Monday, March 19, 2018

Mechanical Editing Causes Clunky Writing


I have long told the story of my 180,000 word beast of a first draft and how I went about the process of cutting 60,000 words from it. The last 20,000 were the hardest and became the well-known game of trimming the fat. I actually recommend trying this on a work that you’re not too precious about because even if you decide nothing can be cut, it does force you to really analyze your work in a way that doesn’t overwhelm.

One of the phrases I found I used a lot and could remove was “started to” and “began to.”

“The sun began to rise” became “The sun rose.”

In many places, this was a really easy and speedy way use the Finder tool and cut down. I always read the sentence first, and hope heavily that I did not make something sound strange by doing so—which is what another read through will, with any luck, catch. Some sentences were drastically changed by the meaning. You can’t simply make “She started to speak then stopped,” to “She spoke then stopped.” And sometimes, while there isn’t a huge difference, the slight alteration might affect ambiance, cadence, or even just the visual.

So when I came across a common writing blog about, “Show don’t tell,” I was surprised to find how aggravated I was at the suggestion to remove all “started tos.”

It wasn’t an especially narcissistic blog, and the information was useful. Yet it was the quintessential plead for banning of certain types of words without discussing the why, the exceptions, or how to tell.

This is especially personal for me because my biggest criticism has always been, “I like the way you write, but sometimes it’s jarring.” Or that’s the gist of it. My strange and, yes, often inherent way of looking at words worked to convey a new perspective, challenge the reader just enough, and make them laugh. Yet sometimes it would be pretentious as hell and distract from the whole goddamn point. But because many times I was not “just looking in the thesaurus for the biggest word I could find” (as some implied I was), but using my actual vernacular—albeit sometimes in a strange way—it was not easy for me to understand when it crossed the line from creative to incorrect, so I find the discussion of why ‘started to’ is inappropriate is pretty important.

Being a writer is always about embracing certain weirdness while connecting over normalcy, and when people start bossing you around without going into their thought process it can be very difficult to know if they really are put off by your decisions or the realization their reality isn’t everyone’s. And even if someone is being honest and caring, they can’t stand around and point out every time you really should start “showing” instead of telling but have to help you be able to think for yourself.

You originally wrote “started to” for a reason.

What got me most about the article was… well, to be honest, it was a poorly tethered thought about how “body parts can’t move on their own.” This hadn’t nothing to do with showing or telling, it was her just complaining about how she and a critique partner made fun of lines like, “His eyes shot to the notebook,” claiming, “I picture them shooting from his head and across the room.”

Really? I don’t. And while I will be open to her perspective, if only for the fear of hypocrisy. Maybe that is her natural interpretation, but my genuine speculation is that she only had a problem with it as a frustrated writer looking for pedantic flaws without considering the actual issues that choice caused.

In any case, there was something about her methods for giving out advice that rubbed me the wrong way, more so than any other article on writing with the same flaws had.

Mainly, it was that she proved her own point wrong in her example.

She began the blog discussing how her book was about to be submitted to her publisher for a final time and could not be changed after that. Panicking, she decided to go through and give it one look over, deciding on removing all of the “tries tos,” “started tos,” and “began tos.”

One sentence, “He started to stand and she shoved him back down,” was her example. Instead of using a quote that the “tried to/started to/began to” could just be cut without changing anything, this one was a good demonstration on when you can’t just say, “He stood.” This somewhat defeated her point, but at least it was a more complicated question.

She changed it to, “He stood halfway and she shoved him back down,” stating it made it much more immediate.

In my opinion, these sentences aren’t a big deal in either case. I probably wouldn’t have noticed or been perturbed by either of them coming across them in a book. But, if I had to pick between the two, I don’t see “halfway” as being more immediate—the opposite in fact. I would also say the visual seems somewhat clunky to me, awkward.

