“When in doubt, delete it.”
– Philip Cosby
When it comes to most jobs, you need to figure out what you’re going to use to get them done. For painted art, it’s an abundance of different brushes and colored paints. For a writer, it’s words. When it all comes down to it, that’s all writing is: mixing words together in a way to convey exactly what you want.
While writing the first draft of a story, I don’t worry too much about wording. I pay attention to it, but I don’t worry. My brain naturally puts a varying degree of creative spins on descriptions, and I let it do its thing. During that stage, I’m more worried about keeping the characters straight and the plot holes filled (one more reason why I like outlining…means less for me to worry about later).
But alas, I’m past the first draft stage, now in the editing portion. I like to think of that as a transition from middle school to high school: in middle school, you have fun with your friends, grow up, and become who you are. Yes, you have to pay attention to your studies, but it’s not the end of the world if you slip up.
Then there’s high school. It’s still fun, because it still has the same feel as before, but the stakes are much higher. Your grades affect your academic future once you graduate. You have to think about getting a job soon. Then what schools you want to apply to, and keeping in the right circle of friends, and being safe with things like driving and which parties you go to.
This isn’t a pointless analogy. What I’m trying to demonstrate is that editing a manuscript is like the upper grades of school. You’ve had your fun, grown up, made solid progress so far, gotten comfortable with who your own voice. It’s time to get serious, take responsibility for your own work, and now, mistakes are more serious. They aren’t fatal, to be sure, but for editing to have meaning, it works best to be in the mindset of getting something corrected. Otherwise you’ll just have to repeat the process.
The reason I’m talking about editing on such a detailed level is because that’s where wording comes in. If you’re playing “book doctor,” there’s no finer way to heal your story than by one word at a time. It doesn’t go down to the letter, assuming you can spell correctly.
And that’s why it’s so difficult. As I said before: everyone can tell a story, some can tell a good story, but only a handful of those can tell a good story in a good way. I’m still working on it myself. I’m also struggling with the problem of…
Over-thinking things is something most people are probably guilty of doing at some point or another. Unfortunately, the majority of my over-thinking seems to emerge while I’m editing my manuscript. It’s an easy habit to slip into…you hear it time and again from all the submission guidelines floating around out there: “EVERY SINGLE WORD MUST HOLD MY ATTENTION! IF THERE’S ONE SYLLABLE THAT DOESN’T CONTRIBUTE TO THE OVERALL MEANING OF THE TEXT THEN YOU FAIL!”
And yet, stories would be pretty bad if they all were just chopped down to convey meaning, and nothing else.
Peggy Noonan said something on this subject. “Remember the waterfront shack with the sign FRESH FISH SOLD HERE. Of course it’s fresh, we’re on the ocean. Of course it’s for sale, we’re not giving it away. Of course it’s here, otherwise the sign would be someplace else. The final sign: FISH.”
I think the point of this is that word revision, like many aspects of writing, is a balancing act.
So, how can we get better at it?
Luckily, all of the advice I’ve heard on this particular subject is unanimous: read more.
Oh, but I do read already. I read, like, three freaking books a week, you silly blogger.
Let me correct myself: read more books similar to yours. You might already be doing that, if you’re like me and you write the same kind of stories you like to read. Or you might be reading more…even better! That’s what I try to do, though I have limited success.
I’m sorry this is more-or-less an unhelpful post. It doesn’t offer all that much insight to the act of editing, word for word, and I guess that’s because it’s not really something to be taught. It’s just a matter of knowing what wording will work best for your book, then injecting it in.
And, finally, chopping out words when necessary. This is especially painful for me, because I hate diving into my crowd of modifiers and killing all but a handful. In fact, I think that’s why the whole editing process as a whole is painful for me. I hate chopping up the work I worked so hard to put together. And I hate destroying words.
But then again, if you put too many stars in the sky, none of them can shine.