Thursday, June 23, 2005

Editing, Day 8--Sentence Rhythm/Tight Writing

Those of you who left comments yesterday—thank you so much. It’s very gratifying to hear from folks out there in cyberspace that our discussion is helpful to you. Kelly, congrats on joining ACFW and signing up for the conference. Anyone else out there attending this conference for the first time—do sign up for the mentor program. It’ll help you navigate your way through the weekend.

And yes, we will figure out some way to have a BG shindig while we’re there.

Okay. We are moving toward editing our entire AS for sentence rhythm and tight writing. So far we’ve talked quite a bit about sentence rhythm. I think you all are getting the idea of the various ways it can be used to create the beat of a scene. This is a concept you don’t just study, then forget. You need to practice it all the time in your daily writing. It’ll become second nature to you.

Today I’m going to talk about tight writing. This goes hand in hand with SR—you can’t do one effectively without the other. In Getting Into Character (Secret #6), I call tight writing compression. Compression means finding verbs, adjectives and nouns that are packed with meaning. When you choose just the right word you’ll eliminate a lot of unnecessary ones, and your writing will be more vivid.

Now, really, this is not rocket science. Most of you out there are probably saying, “Tell me something new.” True, this isn’t new. Yet effective compression and vividness is not found all the time in our writing. We know in our heads that it’s needed. But we sure have to work at doing it.

With apologies to those who’ve read Getting Into Character, I’d like to use another example from the book to show the effects of tight writing. I can get away with using this example because it’s my own work. This is the opening paragraph of Chapter One in my very first book, a true crime called A Question of Innocence. Readers of this book, due to the cover and back marketing copy, know that in this first chapter, Sharri Moore is going to pick up her 14-year-old daughter’s diary and discover a shocking entry—the teenager’s confession to killing her little sister (who died inexplicably in her sleep a few months before). Even with that set-up of the diary’s importance, this first example paragraph, written without compression, falls flat. It has too many words, and therefore no vividness. It just don’t zing.

Sharri Moore had read her daughter’s diaries more times than she could remember. She had to, Sharri rationalized as she looked at Serena’s blue-flowered journal lying on the desk. Sometimes she found important things in the diaries. A lot of the entries were just teenage stuff—about girls who’d been kind to Serena only to be mad at her the next day. Serena would write about these girls with anger and confused betrayal. Other entries were about daydreams or hope-for things. But sometimes the entries showed aspects of Serena that she would never reveal. Sharri considered these entries nuggets of gold.

Man. Loose writing. Boring. Doesn’t grab me at all. Here’s the real version as it appears in the book, using compression.

When it came to her daughter’s diary, Sharri Moore was a snoop. And with good reason, she thought, eyeing Serena’s blue-flowered journal as it lay on the desk. Buried among the fantasies, the teenage yearnings, the diatribes against snotty schoolgirls who dangled their friendship like candy beyond a baby’s reach, lay occasional nuggets of gold. Glints of the real Serena.

A lot less words. Yet deeper meaning. Definitely more oomph. Here are some specific examples of how compression turned this paragraph around.

1. Had read her daughter’s diary more times than she could remember—this entire phrase is replaced by the word snoop. Snoop is the perfect word for this line. It connotes not only the tendency to peek into others’ affairs, but to do it consciously and consistently.

2. Looked—changed to eyeing. A more intense verb. And one of those present participles, that connotes passage of time.

3. Sometimes she found important things in the diaries, and A lot of the entries were just teenage stuff—two telling sentences taken out.

4. Daydreams—changed to fantasies. Stronger word.

5. Hope-for-things—becomes teenage yearnings. Again stronger.

6. Sentences about other girls and Serena’s reaction to them now use vivid words such as diatribes, snotty, dangled friendship. The simile like candy beyond a baby’s reach conjures the mental picture of how tantalizing these fickle friendships were to Serena.

7. Sometimes the entries showed aspects of Serena she would never reveal—changed to Glints of the real Serena. This picks up on the nuggets of gold metaphor.

Although this book was written over ten years ago, I distinctly remember writing this paragraph. (I tend to write things the way I want them the first time around, rather than getting anything on paper and fixing it later.) Because it was the first paragraph, I really wanted it compressed and vivid. I spent a long time on this paragraph, getting the words just right. Looking at it years later, I don’t reckon I’d change a thing. And that’s highly unusual, ’cause often I’ll look at a formerly written passage and go, “Sheesh, what was I thinking?”

At any rate, I think you get the picture. Rocket science? No. Hard work, paragraph after paragraph? Yes. It’s when we let ourselves slip in the compression department that we fall into ho-hum writing. The ideas and actions are there, sure. But the writing just doesn’t move you. Further, without compression, we can't even begin to deal effectively with sentence rhythm.

As for our AS, some of it uses compression, and some places need tightening. I really haven’t looked at it yet to see how I will edit in this department. Perhaps I shall put my money where my mouth is, and get to that tomorrow. Then you all can edit me and tell me where more compression is yet needed. Oh, boy. Nothin’ like writing a scene by committee.

Love to you all, BGs.

Read Part 10


Ron Estrada said...

Great stuff, BC. I try to "just write and fix it later" method, but it drives me nuts. Usually, I'm good for a paragraph or two, then I go back and tighten it. Especially if the kids are in and out, then I can't concentrate long enough to write non-stop for an hour anyway. Thanks again.

C.J. Darlington said...

Keep up the good work, Brandilyn. I'm still here and reading every post!

Suzan Robertson said...

Helpful stuff, Brandilyn. Thanks.
Suzan Robertson

D. Gudger said...

This is great. I have a tendency towards wordiness - too much college! :) Having examples, looking at the before and after, then being able to read the HOW really makes sense. so many books on writing loose me in the first paragraph. Thanks for sharing your expertise! This is helpful for my grant-writing.

Becky said...

No need to apologize for using Getting into Character as far as I'm concerned. These principles and examples are always good to review, and you do it so well, so clearly. It really is helpful, Brandilyn.

Interesting to hear you say you write toward final draft right away. I don't think I've heard that before. I think I might have to do something like that, too.