I had to think about it for a while. What did I not like about the sentence? Well, for one, it was obvious what she was doing, though that always is the danger of telling people what you’re doing. After considering it for a moment, the issue was the imagery. In essence, “He started to stand,” doesn’t get him very far. In fact, once he actually gets to the halfway point, I imagine it would be much more difficult, and awkward, to be able to shove him back in his seat. Even if he allowed her to, his momentum is pushing his body, weight now unbalanced in her direction. Plus, in the first view she shoved him back down—and here’s the operative word—immediately after she saw him moving. What was she doing before he made it all halfway? He had to put his hands down, lean back, shove himself upward, and then actually get to that point. Now, all of this would happen quickly, but in my mind’s eye, she would have understood he was standing after putting his hands down. Google suggests that the average visual reaction time for a human is .25 seconds. So, she hesitated, calculated, or something else was going on.

In any case, getting to the halfway point makes the action feel less immediate.

To me, her last minute edit was a demonstration as to the biggest issue of banning phrases; she focused on not using something so much that she ignored everything else. Even if “he rose halfway and she shoved him back down,” is a perfectly fine image, she completely changed the original motions to make the easiest possible alteration.

Have I told you guys about the time that someone was so oriented around whether or not I should change a word, she completely missed the fact that a gun disappeared mid-scene? This is typical. People like to pay attention to wording because it’s easy, causing them to miss the abstract issues like ambiance and visuals.

Which was the problem with her whole article. While they were good points—more about ways to cut down on word-count than ‘showing’—the attitude conveyed it was always better to be shorter, always better not to use certain words if you can help it, so on and so forth. In any teaching situation, the most important thing any writer can do is explain the process that caused her to decide this goal was truly a priority, or, if it is a complicated issue, discussing how she personally determines what is right or wrong in that context.

I often see if I can cut the word “started to.” Why? Word-count, overuse, for flexibility in sentence length, or often times because shortening sentences is the easiest way to make them clear. Sometimes for the sake of challenging myself, sure. But I’ve also written without using the letter E for that purpose and E is a very fine letter. In fact, the tendency to overuse “started to” is the only reason to alter it, and that doesn’t mean I can’t write it at all. In a sentence in which the incompletion of the action was important in the visual, I would probably leave it as is.

Because no matter how skeptical you are, no matter how much you believe, “I will do it if it works and change it if it doesn’t,” every time someone give you their banned list of words, you will remember them. Every time I use an adverb, a passive-sentence, ‘said,’ ‘there,’ ‘such,’ ‘just,’ ‘very,’ ‘thing,’ -ing words, ‘was,’ ‘is,’ ‘walk,’ a 25 cent word, a prepositional phrase, a semi-colon, a colon, a hyphen, an ellipsis, italics, ‘glance,’ ‘suddenly,’ a cliché, ‘furrow,’ ‘thought,’ ‘saw,’ ‘wonder,’ starting a sentence with a conjunction, ‘furthermore,’ ‘for that matter,’ ‘honestly,’ ‘in fact,’ rhetorical questions, ‘his eyes flicked to the paper,’ ‘started to,’ ‘began to,’ ‘tried to…’ and so many more unique experiences you’d laugh at, I have to stop and consider the pros and cons of the word instead of writing naturally—and that is problematic.

Over more than a decade of writing I’ve collected all kinds of weird pet peeves from people—some repeated by many voices, some only by one. I’ve read blogs and articles, books, taken classes, went to critique groups, and what I wish writers would realize is that telling their peers what to do rather than discussing why we should do them is (one, a sign of inexperience) ineffective and discourages risk taking. Obeying it makes for clunky writing. Too much emphasis on it can leave a writer cold.

Banning words and phrases straight out makes for easy editing. It’s simple to go through and just start cutting and changing certain phrases. Doing so early on can be a good idea, especially because you can go back through in later edits and realize that it sounds clunky and awkward. During my big purge of words, this happened to be true a lot—cutting the “excess” could mess with rhythm, flow, and thought.


Cutting out excess words is a useful tool, but it is a tool, and excess words should never be your predominant focus. Do it to fix an existing problem, to challenge yourself, or maybe even to see what all the hubbub is about. But don’t just make an awkward sentence last minute because you’re panicked that your book isn’t perfect.



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