Resources for Writers
The Seven Stages of Creativity: Week 6 Clarification
If you have truly given yourself over to choosing, germinating, researching, drafting and deepening, each in their turn, you have now, finally, reached the point where you can let your inner editor off the leash.
Editing is arguably the most demanding stage of the writing process, the one that more than any other, separates the professional writer from the amateur. When Thomas Mann said, ‘A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than other people,’ he was referring to the challenges of this clarifying work.
The good news is that this next stage of the challenge is one that you can seek help from others with. During intention, incubation and deepening, writing is more art than craft and you’re largely on your own, trying to give expression to what is uniquely you. In the editing phase, the balance shifts. The techniques of this craft can be more easily transmitted and learned than the vagaries of art.
Like stage five, this phase of the writing process is characterised by deep attention to your own writing, except that now the focus turns to the reader. Successful editing is being able to hover over your own book looking at it as an entity, in all its constituent parts – chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences and words – with the question: What does the reader need from me here to see more clearly?
STAGE 6: CLARIFICATION: THE CHALLENGE
To get the words right – by moving/removing/improving anything that interferes with the reader’s appreciation of what your book is saying and how it is being said.
As you work through this phase, it can help to imagine two readers – A Ms Know It All and a Mr Know Nothing – as representative. Your treatment of your subject, and the shape of your sentences, must work for both: must be informative enough to enlighten the former while not boring the latter. This is done by aiming for four qualities in your writing: brevity, clarity, simplicity and unity.
“Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen,” says William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well.
A useful maxim of Zinsser’s is: One thought per sentence. “Readers only process one thought at a time,” he says. “So give them time to digest the first piece of information they need to know. Then give them the next, which further explains the first. Be grateful for the period [full stop]. In general, prefer it to the comma or colon.”
Know that, generally speaking, short is better than long and simple better than complex: this is true of words, sentences, paragraphs and pages.
The English language is derived from two main sources. One is Latin, the relatively florid language of ancient Rome. The other is Anglo-Saxon, the plain languages of England and northern Europe. Latin words tend to be longer, less direct and more abstract, and often sound more pompous. You can recognise many of them by their endings -ion— implementation, maximization, communication — or -ent: development, fulfillment, disappointment.
Anglo Saxon words, by contrast, generally give us specific experiences or objects we can more easily picture. Until you have developed sufficient skill with simple, Anglo-Saxon words and sentences, write only what you, or your character, would comfortably say in conversation.
A book is deemed to be unified when all its elements combine to make a complete, balanced and harmonious whole, working together for the achievement of its purpose. Nothing irrelevant to this central purpose (often called theme) is included, nothing essential to it is omitted and the parts are arranged in the most effective order for the achievement of its raison d’etre.
In addition to simplicity, brevity, clarity and unity, Zinsser adds what he calls ‘humanity’ to his list of what makes good writing. “Be yourself. Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Your product, finally, is you. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs, trying to sound superior.”
STAGE SIX GUIDELINES:
- Do NOT edit on a computer; it cannot give you the overview you need. Print off a copy of your book on wide margins with double spacing – leaving lots of room for your corrections and ideas as you go.
- Keep in mind what you’re trying to effect with each chapter, scene, paragraph, sentence word — what point you’re trying to establish, what sort of mood you’re trying to create, what background you’re trying to suggest.
- Read it aloud as you go. Preferably in front of somebody else or into a recording device so you can play it back.
- Keep an editing notebook by your side and make regular notes to self.
- Do the removing first, then the moving and improving, so you don’t waste writing hours doing small edits on a paragraph or page or chapter that is destined for the trashcan.
- Take it slowly. Editing is a meticulous, sometimes even plodding, undertaking. Give yourself lots of time. Work in 90 minute bursts and take plenty of breaks.
EDITING QUESTIONS: GENERAL.
These lists will help you focus:
Ideas & Content
What is this about?
Are my ideas clear and focused?
Is this lively, exciting, compelling or interesting in some way?
Is there unity in this? Do the parts combine to make a whole that is pleasing, with nothing missing or out of place?
