Tuesday, January 17, 2017


by Peggy Blann Phifer @pegphifer

"Striving to be better, oft we mar what's well." William Shakespeare, King Lear.

This quote struck a chord with me and I thought it could certainly be applied to writing. We all know how important it is to get our story or article written. Just get it down on paper or word processor. It is OK to write a 'crappy' first draft. In fact, I've even heard well-known writers advocate that. Like the old commercial from Nike – Just Do It! Then, let it rest a while. Set it on the back burner to 'steep,' then bring it back to the front and see what can be done with it. That we need to edit at this point is a given. The following quotes tell us where to start:

·        "The abstract is seldom as effective as the concrete.'She was distressed' is not as good as, even, 'She looked away.'" John Gardner, novelist.

·        "Look for all fancy wordings, and get rid of them." Jacques Barzun

·        "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences." William Strunk Jr.

·        "Look for the clutter in your writing, and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Re-examine each sentence that you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? ... Simplify. Simplify." William Zinsser

·        "Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short word will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Never use the passive where you can use the active." George Orwell

·        "Never use a long word when you can find a short one. ... Pick up every sentence in turn, asking ourselves if we can possibly make it shorter." Sheridan Baker, essayist.

Okay, we've heard that advice in various forms and from various folks ever since we began this writing adventure. And it is GOOD advice, valuable advice, and we're heading for disaster if we don't adhere to that advice, although that last one can make us cringe when we're striving for word count.

As new, un-established writers, we do have to follow most of these rules if we want to become established, published writers. Unless, that is, you've a hankering to paper a room with rejection slips.

However, where does it stop being advantageous and become destructive? Is there such a thing as over-doing all this cutting? Are we in danger of cutting the very life out of what we've written?

I think there has to come a time when enough is enough. As old Will said, sometimes when we try so hard to make it better, we go beyond the point where it is 'well' and ruin it. It is true that after a certain time we, as the author of our work, cease to see it objectively – if we ever do. We have a tendency to become so attached to our words, what we have written, that it is painful to consider deleting a single one of them, let alone complete sentences or paragraphs. Gasp! But it must be done, and when we can no longer see it as a reader would, it is time to hand it over to other eyes.

My point to this whole dissertation is that we, being new to the game, may be tempted to follow all the advice cited above—and from others—and edit so severely that there is nothing left alive in the manuscript. We've effectively killed it…marred what's well, while striving to make it better.
Where's a good stopping place with this editing? I don't know. I may be jumping off into the deep end here by tackling this. Finding or hiring a good editor to work with you would be a good idea. This has been discussed with one or two of the lists to which I belong. Experienced eyes can spot things that we've grown so accustomed to we no longer see them. 

Another source I recommend is the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print by Renni Browne and Dave King, from  Harper Collins, Second Edition, available for Kindle at http://amzn.to/2jF8vyD)

I guess all I'm trying to say is that while careful editing is a must, be careful not to edit out the life of your manuscript.

The above article is a reprint written while I was still striving to become a published writer.  Peg Phifer-Copyright © 2004 ©2017

Okay, now it's your turn. Has striving  to follow those so-called rules made your manuscript dull and lifeless? 

Please share!

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