Tuesday, 3 March 2009

SUSAN PRICE: Rewriting Part II

Or, HOW TO PUT IT INTO BOOK WORDS.

As promised, I have cudgelled the brains over my student's question: How do you know what parts to rewrite? How do you know what words to change?

There are, I've concluded, two levels to rewriting: the big and the small.

The big takes in the whole of the book or story – never mind this or that word, does the whole thing work?

The small concentrates on words, sentences, paragraphs at most.

So, to begin small...

One of the most useful pieces of advice I ever came across was: Read your work aloud. It's a good idea to train yourself to hear a voice speaking the words in your head, even if you're reading or writing silently. This helps you to 'hear' the rhythms and stresses even as you invent the words - but it doesn't replace reading aloud.

Feeling your lips, tongue and throat shaping the words you've written, and hearing them, forces you to concentrate on every syllable, on rhythms, and on the sense. Reading by eye alone, you can skim through sentences, and even whole paragraphs if you're a very fluent reader (as writers tend to be). You can miss the small details of sound.

But words are, ultimately, meant to be spoken, not read. Poetry, as a poet once told me, is rhythm, not rhyme – and rhythm is sound.

But, when I rewrite, what am I listening for? How do I know which words to change?

Well, I consider if my words are easy to say, and pleasing to hear. The twelfth Leith Policeman dismisseth us. Beware of such jaw-breakers. What the eye reads easily may be a clog to the tongue – and I want that talking-book deal. So if I catch myself writing a tongue-twister, I rewrite it.

I'm on the listen-out for repeated sounds that jar. 'My keel coursed cruel care-halls - ' The Anglo-Saxons were keen on alliteration, and if consciously done for effect, it can be wonderful. But if I've repeated sounds through carelessness, and it's spoiling the rhythmn or sound, I change the wording

Are the words I've chosen the best ones for the job I wanted them to do? English is crammed with words that are close in meaning, but have their own nuances, weights, textures and colours. 'Amble' has a clumsier and more endearing sound than 'stroll'. 'Lope' is quite different from either. 'Smirk' has very different connotations from 'smile' or 'giggle'. Is there another word that's a closer fit for my meaning? That means the same, but has a better sound or stress for that sentence? Or has a sound that better fits the sense?

Do the sentences have a good natural rhythm? Reading them aloud makes this obvious. Am I running out of breath before reaching the end of the sentence, or the next natural pause? Does the sentence have the natural swing of speech's rise and fall? When I read it aloud, does the stress fall on the most important words – the words I really want people to hear? If the answers are 'no', then shorten the sentence, or divide it into two; change the word order, or find other words.

But having said all this about making a sentence easy to read, sometimes I want to make a sentence clumsy or difficult. If I'm describing drudgery, then I want the words I use to be slow, awkward, clumsy, tired. I might want the sound and rhythmn of my words to reflect the sleek quickness, the harshness or the cold of their sense. If what I've written doesn't do that, I try to find words that do.

A frequent consideration is whether the phrase I've used is a cliché – a phrase too over-used and stale to make the reader stop and think about the sense. It isn't easy to avoid cliches, and I am certainly guilty of using them often. For one thing, they're often true – as white as snow, as cold as ice. But I am honour bound to try. So I give the brains another pummel, and see if I can come up with something fresher.

Finally, I check if I mean what I've said. Words can get away from you. A friend of mine, a teacher, once read in a pupil's exercise book: 'I was lying on the settee watching the telly eating peanuts.' She wrote in the margin: 'My telly prefers chocolate.' But it's all too easy, in a moment of carelessness, to mangle your grammar, and say something you never meant to say. So I watch out for this kind of slip and – rewrite it.

Enough for one posting. I don't imagine for a moment that I've said all there is to say on this subject, but something like this goes through my head when I'm rewriting. I'd welcome any additions and expansions – even corrections.

But I hope I've gone some way towards answering my student's question: 'When you rewrite, how do you know what words to change?'

In my next post, you lucky people, I'll consider the book or story as a whole. Unless someone else wants to do it?

7 comments:

Paul Lamb said...

Still, a writer like John Banville or Iris Murdoch demands attention (and rewards it). They write some sentences that I have to read three and four times to understand, but when I do, they become things of beauty. I know you're not advocating writing to the lowest common denominator, but I think that's the lesson many people take from writing instruction. Hemingway is dead!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

John Banville and Iris Murdoch can be savoured by readers who have progressed to that level of appreciation. For children's writers to turn some words over once or twice, to listen to their cadence, to simplify, to shorten sentences, to opt for another word as Susan suggests, is to enrich the imagination and to recognise that our readers are very, very newly arrived at the art of reading on their own. I find myself still changing words and passages as I read to a class because of clunky, clumsy writing. Pity the book's already in print by then!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

John Banville and Iris Murdoch can be savoured by readers who have progressed to that level of appreciation. For children's writers to turn some words over once or twice, to listen to their cadence, to simplify, to shorten sentences, to opt for another word as Susan suggests, is to enrich the imagination and to recognise that our readers are very, very newly arrived at the art of reading on their own. I find myself still changing words and passages as I read to a class because of clunky, clumsy writing. Pity the book's already in print by then!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

oops! Sorry! This seems overly emphatic. My apologies must have pressed something twice.

Lee said...

Dianne, I make a definite distinction here between children's and YA novels. Think, for example, of the wonderful and not particularly accessible - yet eminently appropriate - diction of MT Anderson's Octavian Nothing. How sad it would be if he'd made all his sentences easy to read!

David Calcutt said...

So glad you stressed the importance of reading aloud, Susan. You are absolutely right that language is there to be spoken aloud,and that this is the most powerful and direct way to communicate work to an audienece. Damn, but even sections of "Finnegans Wake" make sense when they're spoken.

LynnHC said...

Susan - your advice to 'read your work aloud' is, I think, incredibly valuable. Sometimes in the heat of writing (not just at first draft either) I can write long, convoluted sentences that need so much cut out of them it makes me cringe. Reading aloud clarifies things for me.

Dianne - when you said: 'I find myself still changing words and passages as I read to a class because of clunky, clumsy writing. Pity the book's already in print by then!' it made me snort with recognition. I thought it was just me!