Wednesday 15 August 2018

Five thoughts on editing for style – by Rowena House

I’m lucky enough to mentor through the Cornerstones Literary Agency, which gives me the chance to focus regularly on some aspect of the craft of writing which otherwise I’m likely to forget amid research for my own work-in-progress and occasional bouts of inspiration.

Most of the mentoring time seems to be taken up with structure, but the other day I found myself preparing a session on editing for style, and realized how much my approach had changed since working with editors at Andersen Press and then Walker.

A few years ago, when I was looking for an agent, a unique Voice seemed to be the single most important thing they were looking for in debut writers. Maybe they still are. Yet when it came to editing with publishing houses, style seemed secondary to structure: the story was the thing.

This was echoed elsewhere in the industry, by luminaries such as Barry Cunningham and Robert McKee, for example. But I can’t think those agents were wrong. The trick, it seems, is to nail both.

So here, in case they’re useful to anyone else, are five exercises I find valuable when confronted with stylistic flabbiness.

1. Read the text aloud. This, I think, is almost universally acknowledged as a great thing to do. Reading aloud reveals clumsiness, repetitions, logical and stylistic inconsistencies, and complex sentence constructions that are bound to trip a reader.

To speed up a spoken read through (and this advice, I think, comes from the marvellous Book Bound UK team) is to print out the manuscript – or at least sizeable chunks of it – and read it quickly, without interruption, marking in the margins every place where you stumble, and only going back afterwards to sort out the problems.

Personally, I can’t do a read through on-screen. It has to be a paper exercise. And worth every hour it takes!

2. Another excellent rule I came across while editing is ‘2+2’.

The rule? Never give ’em four. Because 'Four' leaves the reader with nothing to figure out.  Which is boring. Thus, cut all answers to rhetorical questions. Never explain cliff-hangers.

It may be that 2+2 isn’t a stylistic issue at all, and has more to do with the process of learning to trust the reader, which until I had a realistic expectation of having readers – as opposed to critique partners – felt  way too abstract to worry about.  

It was Stephen King’s fantastic On Writing that blew this misconception out of the water. The reader, he explained, is integral to the story. For instance, the writer must ask: what do I want the reader to know that my characters don’t know? How will they know it and when? For storytelling purposes, that takes precedence over details such as choosing active verbs and laying off the adjectives.

That epiphany, in turn, made me wonder whether other, purely stylistic issues couldn’t be left until the end as well. Can we, in effect, retro-fit Voice?

I know many writers (and some agents and editors) will say, ‘No. You can’t.’ For them, discovering the right Voice is key to unlocking the story itself. Maybe, then, it is a matter of degree. If Voice is all important, it’s not a question of style. Otherwise…

3. One straightforward but deeply satisfying edit is to tidy up dialogue attribution.

The convention that ‘said’ is better than ‘expostulated’ or ‘remonstrated’ is widely accepted these days. But, boy, don’t all those saids get boring? Me, I allow my characters to cry, shout, answer, mutter, spit, protest and a few others, too.
I also love this formulation: ‘“That’s absurd!” She laughed.’ Where an action substitutes for attribution. And if there are only two people in conversation, I cut out attribution completely so long as it’s clear who is talking.

4. I’m deeply indebted to Em Lynas for the following order of things:

i. Observe

ii. Emote

iii. Analyse

iv. React

Thus, ‘The bomb exploded. Her heart leapt into her mouth. The sound was terrifyingly close. She scrambled to hide herself under the desk, and waited for the ceiling to fall.’

Just as adjectives fit most comfortably into a particular order, and jar in any alternative sequence, so this progression somehow imparts the clearest sense of immediacy, allowing the reader to experience an event at the same time as the character.

I've no idea how this works, but THANK YOU, Maureen.

5. The ever-brilliant Emma Darwin opened my eyes to another fabulous editing tool: the filter-ectomy.

In her invaluable blog, This Itch of Writing, she defines filtering as showing the reader something via an observing ‘consciousness’ - usually through the eyes of a character – rather than describing the thing itself.

As she says, ‘Generally speaking - though no laws are absolute in fiction - vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as "she noticed" and "she saw" be suppressed in favour of direct presentation of the thing seen.’

Apparently, early in our careers, we all tend to write: ‘Turning, she noticed two soldiers’ bodies lying in the mud.’

In the edit, this becomes: ‘She turned. In the mud, lay two soldiers’ bodies.’

While homogenising every observation in this way would be dull and unoriginal, I agree 100% that a thorough filter-ectomy works wonders.
Twitter: @houserowena Instagram: @rowenahouse Website:



Joan Lennon said...

These are excellent - thanks, Rowena!

Lynne Benton said...

Really interesting, and helpful. Many thanks.

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Joan & Lynne. Emma Darwin pointed out over on Twitter that the quote isn't from her, it's John Gardner via Janet Burroway. My apologies all round. I should have gone back to her original blog on This Itch of Writing, rather than my edited file which I keep close as it's so good! Here is the link to her site:

Candy Gourlay said...

Great stuff!

Dawn McLachlan said...

This is fantastically useful advice. Thank you.

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Dawn and Candy. Praise indeed from you!

Sophia Bennett said...

Loved this, Rowena. Thank you!