Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Wordcraft – From San Miguel: revision after NaNoWriMo

Last Tuesday I promised to give readers the low down on submissions to cozy mystery publisher Henery Press. But after a weekend at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and a workshop with editor/author Gerard Helferich, I want instead to share his tips on manuscript editing and revision. They’re inspiring me to rev up my NaNoWriMo story and any other manuscripts I can lay hands on.

Helferich spent 25 years as an editor and publisher at such major publishing houses as Doubleday and Simon & Schuster. Then he decided to write his own nonfiction books, including critically-acclaimed Humboldt’s Cosmos, High Cotton, Stone of Kings, and Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin. He also reaches at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York and at Milsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.

He has, he told a packed room at the San Miguel conference, a 6-point philosophy of writing: conciseness, precision, structure, vividness, readability, and voice. I’ll address the first three points in this post and come back to the remaining three later. And yes, eventually, Henery Press will get its due.

NaNoWriMo writers and others who adhere to the “pantser” school of writing: write what you feel and worry about how it fits later will be relieved to learn that even a nonfiction writer like Helferich is OK about ditching outlines. At least until after the first draft is completed. Writing, he says, is a combination of “madness and method.” It’s only after the “madness” of writing the creative first draft that the “method”—the editing—can begin.

“I find it helpful to write an outline after writing,” he says, “to see if there is a logical order. Everything you write has to have a clear beginning, middle and end.”

Starting with the biggest pieces of the story’s structure first (chapters, passages, paragraphs, sentences), lets a writer place the story in its logical order, adding or moving pieces around as necessary so there’s no time spent rewriting a portion that won't make it into the final story. The question at this stage is: does the structure of this portion reinforce the story’s meaning and help the reader follow it?

With the story in order, we can start rewriting for conciseness and precision. And immediately realize that these principles—one concerned with taking words out, the other with putting words in—can be at odds. Which to favor?

“Only you,” Helferich says, “can provide the answers, depending on your skill and your own taste. This is not a formulaic task.”

Conciseness, he notes, is not a synonym for brevity. It requires a writer to ask the question: Is this (paragraph, sentence, word) carrying its weight, so that it strengthens the overall effect and makes the story easier and more pleasant for the reader.

Precision means writing exactly what the writer means. “Every piece of writing you intend to be read is a performance. You need to have in mind the effect you have on your reader.”

And that requires being both clear and specific. “If there is any doubt about the meaning of a word, look it up,” Helferich says. He urged his audience not to rely simply on the vocabulary of our word processing systems but to use a dictionary and if necessary a thesaurus (online or not). Choose the right noun, not a vague or weak noun you hope to help along with an adjective. As a corollary, don’t use an adverb to prop up a weak verb.

Lest he sound anti-modifier, he’s not. “A well-chosen adjective can pump up your writing (but) adjectives are often most effective when they are unexpected.”

Structure, conciseness, precision—the beginning of a happy edit!

(Next Tuesday, Wordcraft looks at the last of Helferich’s six principles of editing.)

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