Tradecraft Pt. 3: Letter from the Editor

By

A few years back, I taught woodworking to teenage boys. They’d come into my shop with big ideas about the table or the bookshelf they intended to make and they’d start cutting wood and hammering nails and glueing boards and as they went I’d see a growing sense of dissatisfaction in their faces. That crestfallen look was there because the final work wasn’t as pristine as the glimmering idea they’d walked in the door with. So I’d help them. We’d backtrack and talk about drawing workable plans. I’d introduce them to important tools like the tape-measure because “No. You can’t just guess.” I’d show them the importance of structural support and strong, solid joints. Later, rather than sooner, most boys would end up with a functional version of their original vision. But in the end, a table (or a bookshelf) is a lot more work than a teenage boy envisions.

Without any doubt, though, there was always one part of the process that was the hardest to teach: Sanding. In woodworking, sanding is something that is almost impossible to do enough of. It’s also tedious. Trying to get a teenage boy to sit down and sand a board thoroughly is a trial. Heck, trying to sand thoroughly is hard even for me. It’s just not much fun. But a fine job of sanding will elevate an acceptable piece of work out of the swamp of the hobbyist and onto the higher ground of the artisan.

In writing, we’ve got another word for sanding; it’s called revision.

For the past month, I’ve been knee-deep in editorial work for The Molehill Vol. 2. I’ve read a lot of great essays, short stories, and poetry. I’ve also written a lot of notes and letters about what needs to be sanded down, refined, reinforced, and polished. Revising is a skill, and it’s one that anyone who writes needs to spend time learning, because revision is the abrasive force that rubs the burrs and imprecisions out of a piece of work so that its texture, grain, and natural beauty can shine.

The following are a few notes on things that I, as an editor, find myself repeatedly trying to sand away. I hope they’ll be useful to anyone who wants to look more critically at their own writing.

1. Writers’ Tics: Most writers have certain words, phrases, and sentence constructions that they unconsciously lean toward. Over the course of an entire work these “tics” can become repetitive to a reader, though the writer may not notice them at all. For instance, one of my own “tics” is that I often lean heavily on the use of a “series.” In other words, I tend toward constructions that list, delineate, or present multiple examples, arguments, or iterations that will support, reinforce, or underscore my point. Other people may just use the word “really” a lot, or “dappled,” or “blackness.” The important point here is that none of these things are wrong taken alone, but when they evolve into patterns, they become distracting. Learn to recognize your own “tics” and cull them.

2. First Sentences: This one usually applies to essays. Often the first sentence is clearly the writer trying to get himself into the work by telling himself what he’s writing about. This is fine if it helps you begin the process of writing, but don’t forget to go back and delete that sentence once you’ve finished.

Example: “Well, after last year’s topic, I thought it would be fun to go ahead and write something different. It occurred to me in early May that cicadas might taste good with ketchup.”

I’m not sure that sounds like a winning essay (or maybe it does) but it certainly doesn’t need that first sentence. It’s nothing more than a ramp the writer has built in order to propel him toward what he really wants to say. No problem. But once the essay is done, take down the ramp. We don’t need it anymore.

3. Adjectives and Adverbs: First let me say that I’m not quite as militant about these as Strunk and White are (if you haven’t read The Elements of Style, get thee to the Rabbit Room store and buy a copy without delay!). However, a writer needs to consider each and every one of them with suspicion. A sentence is usually not enhanced by the addition of a bunch of modifiers. Choose yours carefully. Above all, though, be sure that your descriptive words and phrases are not getting in the way of the meaning of your sentence. If in doubt, try removing all your adjectives and adverbs; strip your sentence down to its most basic subject and verb and see if it’s making sense. I sometimes see writers getting lost in their own labyrinthine constructions. And if the writer is getting lost, you can bet the reader is too.

4. Subtext: This is where revision becomes your best friend. When we write, we often end up saying exactly what’s going on, exactly what characters are thinking, exactly what characters mean. We explain the importance of events or symbols or metaphors. We do this because we, as writers, often need to remind ourselves what we mean while we are in the act of writing. But it’s of utmost importance that during revision we go back and cut out all of those reminders. If we’ve done our jobs properly, reminders won’t be necessary. The meanings will all be planted firmly in the subtext, between the lines. The reader will intuit what the writer has left out—and that’s a mark of good writing.

