Simplify: A Key to Revision

Here’s a wonderful quote that arrived this morning from the Business in Rhyme blog:

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.

— Hans Hofmann

I don’t know about you, but my early drafts sprawl. I’m currently working on a nonfiction piece that’s supposed to weigh in at 800–1,200 words. It’s currently at least 3,000 words and counting. (Since I do my first-drafting in longhand, I’ve no idea how many words there are. This is one reason I do my first-drafting in longhand.) Once I figure out what I want to say (in nonfiction) or what the real story is (in fiction), I can start cutting back.

This quote aptly describes what I’m doing when I’m line-editing my own work or someone else’s: clearing away the excess so the “necessary may speak.” I’m not much of a gardener, but I often describe this as pruning or weeding. Often the excess was necessary to help you get to where you’re going, but once you get there it’s not necessary any more and it may get in the way.

What’s “necessary”? That’s up to you, of course. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find that when you step back from a work in progress — when you come back to it after a week or two or three away — some words and phrases and whole sentences will no longer seem as necessary as they once did. A good editor or astute second reader can come in very handy here.

Writing poetry, especially poetry in traditional forms, taught me to make every word count, and to recognize words that weren’t carrying their weight. Writing prose with length limits has done likewise. But I’ve also learned that the words that get cut from the final draft were necessary to help me get there, so I’m happy to let the words sprawl across page after page until I run out of steam.

“Tag!” She Scowled

Let’s talk about dialogue tags: the “he saids” and “she saids” that you can’t do without if you’re writing fiction or memoir or anything that includes people talking. (Except play and film scripts: those are different.)

How did they come to be called that? I don’t know. “Tag” to me suggests a bit of paper attached by string, wire, or plastic to an item for sale at a yard sale or in a store. Or a children’s game in which one kid catches up with another and yells “Tag, you’re it.” I think of them as “attributions,” because they attribute speech to one speaker or another, but “tag” is shorter so I’ll stick with that.

There’s plenty of hoohah out there about dialogue in general and tags in particular. I’ve contributed a bit to the hoohah: “Monologue About Dialogue” and “Of Dots and Dashes.” Here’s a bit more.

Most of the style guides, how-tos, and freelance pontificators agree on two points:

  • Tags are supposed to be unobtrusive.
  • “Said” is usually the best choice.

As guidelines these are fine. As rules? Not so much. “Said” is often the best choice, but by no means always, and “unobtrusive” does not mean “invisible” or (maybe more important) “inaudible.”

Dialogue tags can do so much more than attach words to speakers. Depending on what you choose and where you put it, they can help convey how your character is saying whatever s/he’s saying and where s/he pauses to breathe or think.

Take a scene from Wolfie, my novel in progress. It involves several speakers and a lot of dialogue. Having  written it in longhand, I typed it into the Word file, doing a very light edit as I typed and paying particular attention to the tags. Most of the tags are “said,” but we’ve also got “stage-whispered,” “admitted,” “called out,” “muttered,” “advised” (twice), “agreed,” “added” (twice), “ordered,” “protested,” “continued,” “told,” “hissed,” and “wondered.”

Here’s a sample. The scene is a big bash celebrating Lorna’s retirement. Shannon has just arrived. Not to worry: the tags aren’t italicized in the original. I just want to call attention to them here. (“Seemed” in the first para is italicized in the original.)

Lorna gave Shannon a big hug then held her at arm’s length. Lorna was actually shorter than Shannon: she only seemed six feet tall. “Looking good, girl,” she said, then she leaned in closer and stage-whispered, “Is that love light in your eyes?”

“Lorna, darlin’,” Shannon said, shaking her head, “you need to make an appointment with your eye doctor.”

Lorna wagged a stubby, impeccably manicured finger at her, setting her beaded bracelets to clinking merrily. “You don’t fool me for a minute,” she said. “I know that look.”

“Well, I do have a new dog,” Shannon admitted. “I can’t believe you’re really leaving.”

When I write dialogue, I’m usually transcribing a scene playing out in my head. I use tags and punctuation to convey it the way I hear it, the cadence, the facial expressions, the body language of each speaker, but without weighing the passage down with detailed description.

When I write, I just write. When I edit, I play around with alternatives. Go ahead: play around with that passage. Would said work better than stage-whispered or admitted? How about changing one of the saids to something less neutral? Experiment with tag placement. See how it changes the pacing of the sentence?

In this particular passage, all the tags have the same structure: Shannon said, not said Shannon. In what follows there’s a said Lorna and a said Shannon. No problem. Recently I fell in with some editors discussing online whether”John said” or “said John” was better. One asked if one was more “correct” than the other, and someone else surmised that one was more typical of British English than American.  When editors start talking like this, it’s time to run in the opposite direction.

Whether “John said” or “said John” is better depends on whether it precedes, follows, or comes in the middle of the spoken part. And on what’s being said. And on whether the speech is being attributed to a noun or a pronoun: “said she” calls attention to itself in a way that “said Shannon” does not. If it suits the tone of whatever you’re writing, by all means go with it.

