Monday 9 November 2020

Choosing your words carefully - Anne Rooney

Badgers choose their worms carefully. It's an easy typo to make.

This is long; that badger is the only picture you're getting. If you don't like that idea, stop now and do something you prefer with your time :-)

Writing seems a pretty easy process of just putting one word in front of another, right?

We-ll... They have to be the right words and in the right order. Splurging your thoughts onto the page is a good start, and I would never recommend being too thoughtful about a first draft if that will make you anxious, slow or feel blocked. But there comes a time when you have to look carefully at those words and make sure they are doing what they should be. Writing is rewriting. Editing is a vital part of the process. You've heard all that before. But what are you actually doing when you are editing your work? 

The pandemic is a time when lots of people are trying writing who haven't done much before — which is great. There's lots of good advice out there on planning and writing, but there's very little on how to revise your work — editing. So here goes: a quick explanation of what editing is.

You will have a professional editor work on your words at some point, of course, if your work is going to be published (including self-published). But it's still important to do that first bit of editing yourself because this is the point at which you make sure your work says what you want it to say. An editor is an advocate for the reader. They want to make the book good for the reader and will focus on that rather than on digging out what you wanted the book to be. No editor is going to crawl into your brain and look at what you meant and rephrase your writing so that it says that: you have to do it. An editor might later make it more elegant or concise, but they can only work with what you write. You are the only person who knows what you want to say in your book/poem/play/script or whatever, so it's up to you to make it clear.

The first stage of editing has a broad sweep. It looks at the structure of the piece, whether it is a poem, a novel, a picture book, a non-fiction book or anything else. Does the order and shape of the material work? Does it prioritise the things that need to be prioritised, whether to make sense or to give prominence to the things that are most important to you? Is there redundancy? Have you included things that are irrelevant, that draw attention unnecessarily from the main point, story or feeling? This doesn't mean expunge subplots; a relevant subplot is a look from another angle at the same or related issues. It puts the main plot into a wider perspective, or looks more closely at a detail of the theme, or considers it from a different perspective. A good subplot is not redundancy. It's this point at which you might add or remove a chapter, or a character or an incident, switch narratorial voice, or realise you are trying to cram two books into one, forcing irreconcilable parts together when they both need more space. Sometimes, sadly, you might decide the entire project is misconceived and can't be made to work. In an ideal world, you will have realised that before writing it, but we don't live in an ideal world. (I'm sure you've noticed that in 2020, even if you hadn't noticed it before.)

With luck, when you've made all the changes, you'll re-read and decide it's structurally fine. More likely, though, is that you'll find there have been knock-on effects from your changes and you need to tweak it a bit further. Don't skimp on this. There's no point in putting in the effort of the next stage if later your actual editor has you delete or rewrite huge chunks.

If you were looking at this manuscript as a publisher, there would be two further stages of editing, line editing and copy editing. As a writer, you can usually combine these — unless, perhaps, you have an issue such as dyslexia which means your work needs extra scrutiny at the level of fine detail. I leave that to your discretion; you know your capabilities. I'm going to treat it as one stage, which is what I do with my own work, but I then add a final proofreading read-through that looks for things like missing commas and all that shit.

This is where we come — finally — to choosing your words carefully. Writing for young readers, your principal aims should be clarity and simplicity. We could add precision to this, though I tend to see that as an aspect of clarity. What counts as clear and simple depends on the age of your reader and the level of knowledge you expect them to have. Sometimes, there seems to be a conflict between these aims and elegance of expression or extra meaning or resonance. It's a balance you need to negotiate sentence by sentence, word by word. But beware of thinking your deathless prose is worth a great deal of effort on the part of the reader: it isn't, and some of them will give up. You are writing to amuse or inform them, not to show off the long words you know and how well you can hold onto the tangled thread of an out-of-control sentence. This is easiest to understand with examples. Here's part of a sentence I agonized over this week:

'They sought metals and minerals in the rocks and dug them out to make weapons and jewellery.'

The tricky word is sought. Could and should I use a simpler, more familiar word? There are two conflicting approaches to this. Firstly, many children relish new words, and new words are useful. The National Curriculum encourages expanding a child's vocabulary. Sought is a useful word, and is the curious past participle of 'seek'. (Do you want to know why? In Old English, past participles were often formed by changing the vowel sound — so we have 'saw' from 'see', for instance. OE also often adds 'ed' or 't' to the end. If you take 'seek' and change it to 'soukt' it comes out exactly as 'sought' was pronounced 1000 years ago, but we no longer pronounce the 'gh'.) But at the same time, there are full guidelines on the order in which phonemes are introduced to a child developing their reading skills. Although relatively common, 'ought' is quite tricky. Allied with an unfamiliar word, that might cause some readers to stumble. We don't want stumbling — this book is for their enjoyment, not an exercise in developing reading skill.