Simplified example: “Mary glared at Tom. She was angry at him but all she said was “Thank you.”

This example is greatly simplistic, but if the imagined scene leading up to this sentence is well written, all that is required of the sentence is: “Mary glared at Tom. ‘Thank you,’ she said.”

Or potentially even just “‘Thank you,’ she said.”

Good writing doesn’t tell the reader how a character feels. Good writing shows the reader how a character acts and reacts, and then the writing gets out of the way. Trust the reader to infer the subtext.

In addition to all these things, remember that editors are fallible–even me–especially me (as anyone who’s sent me an email about a typo knows). So if you’re working with someone to revise your work, be bold, be confident, stand up for what you’ve created, but don’t defend your work merely for the sake of pride. Think carefully about why you’ve made certain choices—you may be right, but there may be a better way. Think carefully about why an editor may disagree—he or she may be wrong, but may also be sensing an issue that needs to be addressed. Every minute you put into these considerations is a minute well-spent. It may be tedious—sanding usually is—but if you’ve taken the time to create something, it’s worth taking the time to love and refine it as well.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


24 Comments

  1. Bailey

    Fantastic post, Pete! I’m fascinating by this sort of stuff (guess that makes me a geek), and your advice echoed a lot of the quirks I’ve been catching in my own writing. (One is over-use of passive voice, like my prior sentence shows.)

    I also enjoyed how you cleverly worked a three-fold series into your third sentence in the Writers’ Tics paragraph. 😉

  2. Carrie Luke

    I love when you write and post, Pete. 🙂 I also appreciate that for you, how you write something is as important to you as what you write. I noticed this my first 10 min into reading _The Fiddler’s Gun_. I could sense that every word and phased were weighed and mined carefully .

    I do not think we realize how easy it is to lapse into our natural, conversational tones and patterns when we are writing, especially with a craft that can be a solitary endeavor. So the idea of sanding slowly AND allowing someone else to also sand with us are such a good words. Thank you.

  3. Mark Geil

    I remember building Pinewood Derby cars with my father when I was a Cub Scout. When I was too young to use the power tools, my jobs were sanding and painting. Painting was a treat, but, oh! how I despised the sanding. Still do.

    I have also always disliked revising my writing, but I had never connected the two. I know why I dislike sanding. It’s tedious and boring (and the dust always finds its way into my eyes, even around my safety glasses). I thought I disliked revision because my original words were so precious to me, and I couldn’t let them go. While that’s sometimes true, I realize now that the main reason I don’t like it is because it’s tedious, and kinda boring.

    I think you’ve taken away my main excuse to avoid revision, and that’s a good thing!

  4. Kitti Murray

    Pete, I send a manuscript off this week… I find I like the agony of self-inflicted revision far more than the kind I’ll face in a few months. But I also know my hands get weary of all this sanding and, if I’ll let myself, I’ll be grateful when some stronger hands take over. This is my least favorite part, but you reminded me how important it is. Thanks!

  5. Jaclyn

    You mean the next Great American Essay doesn’t just drop out of the author’s head like a pack of Skittles from a vending machine?

    Seriously, this is so comforting and empowering. I often feel the pressure to write as perfectly as I imagine (itself an imprecise exercise) the first time. Like the old, yet awkward, saying, “everyone puts their pants on the same way– one leg at a time,” I reckon every good writer writes their best work the same, with one revision at a time.

    Thanks, Pete! I tend to tic with the series too. They pop up like little dandelion shoots in my vegetable garden =) Uh oh… there’s another one… ;

  6. Lindsey Murphy

    Serious Question: When, or in what context, is departure from correct punctuation and sentence structure appropriate?

    I learned Strunk & White’s rules by heart in high school and used them throughout college, but I confess that my memory of the rules has greatly declined. (Perhaps the sad fact that most of my reading is in blog form is a big contributor.) I find, though, that I greatly enjoy reading a style that includes fragments, or just single words punctuated like a sentence. For example:

    “She sat staring in the mirror, wondering what had become of her life. She was broken. Alone. Flailing for comfort. She had never known such sadness.”