Choose whatever works best in context. What you do want to avoid is using the same structure every time.

One more thing about tags and editors: Some editors take exception to using words like “smile” or “scowl” or “grimace” as dialogue tags. Hence the title of this post. These aren’t synonyms for said, they argue. No, they’re not, but they can (I argue) convey how something is said — and heard. A phrase said with a smile on the face doesn’t sound like the same phrase said with a scowl. So (say these editors) write “she said, with a smile” instead of “she smiled.” Sorry, no. That separates the smile from the sound. Sometimes that’s fine. Other times it’s not what you want.

The scene excerpted above includes this line:

“What, you’re not retiring to Florida?” Shannon grinned.

Here the question mark fudges the issue of whether grinned is a tag or not. I don’t believe it is. As I see and hear it, Shannon asks the question, then grins. But say that line was followed by this one:

“No way,” Lorna scowled.

It isn’t, but to my mind and ear it’s fine, and neither Lorna said, scowling nor Lorna said with a scowl conveys quite the same thing. The difference is subtle, but if you hear it, don’t let a tin-eared editor talk you out of it.

 

Sturgis’s Law #3

Early last month I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #3:

A good sentence is more than the sum of its parts.

We talk about “constructing” sentences as if sentences can be built block by block like houses and bridges, and in a way they can.

We learn the building blocks early on. A sentence must have a subject and a verb. It can then be dressed up with direct objects, indirect objects, prepositional phrases, and clauses of various kinds. The component parts can be dressed up with adjectives and adverbs. Two complete sentences can be linked with a conjunction — the most common ones are and, but, and or — a semicolon, or a colon.

To make matters more complicated, or more fun, depending on how you think of it, sentences are rarely entire of themselves. They exist in relation to other sentences. They can be joined into paragraphs. Even when a sentence stands alone on a line, a paragraph unto itself, the reader connects them as she moves from one to another.

Sentences can be grammatical and unclear at the same time. Here’s a snippet I quoted in “Editing Workshop, 3,” which focused on sentences:

Smith requested and received permission to publish the translation from Jones in 2005. . . . Smith, in an interview, described the text as boring.

This comes from a long nonfiction manuscript I edited earlier this year. I skidded to a halt at the end of that first sentence. It wasn’t the translation that came from Jones but the permission, and the work wasn’t published till 2008. In the second sentence, “in an interview” weakens the connection between subject and verb by coming between them. Here’s my edit:

In 2005, Smith requested and received permission from Jones to publish the translation. . . . In an interview, Smith described the text as boring.

None of the words have been changed. They’ve just been rearranged.

We can critique sentences in isolation, but often we can’t tell what’s unclear or clear enough, what’s more effective and what’s less so, unless we see it in context. Here’s an example from my novel in progress. “She” is a sixth-grader swinging on the school playground. “It” is a dog trotting down the path behind the school. She’s never seen it before.

She watched it as the swing descended and then rose again. Its head snapped to the left, then it took off up the path at a flat-out run.

Nothing wrong with that, although an overly meticulous copyeditor might argue that the “its” at the beginning of the second sentence could be taken to refer to the swing. Most readers know that swings rarely have heads, so this “it” must be the same as the one in the first sentence. But I turned the first sentence around:

As the swing descended and then rose again, she watched it. Its head snapped to the left, then it took off up the path at a flat-out run.

Moving the dependent clause to the beginning emphasizes the motion of the girl on the swing. Then the movement stops for a moment before starting up again, this time following the dog. I also liked the way the revision brought “it” and “its” together.

Play with your sentences. Rearrange them. Read them out loud, in isolation and with the sentences that precede and follow them.

Once in a while I’ll screech to a halt and gawk at a beautifully constructed sentence. Casual readers don’t generally do this, but writers and editors can be forgiven for taking a second look at an admirable sentence.

Or a not-so-admirable one. I don’t know about you, but I probably learn more from the sentences that don’t work than from the sentences that do. Identifying what doesn’t work is easy. Understanding what makes a sentence clear, effective, eloquent, whatever — this is hard. Awkward and unclear sentences clamor for attention. Good sentences just flow on by. This may be one reason editors and teachers get a reputation for being negative and critical: we naturally focus on the sentences that don’t work so well.

Remind me to flag a couple of really, really good sentences in the next manuscript I edit!

Sturgis’s Law #1

I’m taking a hint from one of my favorite bloggers, Evelyne Holingue. She’s a native French speaker who now lives in the U.S. During the month of April she went through the alphabet A to Z. For each letter, she chose a French idiom then gave its literal meaning, its idiomatic meaning, and its nearest English equivalent. It was great fun — playing with language always is! — and (dare I say it) educational.

I loved the idea of doing some kind of series. Not about idioms but about — what?

Over the years I’ve been compiling observations about writing and editing. I call them Sturgis’s Laws. Not “rules.” No way. We’ve got enough rules already. There are 17 so far, plus one unnumbered law that isn’t really a law at all — I’ll save that one for last.

So here begins an occasional series with, of course, Sturgis’s Law #1:

If you stare at any sentence long enough, it will look wrong.

