Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Wordcraft – How to make editing the fun part of writing

Last Tuesday I discussed the first three editing principles that longtime editor/author Gerard Helferich presented at this month’s San Miguel Writers’ Conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The class is one Helferich began teaching at the conference and refined (and expanded) in recent years as a college course. Unlike some (probably many) writers, Helferich considers the earliest drafts of a book the hardest part of writing, editing (with the help of his basic principles) the fun part.

The first three of his six principles, mentioned last week, were structure, conciseness, and precision. Today Wordcraft concludes this brief overview of his work with the remaining three: style, readability, and voice.

Learning that Helferich’s synonym for the term “style” is “vividness,” which includes techniques such as imagery, metaphor and other figures of speech, helps explain why he thinks of this stage of writing as fun. Why write “yellow flowers” when we can write “daffodils” or “sunflowers” or, since we were in Mexico, “cactus flowers”?

As Helferich said in the first part of his San Miguel class, he’s not against adjectives, only against their indiscriminate use to prop up weak nouns.

Or why write that a car was “long” when we can you can write metaphorically that it was “as long as a summer’s day”? Or, given that we’re in an election year, “as long as a politician’s speech”?

Unintended repetitions, rhymes and alliterations can be ear grating. But when used intentionally by hands as writerly as Winston Churchill’s, the repetition of “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets” (reinforced by the strong parallel structure) can help win a war.

Helferich’s takeaway question about style is: should I make this (paragraph/sentence/phrase/word) more vivid using figures of speech comes with his also trademark caution against overuse, which is at odds with his next principle of editing: readability.

“What you don’t want to be is so clever that the reader forgets your story and starting thinking more about how clever you are! I don’t the reader to think about the man behind the curtain.”

Even more than style, readability is the editing principle he believes is most important in his own work, including such diverse but critically acclaimed works as Humboldt’s Cosmos, Stone of Kings, High Cotton, and Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin.

For Helferich, readability means providing a pleasant experience for the reader, avoiding over-explaining, convoluted language, and excessive detail; relying instead on naturalness and understatement, and trusting in both the material and the reader.

The takeaway question on readability: am I trying to do too much with this (word/phrase/sentence/paragraph)?

And then there’s the issue of “voice”. The good news is that we all have our own writing voices, as unique as our speaking voices. It can reveal us as critical or kinky, as authoritarian, knowing, flippant or intense. The only thing it has to do to be great is to be uniquely our own.

“Voice is an area you can’t fake. You can shape your voice to present your best persona; you can layer on voice, but ultimately, it comes from within you.” Voice is found by choosing subjects we care about, telling the biggest story we can, and being ourselves.

The takeaway question for all of us will be: have I put enough of myself into this piece of writing?

(Next Tuesday, cozy mysteries have their day at Henery Press.)

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