs

Okay this is a personal pet peeve. My husband laughs at me because we'll be listening to the radio and we'll hear something like come listen to the guy that started it all or we are the girls that blow your mind. 

I mean, maybe they're right. But they don't know the difference between a human and a thing so, I have a hard time listening to them. 

I am the author WHO wrote Every Shattered Thing.
He is the guy WHO called me yesterday. 

Do not call me a that. 

Whole Foods, the store THAT lets you drink beer while shopping. 

See? 

Watch Your Hads (Passive Voice)

My dad HAD forgotten. 
We HAD went. 
Russ HAD cooked a really good meal. 

Nope. Nope. Nope. Do you hear the wordiness in there? The stickiness of phrasing? Take out the ads. By doing this, you're opening up your sentence and allowing yourself tighter prose. 

Be specific

It's not enough to tell me about the red dress or the blue sky. Reach for descriptions to pull the reader into your story. Make it sensory. Real. Surprising. 

You want the reader to remember your words — not pass over the book with a cursory glance.

I talk more about the forgotten art of specificity here.

Aim for Sentence Variation

Have you ever read a book where it seemed every single sentence used the same loping pattern? Or maybe there wasn't a pattern because the sentences seemed choppy and fragmented? There's beauty in paying attention to the way we use syntax. 

A good way to do this — print out your manuscript. Take two colored pencils and underline every other sentence. Are there any sections where your sentences are overbearingly long? Can you clean up your syntax by splitting some in two or adding a few short, fragmented pieces together for a longer sentence? 

Also, within this exercise, pay special attention to the emotion you're wanting your reader to feel within the scene. 

In his book Night, Elie Wiesel would shift to short, poetic sentences when he reached moments in which it was difficult for him to explain what he saw. This served his writing because it heightened the emotion. 

The moment I began studying syntactical techniques, my writing style fell into a groove. There's something about learning bits and pieces about what makes words glitter that forces you to pay attention while you're writing.

What are some tips on your list? How do you make your writing pop? 


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Posted on October 17, 2014 and filed under indie publishing, words that work, writing.