Saturday, March 13, 2010

Oops, I Did it Again

An interviewer from The Paris Review, (1956) asked Ernst Hemingway why he had to rewrite the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. They wanted to know, “Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?”

Hemingway answered: Getting the words right.

I love that. Getting the words right. What more is there, really? There is a reason I wrote a book called Mulligan Girl; I need mulligans. Lots of them. When it comes to my writing, mulligans mean revisions. Revision is something I practice daily. Maybe it’s the OCD in me, or maybe it’s because I never quite get it right the first time. Or the second. Or sometimes the thirty-ninth.

While much of revision requires lots of rewriting, even small changes can make a big difference. Here are a few common pitfalls to avoid when polishing those early drafts:

  • Too much of this = lazy writing. Instead of telling the reader how your characters feel or look, show them: I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach, I felt icy tendrils stroke my spine. I felt the dog tug at the end of the leash. The feeling is implied. You can remove those words and end up with more active sentences (and more active verbs): The bottom dropped out of my stomach. Icy tendrils stroked my spine. The dog tugged on the leash.

A closely related problem is: ‘I found’. “I found myself watching the clock.” Unless you are on the verge of an epiphany, on autopilot, or your body has been taken over by alien beings, you probably shouldn’t ‘find’ yourself doing much. Just watch the clock.

  • Extraneous words. These are words you can easily remove from a sentence without changing the meaning. My personal favorites are: really, even, only, just, that, actually, well, basically, finally, appears, exactly, almost, about and okay. These words can be meaningless. There is nothing wrong with them, per se, and I do leave some in for ‘voice’, but most are extraneous. Such as the 300 ‘just’s I revised from my last manuscript. Make every word count.

“I thought only of my yard just, steps away.”

‘That’ is so overused that it deserves its own example.

  • Everybody’s got a big ‘But’. Yes, conjunctions have a function. Use too many, too often and they get annoying for the reader. ‘But’ is an easy trap to fall into. The same is true for yet, so, and, or, for and nor.

I waited a beat, but when it became obvious he had no intention of helping me, I left. Remove the conjunction and you get: I waited a beat. When it became obvious he had no intention of helping me, I left. Using a period instead of a conjunction helps vary sentence length too.

  • Clichés. By very definition these are overdone. While clichés often roll off the tongue they can become part of the landscape. Does your character laugh like a hyena? Drip with sarcasm? Drown in grief? These examples are the tip of the iceberg in most writing. Do you really want to use a ready-made phrase instead of an original, memorable phrase in your manuscript?

  • Words ending in ‘ly’ (i.e. adverbs). I’m an adverb lover. I also know there are many editors and agents in today’s world who hate them. In my own writing, I do my best to remove them all, then go back later and add them sparingly pepper them in --but only after I’ve scrutinized my verbs. Am I using an adverb as a crutch because I’ve used a wimpy verb? If yes, I try to fix that first.

  • Meaningless or incorrectly used words: This can take the form of words that add no value or meaning to your sentence. My favorites are ‘little’ and ‘pretty’. Little, because if you’re using it to reference size, there are more original words. More often, ‘little’ is plain overused. If you have too many little teacups, little butterflies, little fingers, little aggravations, little problems, little birds…unless you’re writing about elves, you may want to rethink your word choice or nix the ‘little’.

‘Pretty’ is often misused to mean something other than ‘attractive’: pretty much, pretty scared, pretty heavy, pretty late, pretty hungry, pretty annoying. Just get rid of it already.

As for incorrectly used words, these can be humorous unless you’re the one using them wrong. This comes down to making the best word choices for every sentence, and making sure you understand the meaning of the words you chose.

There is a difference between latter and ladder, clamor and clamber, sorted and sordid, lightening and lightning, affect and effect, peak and pique. I follow an editor on Twitter (rantyeditor) who frequently posts about this sort of thing. The posts can be hilarious and eye-opening.

If you liked the Hemingway quote above, check out the book by Theodore A. Rees Cheney, GETTING THE WORDS RIGHT. It’s one of my favorites. Now, time to put my nose to the grindstone off to revise!


Elisabeth Rose said...

Loved it and oh so true!! LOL

Beate Boeker said...

Great post, Rebecca!

Beate Boeker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sandy Cody said...

"Getting the words right" Isn't that what it's all about! I have the same list of words to delete on re-write.

Zelda Benjamin said...

Made me laugh and edit my WIP again.

Zelda Benjamin said...

Made me laugh and edit my WIP again.

Carol Hutchens said...

Great advice...
Things we forget so easily from one wip to another...
Thanks for the reminder...copying and pasting. LOL

Jane Myers Perrine said...

Great blog! I, too, am a re-write addict. A friend writes her novel,edits it once, then sends it to her agent. WHAT???? I probably edit the first 50 pages 15-20 times. The entire book 10-15I'm glad to know I'm not alone!