Sturgis’s Law #1 has an obvious corollary. Call it Law #1a:

If you stare at any word long enough, it will look wrong.

In the editors’ forums I frequent, editors often post sentences we’re having problems with. Is this construction OK? we ask. Would you use this word in American English (AmE) or is it mostly British? Is a comma enough here, or should it be a dash? What the hell does this sentence mean?

And so on. Usually the question is answered pretty quickly, but the editorial tribe rarely stops there. We rip the sentence apart, rearrange the words, change the punctuation, and come up with clever ways of misreading a phrase that was perfectly clear at first glance.

20130227 birthday bone

If only more sentences were this tasty . . .

We’re a pack of vultures or a dog with a bone — take your pick. I’m partial to the dog-and-bone metaphor myself.

The editor who posted the query, if s/he is wise, has long since moved on, leaving the rest of us to our gnawing.

There’s much to be learned from these gnaw-fests, but at some point Sturgis’s Law #1 comes into play. If you stare at any sentence long enough, it will look wrong — and the longer you stare at it, the more things you’ll find to fiddle with.

Hesitate too long at one sentence or one word and you’ll never finish the job.

How many sentences in the typical short story, academic paper, or full-length book? How many words? How long does the typical reader linger over a typical sentence, a typical word?

Moral of story: Don’t linger too long over this sentence or that word. As the poet said, “the Moving Finger writes; and, having writ / Moves on.”

It’s good advice.

typo

Editing Workshop, 3

This one’s about sentences.

I just finished copyediting a long nonfiction book on a tight schedule. The author has many years of high-pressure writing experience, but this is his first book. The manuscript felt like it was a couple of drafts short of final — not uncommon when a rush to deadline is involved. A glaring symptom of this was sloppy sentences. If sentences come out sloppy in early drafts, it’s no big deal. You’ll clean them up when you start revising — right? right??

In this particular manuscript, the author probably didn’t have the time to make them clearer or more effective. So yours truly the copyeditor did it, pruning some elements, rearranging others, and querying whatever I couldn’t figure out either from context or from a quick Google search.

There are plenty of books out there on how to construct a sentence. You know the basics: subjects, verbs, and objects, phrases and clauses. The tricky thing is that sentences can be grammatically impeccable and at the same time unclear, ambiguous, or downright misleading.

Here are some hints on how to make sentences more effective, whether you’re writing, revising your own work, or editing someone else’s.

Clotheslines tend to droop in the middle. So do long sentences.

Clotheslines tend to droop in the middle. So do long sentences.

Sentences are like clotheslines: they tend to droop in the middle. In the middle of a long sentence, the reader’s attention starts to wander. So if you’re trying to get across an important point or detail, don’t bury it in the middle. Placed at the beginning and the end, it’s more likely to catch the reader’s attention, and to connect with the sentences before and after.

This is also true of paragraphs, by the way. Paragraphs that take up a whole page of text are daunting. KEEP OUT! they say. Or maybe WELCOME TO THE LABYRINTH.

What poets do with line and stanza breaks, prose writers can do with sentences and paragraphs.

I love long loopy sentences, but when one long loopy sentence follows another and another and another, nothing stands out. It’s also easier for subjects and verbs, or nouns and pronouns, to come adrift from each other. Confusion often results.

The closer together words are in a sentence, the stronger — and clearer — the relationship between them. The opposite is also true: the further apart they are, the more tenuous the connection. Here’s an example adapted from the book I just edited:

Smith requested and received permission to publish the translation from Jones in 2005. . . . Smith, in an interview, described the text as boring.

I skidded to a halt at the end of the first sentence: who? what? when?

It took me a few moments to sort it out: It wasn’t the translation that came from Jones but the permission, and what happened in 2005 wasn’t the publishing but the requesting and receiving of permission. (It was made clear elsewhere that the work was published in 2008.) In the second sentence, the parenthetical “in an interview” unnecessarily separates subject from verb.

Here is my edit:

In 2005, Smith requested and received permission from Jones to publish the translation. . . . In an interview, Smith described the text as boring.

Be especially careful with pronouns. “Antecedent unclear” and “unclear referent” are among the most common editorial queries, in both fiction and nonfiction. They mean we can’t figure out for sure whom a he, she, it, or they is referring to. In the job I just finished, the vast majority of the players were men — as is often the case in books about politics and international affairs, which this one was.  Often a he, his, or him could have referred to either of the two fellows mentioned in the preceding clause or sentence.

Authors often miss these unclear antecedents because the antecedents aren’t unclear to them. They know exactly who’s being referred to. Readers, however, aren’t in the same loop. We need a little help. Better to repeat a name than leave it ambiguous. This is one reason second readers can be so important: they come to the manuscript without knowing what you mean. They just read what’s there.

Have you got an unruly sentence that could use some untangling, or one that you’ve successfully untangled yourself? Send it along! The best way to develop an eye for what works and what doesn’t is to pay close attention to how sentences work. We can do this in our reading, in our writing, and in our revising.