Shrediting

I am bad at editing. I procrastinate editing  because the process scares me. My editing has four distinct stages. In this post, I demonstrate them by tearing apart the first paragraph of a draft.

Waves swept over the boat’s side. Jill clung to the steering wheel’s post, trying desperately to stay on her feet. She had lashed her waist to the steering post but that didn’t help her keep her footing. Her legs slid across the deck, slippery with seaweed and wildlife scum. Her knees banged mercilessly against it, going numb in the icy water that sloshed back and forth. Probably a good thing. I’ll never live down these bruises. She clung to the wheel. It was useless to maintain her course. Like the green pilot she was, she had let the wheel spin the first time she fell, smashing the glass casing around her compass as she went. A ship loomed in the darkness above the waves. It was just bobbing in and out of the eyesight. It wasn’t a sea-going vessel. She glanced down at the greenery littering the deck. All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Frantically, she glanced up into the gray expanse of cloud. Tall pillars of stone appeared through the mist, rising like stalagmites out of the water. They were the iconic symbols of Arcadina, wardens of the deadly shallows that appeared on good days in Arcadinan travel brochures. “Relax in sunny Arcadina” the tagline was. “I wish.” she gritted through her teeth.

Patching occurs while writing the first draft. It is like fixing a dress with duct tape because  you can not be bothered to do any sewing. Patching fixes continuity errors, inserts the right word, rephrase, and making a major name change. Patching a draft in progress is so laborious you might put it off, especially since the next stage of editing tends to introduce gaping plot holes.

Waves swept over the ship’s side. Jill clung to the wheel, trying desperately to stay on her feet. She had lashed herself to the wheel, but that did not help her keep her footing. Her legs slid across the deck, slippery with sea scum. Her knees banged mercilessly against it, going numb in the icy water that sloshed back and forth. Probably a good thing. I’ll never live down these bruises. She clung to the wheel. It was useless trying to maintain her course. Like the green pilot she was, she had let the wheel spin the first time she fell, smashing the glass casing around her compass as she went. A ship loomed in the darkness above the waves. It was just bobbing in and out of the eyesight. It wasn’t a sea-going vessel. She glanced down at the greenery littering the deck. “All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Frantically, she glanced up into the gray expanse of cloud. Tall pillars of stone appeared through the mist, rising like stalagmites out of the water. They were the iconic symbols of Arcadia, wardens of the deadly shallows that appeared on good days in Arcadian travel brochures. “Relax in sunny Arcadia” the tagline was. “I wish.” she gritted through her teeth.

Focusing the argument and organization. This is like going back to alter a dress you have made (or patched)  because it does not fit. You tear out characters, get rid of nonessential events, re-arrange everything, and stitch it carefully back together. You might have to do this several times before it fits. And it looks horrible.

A wave crashed over the ship’s side. Jill clung to the wheel where she had lashed herself. She slipped on the sea scum littering the deck, and banged her knees on the deck. She pulled herself up, but not before her knees had gone numb in the icy water. “Cold is good, or I’d never live down the bruises,” She reminded herself. It was useless trying to steer. Like a novice, she let go the wheel the first time she fell, and landed on her compass, smashing it. Jill spotted a lantern in the dark, bobbing  in and out of eyesight over the waves. It wasn’t on a boat. She glanced at the seaweed littering the deck. “All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Tall pillars of stone rose through a low-hanging mist. They were wardens of deadly shallows and icons of Arcadia in colorful travel brochures with the slogan “Relax in sunny Arcadia!” “I wish.” she gritted through her teeth.

Pulling out the extra sentences comes next. It is like cutting off rickrack off a dress, ripping out bright red basting stitches, or fixing the hemline. You make it look nice. Pulling omits any nonessential word or phrase, eliminates sections emphasizing or telling the audience what to think, and adds explanation where plot holes exist. It hurts.

A wave crashed over the ship. Jill had lashed herself to the wheel, but she slipped on the sea scum littering the deck, banging her knees. Her knees were numb with the icy water before she could pull herself up. “Cold is good, or I’d be covered in bruises,” She muttered. Trying to steer was useless. She had let go the wheel the first time she fell and smashed her compass on the deck. Jill spotted a steady light in the dark visible between the waves. She glanced at the seaweed littering the deck. “All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Tall pillars of stone rose through a low-hanging mist. They were wardens of shallows and icons of Arcadia in colorful travel brochures urging, “Relax in sunny Arcadia!” “I wish.” Jill muttered.

Grammar and punctuation are very last. This stage is like cutting all the loose ends on a finished dress. You must still delete commas, add periods, eliminate fragments, fix run-ons, and correct faulty pronoun association problems. Then you are done…right?

A wave crashed over the ship. Jill had lashed herself to the wheel, but she slipped on the sea scum littering the deck. Her knees were numb with the icy water before she could pull herself up. “Cold is good, or I’d be covered in bruises,” she muttered. Trying to steer was useless. She had let go of the wheel the first time she fell and had smashed her compass on the deck. Jill spotted a steady light visible between the dark waves. She glanced at the seaweed littering the deck. “All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Tall pillars of stone rose through a low-hanging mist. The monoliths were wardens of shallows and icons of Arcadia in colorful travel brochures that urged, “Relax in sunny Arcadia!” “I wish.” Jill muttered.

cutting up a book

Many writers get stuck at the editing stage, and shred their work before it’s even written; others don’t edit if they can help it. I fall into the latter camp. I always save a copy before I start. Editing is stressful because you have to decide what’s important before deleting a third of your draft. In the examples above, I went from 210 words to 134. A guideline is the shorter, the better.