What are the alternatives? I could say they 'looked for' metals and minerals, or I could just say 'they dug metals and minerals from the rock to make weapons and jewellery', which is shorter. 'Looked for' is so common a formulation it won't be seen by the reader. This is often what we want — that the words are effectively invisible, that the meaning is instantly apparent, like pebbles in a clear stream. (The words are the water, obscuring nothing if you've got it right.) But 'sought' requires pause and processing. It suggests and reflects a bit of the effort of prehistoric people seeking metals and minerals. It's not just looking, which is a visual act. It's hewing away dirt and rock with a primitive stone or metal tool in the heat of the midday sun or in a howling gale, a snowstorm, skin-drenching fog, or whatever. Sought is an effort for the seeker. Perhaps it's fair if it's also an effort for the reader. This is not reducing the clarity — it's still clear water, but now the water is flowing more quickly over the pebbles and we're seeing them in an environment rather than alone.

Do you have to do this for every word, every sentence? In a word, yes. But it becomes automatic, and you should be doing it as you write the first time eventually. 

It's not just word choice. It's also word order, sentence length, sentence structure and voice. Earlier in this post I wrote:

'More likely, though, is that you'll find there have been knock-on effects'

I wouldn't use this structure in a children's book. I'd say:

'It's more likely that you'll find...'

It's easy to see why I wouldn't use the first formulation for children. But what does it add here? Is it just pointless obfuscation? It has these effects:

The rhythm is much slower, throwing emphasis onto 'more likely' so that you pay attention: this is what's going to happen, so listen. 'Though' slows it further and signals a reversal in the argument.

'It' is not in the sentence, throwing focus onto 'you'. I prefer this as what is 'it' here? It's an implied likelihood, which doesn't make for a very interesting subject. We could rewrite it as: 

'The likelihood is that you will find...'

It's accurate but dull, stilted and impersonal, trying not to pay attention to 'you'.

As literate adults, we can read any of these formulations easily. For a child, 'It is likely' is by far the easiest to understand. The slight benefit of the nuance the other offers is not sufficient to over-rule clarity and simplicity this time

What about sentence length? It's tiring to read lots of long sentences. It's also irritating to read lots of very short sentences. It gets boring. It's too jerky. The solution is to vary sentence length, with some sentences having subordinate clauses to make them more interesting. But for children, the subordinate clauses shouldn't be too long, or nested, and they shouldn't withhold the point of the sentence for too long as they [who? we've forgotten] can lose track. Indeed, adult readers will also lose track if you make them keep a first clause in mind for ages while you ramble on. Look at this:

'It is, without doubt, and especially when writing for children, who are new to the idea of keeping in mind one thought while navigating another, subordinate, thread, very inconsiderate to tax the attention of your reader with nested subordinate clauses.'

We can use colour to show how the parts are linked:

'It is, without doubt, and especially when writing for children, who are new to the idea of keeping in mind one train of thought while navigating another, subordinate, thread, very inconsiderate to tax the attention of your reader with nested subordinate clauses.'

There are five levels of clause here. That's waaaaay too many. You can read the red bits without the rest and it makes sense. (If you can't do that, the sentence has gone awry.) The other bits can be split into separate sentences that qualify the main thought. If we want to keep everything, it's still possible to do it much more simply:

'It is, without doubt, very inconsiderate to tax the attention of your reader with nested subordinate clauses. This is especially true when writing for children, who are new to the idea of keeping in mind one thought while navigating a subordinate thread.'

And finally... keep it as short as it reasonably can be. This means dropping unnecessarily wordy formulations that add nothing but are just lazy. Or that you used because you thought you were going to struggle to write enough words. Or that you used because you think the subject is a bit scary and you want to put lots of familiar stuff in:

'Chlorophyll is responsible for the green colour we see in plant leaves.'

What's wrong with 'Chlorophyll makes leaves green'? Nothing. The writer has added the waffle to find an opportunity to draw the reader in ('we see'), and just to dilute the potentially scary 'chlorophyll'. But children don't share your fear of chemistry and they wouldn't have chosen this book if they did. And 'plant leaves'? What else has leaves? There are no animal leaves. It's redundant.

I could write a lot about voice, but this is too long already, so just a quick paragraph to prove I haven't forgotten about it. Up the page I said I 'look out for missing commas and all that shit'. I wouldn't write that in a book. The (real) editor wouldn't like it. What does it do here? It suggests that you know what to look for so I don't need to enumerate 'all that shit'; it reinforces the informality of a blog — this isn't a lesson in editing that you will be tested on later, it's my take on it and it's not authoritative or comprehensive. This kind of phrasing directs your reading by setting your expectations. It also conveys personality. Different books allow different degrees of authorial personality. Obviously a memoir is almost entirely personality. A text book has very little, usually none. And if you're writing a novel, you will use voice to convey the personality of your narrator and characters. Consistency in voice is important. It's confusing if the 'person' speaking to you switches personality part way through the book (unless that's deliberate for some reason). So edit for consistency and plausibility.

And don't be too long-winded, like this... It takes work to make something short — put the work in. Don't be lazy. No reader owes you their time. You have to earn it, and reward them generously by having put in the effort they deserve.

Anne Rooney

Latest(ish) book: Our Extreme Earth, Lonely Planet, September 2020


1 comment:

Susan Price said...

Excellent. When I taught creative writing, I was astonished to find that the idea of rewriting something, or editing, seemed to come as a complete revelation to many students. I don't know which side was the more floored -- the students by the notion that they should rewrite what they'd just written, or me on discovering that there were people who never rewrote anything.
One student said to me, "You say 'rewrite' but how do we know what parts to rewrite?'