    I find myself writing like this more often then not, while my inner English nerd cringes. I notice that Sally Lloyd Jones derails from convention in these areas as well, even playing with capitalization. I love it, but I’m afraid to write that way because I’m afraid of seeming uneducated. I see it being useful for special effect, but perhaps not out of habit. Thoughts?

  7. yankeegospelgirl

    A few other ideas:

    *Omit needless words. Courtesy of the aforementioned Strunk & White. Which is better: “He was conveyed to his place of residence in an inebriated state” or “He was carried home drunk”? The latter, clearly.

    *Avoid academic jargon words like “foreground” or “valorize.” Resist the temptation even to reach for commonly accepted jargon like “transitioning” or “validating.” Basically, if it’s a verb that should be a noun, avoid.

    *Double-check your usage, and once again, don’t assume that because something is common, it’s correct. “Very unique” is common, but incorrect.

    *Avoid the passive voice.

    *Last, but not least…

    Separating

    your

    words

    like

    Rob

    Bell

    isn’t

    fresh

    or

    cool.

  8. yankeegospelgirl

    Lindsey, my thought would be that one should use such techniques very sparingly. Otherwise it looks pretentious, like you’re _trying_ to be artsy. Any time the reader can tell that you’re trying to be artsy, that’s a sign that you should change something about what you’re doing.

  9. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Lindsey:

    Correct punctuation is always appropriate 🙂

    The sentence (fragment) construction you mention is fine in prose as long as you are aware of what you are doing and as long as it’s not becoming a writing tic. It’s a trick employed for dramatic effect and should be used sparingly. I use it. No problem.

    It is a problem if you can’t discern a fragment from a complete sentence. But as long as you are aware of the rule you are breaking and have a good reason for breaking it, I say go for it. Be ready to defend your choice when the editor gets a hold of it. And be ready to change it if doing so strengthens the work as a whole.

  10. Jaclyn

    To heartily concur with Pete’s answer, a writing prof of mine used to say: “You have to know the rules to break the rules.”

  11. yankeegospelgirl

    This discussion reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages.” I remember that when I studied it with my mother, she drew my attention to an extended passage where Eliot breaks the free verse and starts writing metered poetry with an insanely complex rhyme scheme. (Starting with “Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing” and going to “Prayer of the one Annunciation.”) She said (I’m paraphrasing), “Now look at this. Eliot is every free verse poet’s idol. But he does THIS to show that he CAN write under constraints. And that’s the mark of a truly great poet.”

  12. Laura Peterson

    Jaclyn, I’ve heard that before too, and it’s always helpful. I work with a bunch of editors, and they would all say that occasionally playing with grammar or capitalization is just fine as long as it serves a good purpose. (I love that T.S. Eliot story, YGG!) I think my favorite revision tip is to know your own writing style and don’t be afraid to embrace it. Revise within it, yes, but don’t feel like you have to change “he was conveyed to his place of residence in an inebriated state” to “he was carried home drunk” if that’s just not the type of sentence you would write.

  13. Lisa

    This is a refreshing reminder to me, as I am deep into revision at the moment. But I have to say, I don’t actually mind the “sanding”. Does that make me weird? I like making my work better, seeing the beauty (hopefully) emerge as the rough edges come off.

  14. caleb

    This is really good stuff. I’m in the process of writing another novel the world will never see, but this kind of thing helps me make it the best I can. Love the RR.

  15. JamesDWitmer

    Pete, this is great stuff.

    I actually prefer revising to writing; it feels harder to draw words out of the ether onto paper than to take existing prose and polish it. But that doesn’t guarantee my revisions are effective! You have written several tips I don’t recall seeing anywhere before.

    I agree with Bailey – your series in the “Writer’s Tics” section made me smile.

    And this:

    A sentence is usually not enhanced by the addition of a bunch of modifiers.

    *A sentence is rarely enhanced by the addition of modifiers. 🙂

    Thanks for an enjoyable and instructive article!

  16. aimee

    How about sentence fragments in dialogue? Should they still be sparse in that arena? We don’t always talk in complete sentences, sentence fragments seemed to make dialogue sound more natural. Thoughts?

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *