Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Four First Steps in Editing

It's Wednesday...the day set aside to talk about the craft of writing. I've asked a very good friend of mine, Brenda Bensch, to share some of her editing secrets.

Sit back, relax and learn from a great teacher.

So you’ve finished a short story. Or an article. Or a chapter in your book. Maybe a poem. You think you’re ready to edit, but where to start?

The first four things I encourage adult, college, or high school students to do are
• Put that to the four-part test
• Watch out for your faves
• Eliminate weak subj/v combos
• Use timeline words only as necessary

Four-Part That Test
1. Read the sentence aloud without that in it—if it still sounds all right, cut that
2. If the sentence refers to a person, always use who/whose instead of that
3. If the sentence refers to a thing, substitute which for that
4. If none of the above apply, you need that—leave it in
Not sure whether you need to go to all that work? Count how many times you’ve used that in two or three pages. If you have more than about five, put them to the test (or, if they’re so weak, why have them at all?).

are your favorite words which you use over and over again. We all have them. The example above, that, is a frequent fave for many of us. Other favorites may be more specific to you, but some common ones are so, if, it, and, then, there. I have a peculiar pattern: since I’m aware of some of the common ones, I try to avoid them—but I’m a lover of words. I’ll find an interesting, fun word like rackabones. I like it so much I end up using it three or four times— perhaps in two paragraphs or so.

--"The old rackabones drew his cloak around himself with a surprising show of dignity, even elegance. 'May I help you, Sir?' the rackbones asked, doffing a tall, grease-stained, pointy hat which only an old rackabones could love.

Where would a creature like this man find such a skinny, peaked... 'Wait a minute!' I cried. 'How did you come by that hat? I’ve seen it before...’

‘My good Sir, as we have never met, I doubt...’

‘...on Merlin’s head!’

He swiftly turned on his heel and fled, while I ran shouting after him, ‘What have you done with Merlin, you thieving rackabones?!’” --

Overkill. What are your favorites? Start noticing. Keep track of your faves. You’ll begin to realize which words you overuse. Even when they’re interesting choices, one or two instances go a long way.

Weak Subj/V Combos
The subject of your sentence—a person, place, thing, or a pronoun standing in for the person, place or thing—should be specific and interesting: a person’s name, Wyndell; or a word indicating his/her job, the teacher; station in life, His Majesty; names of buildings, the Washington Monument; specific places, Kailua Beach, etc. Then we compound the problem by adding some form of the to be verb: is, was, will be, or a combination of have/had and the to be verb: had been, will have been, etc. These combinations of a weak subject with a weak verb lead to passive sentences. Look for the ones you write, especially at the beginning of your sentences:

--It had been a long night of rain, thunder and hail.
--There were often too many things to do and to little time to finish the work.
--That was always something that bothered me. (Here, we’ve got that twice!)

Certain combinations showing up too often in your manuscript? One trick is to begin with the nearest noun as your subject and make a different word serve as the verb. In the first sentence, the earliest noun is night:

--Night fell too quickly with only the sounds of rain, thunder and hail to keep me company.

When that doesn’t work, the sentence may need to be turned around:

--We had little time to finish the work, because we had too much to do.

Finally, you may choose a complete rewrite to come up with an interesting sentence:
--As night fell, all too often rain and hail pounded the roof, and lightning took out our power; but what bothered me the most was the inability to finish my work.

Timeline Words
What I call timeline words are those which indicate sequence like then, now, first, next, later, etc. You may inadvertently insult your audience by seeming to distrust their ability to follow your thoughts unless you lead them by the hand. Think about writing an article on how to bake a cake:

--First, you take out the cake box. Then you get the eggs and milk, plus any extra ingredients you want to add like fruit, spices or chocolate drops. After that you’ll need to get your bowls and pans out. Now you’re ready to ready to begin. First, empty the mix into the mixing bowl. Then stir in the eggs and milk. Then, when your batter is smooth, add nuts, chocolate, or any other desired ingredients. Before that, you should have pre-heated your oven. Then, when it has reached the correct temperature...yadda, yadda, yadda... (Notice we’ve used first twice—how can two different actions come “first”?)

If you have only two or three steps in a process you are describing, you may legitimately refer to each by first, second, third; first, next, finally; a, b, c; or some such specific combination. Don’t assume the reader is too stupid to figure out in what order steps should be taken when you’ve written them in the correct sequence.

The other danger comes from allowing then, next, now and others to become some of your faves, when —really—you’re just thinking “Well...” or “Ummm...”—never an auspicious beginning for a new sentence.

You’ll be surprised at how much your manuscript will be cleaned up by performing these four steps. Now (yes, now!), you’ll be ready to tackle typos, spelling and grammar problems, convoluted sentences, confusing structure, outlandish language, major plot-line flaws, and all the rest of the editing process. Good luck and good writing! The Bensch Wensch

BIO: Brenda Bensch, M.A., is a writer, freelance editor and teacher. With 48 years (and counting) in Utah’s college, high school and community classrooms teaching English, writing, reading skills, drama, humanities, and debate (among others), she invites you to Ask the Teacher on her blog at

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