Unfortunately, editing never ends. However, editing has its benefits. Edited passages emphasize action, look cleaner, cost less to print, and are easier to read. Hopefully, this post has made editing little less scary. It’s daunting, but everyone could benefit from a little editing.

If you have  insights, critiques, suggestions, or stories about shrediting, feel free to comment.

Photo credit: Liz Henry, some rights reserved.

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Getting Feedback

The way I ask for feedback really depends on what kind of feedback I want. If I have written a piece and need editing, for instance, I must approach someone very differently than if I want to see if my target audience likes my story/report.

Henriette Browne (1870)

1. For both kinds of feedback, the first thing I learned is not to wrestle people to the ground. People who have been nagged are much less likely to see the project through. There are exceptions to this rule, as my muse knows only too well, but usually I have to ask for volunteers–and then wait. It is especially painful waiting for online feedback because I have no idea the reception my work is receiving. Most critics do not even know me and many will not bother to comment, but I will never know whether that was because my writing was boring, there was too much of it, or it just was not up their ally. Any criticism receive from a complete stranger, however is valuable, because someone cared enough about the story or the writer to give an opinion, many times an honest opinion.

2. The difficulty in getting an opinion increases as the length of the story increases, especially if the story is not regularly serialized. Because it is so difficult to get an online opinion–or any sort of opinion–one should always submit a story to the scrutiny of someone one trusts not to sugarcoat their views, and hopefully, who knows what they are doing as well as being committed to finishing the reading. It also helps if they are given a reasonable amount of time to review.

3. To test the target audience I prefer to read the story aloud to them. (Although this is often not feasible.) This ensures that a) they actually finish the story, b) I have time to catch any obvious typos that pop out as I read, and c) that I can gauge response and clarify any confusing points. One pitfall of this method is that your target audience might not insult you to your face. I find that family members do not have too much trouble with this. Another pitfall that is that most stories go down smoother when they are read aloud, thus doing so might both invite verbosity–my personal difficulty–and make a confusing passage clearer than it might otherwise be.

4. Editing feedback is a lot harder to get because it is a lot of work. One of my challenges is editing. I can usually eliminate awkward constructions and check punctuation, but I have a real difficulty eliminating sentences which do not further my argument or contribute to the story. My general rule is less is more. Beyond that, I do not have much editing skill. For someone without skills or good friends who can edit, the best advice I have yet found is to join a serious online writing group–entrusting one’s work to strangers who may or may not have skill. Otherwise? I recommend reading lots of good work and taking a flying stab at editing the work yourself–but keep your first drafts. 😉

Thoughts? Opinions? Insults you have reserved just for me? I treasure them all, though some only in retrospect. Feel free to comment.

Two Words that Need to Die

Calvin and Hobbes, March 23, 1993

We all have our favorite words. Take “quark,” for example. That is a very good word. “Torque” and “weasel” are also another good words, as are “banana,” “Ichetucknee,” “facetious,” and “superfluous.” Words like that are fun to say. There are other words, however, which though common in spoken English and perhaps other people’s favorites, make my ears bleed. These words need to die.

The first word is “irregardless.” According to Merriam-Webster, this word has been around since 1912. To give you a bit of context, the Boy Scouts have been around since 1910. This suggests that the word is resilient, like “ain’t”. Coincidentally, in the US South, where “ain’t” enjoys much of its popularity, double negative constructions persist. “I ain’t done nothing wrong.” The intent of this sentence is denial, but technically, it is a confession. “I have not done nothing wrong.” Calvin would like that sentence. Irregardless is also a double negative. The prefix and suffix mean the same thing. “ir-” means “not, without; in, into,” and “-less” means “without.” So “irregardless” is “without without regard.” I am not sure what that means, strictly speaking. What it does mean, more generally, is that the populace does not have a handle on their Latin roots and is adding chaos to American English. Hey, What is English if not chaotic?

The second word is “disrespecting,” as in, “Stop disrespecting me!” I recently discovered (to my horror) that “disrespect” is, in fact, a proper verb, but I had heard it in so often in the much more questionable “disrespecting” that it had begun to sound wrong, as words, like shady characters, do when you look too hard at them. Take the word “pant.” Pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant, pant! “Disrespecting” takes “shady” to an entirely new level. If “pant” is shady, then “disrespecting” is mafia. In the first place, I do not like the word “disrespect,” but I suppose it is necessary if one would rather say “He disrespects me!” than “He has no respect for me!” “Disrespecting” has no excuse. It is just as easy, and much cleaner, to say “not respecting.” One could argue that this phrase portrays a lack of action rather than an action. So does “disrespecting.” So really, what we need is a simple verb for “being saucy” or “sticking one’s tongue out,” a useful word like “defenestrating.” “Stop disrespecting” commits the sin of the double negative. “Stop not respecting me!” could be more vehemently expressed as “Respect me!”

That’s my view on the matter. “Irregardless” and “disrespecting”, even “disrespect” to a certain extent, are painful and elongated and should never have been created, much like this post; but I would like to use it to congratulate Chrs the skilled grammar-nazi on her engagement to Pheonix, a Watterson fan. Congrats Chrs and Pheonix. Congrats Calvin and Hobbes.