Is this extraneous to the book/chapter/sentence’s purpose?
Have I kept it simple: one thought per sentence, one idea per paragraph?
Have I repeated myself? Repeated a stylistic effect? Repeated pet words?
Does this duplicate something achieved elsewhere in the book?
Is there too much information?
Is this accurate, strong, specific?
Have I used active verbs, when possible?
Have I used specific verbs, specific nouns, and chose adjectives appropriate for the noun and the situation?
Is this as clear as I can make it?
Is this too abstract? What more concrete alternative will work here?
Overall, are my words fresh and original?
Have I used significant telling detail here?
Where am I using sensory detail to draw the reader in?
Organization & Structure
Have I begun well?
Does the structure move logically towards its climax/conclusion?
Is this section necessary?
Does it make sense here?
Is it easy to follow, having a compelling order, sequence and patterns?
Is this smooth and easy to read? How can I eliminate choppiness?
Is this as short as can be? What is redundant? Where have I tipped into excess?
Have I varied my structures?
Am I using punctuation effectively?
Do I have too many questions or exclamation marks?
Have I used too many adjectives or adverbs?
Do all my adjectives and adverbs achieve the effect intended? Would a stronger verb or noun work better?
Is this a cliche? Cliche of idea (“if a martian were to land on Earth and see….”)? Of phrase? (“Why oh why…”)? Of comparison (“dry as a bone”)? How can I make it unique to me?
Do I randomly use italics/bold or other such effects? What am I trying to achieve? Can it be achieved with a better word choice?
Are there metaphors or flowery phrases I’m particularly proud of? Are they actually as fine as I think they are or darlings that I need to drown?
Are my transitions between paragraphs and chapters effective and smooth?
Does this sound like me?
Does it sound like I care about the topic?
In what way is it different to other people’s work?
Have I been honest in expressing myself?
EDITING QUESTIONS for FICTION
Can the reader feel the emotions of the character here? Are these emotions believable?
Are the goals and motivations of the characters clear? Is their behavior consistent with their character traits? Do the main characters grow and change? Is it clear who the story is about?
Where/when is the protagonist introduced to the reader? Is this the best choice, the best point of entry?
Why does the reader empathize with the protagonist?
Does the reader connect with the characters here? How?
Does the protagonist have larger than life character traits and flaws, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual?
Is the protagonist growing in understanding here?
Is the protagonist active in solving the problems?
Does the protagonist’s flaw contribute to the problems encountered and solved?
Does the protagonist have moments of real despair and hopelessness?
How could I make it worse for the protagonist?
What complications could I deepen?
Have I repeated character traits in description/action/dialogue?
Have I used this plot device elsewhere?
Is the antagonist more than a stereotyped figures of evil? What is his/her complicating factor? Where is this evidenced?
What function does this character serve?
Does this character have more than one use in the development of plot and ideas?
What would happen if I combined this character’s function with another’s to create one more rounded character?
Do the ‘good’ characters avoid stereotypes?
Are gender stereotypes either used deliberately or avoided?
Do all minor characters come across as individual people?
Is this character shown in action, rather than passively described?
POINT OF VIEW/DIALOGUE
What is the point of view here?
Is it appropriate?
Did I switch viewpoints without realising? Was that necessary?
Have I made a Point of View shift clear to the reader?
Does the dialogue move the story ahead?
Is the dialogue here appropriate to the character’s unique personality?
Is this dialogue as brief as possible? Is it heavy or stilted? How might I make it more natural?
Is it always clear who is talking?
Does the pacing of action and reaction smoothly propel the reader through the story?
Do I show rather than tell?
Did I open with a hook?
What does the beginning effect? What would I lose if I lopped off the first or second chapter?
How have I handled information/backstory at the beginning?
Does each scene end on a hook?
Does this section maintain pace and forward movement?
Does this scene advance the plot or reveal new facets of the characters? Or, best of all, both?
How does this character affect the main plot? Minor plot developments?
Have I avoided coincidences, contrivances, and convenient plot solutions?
Does it contain a significant contribution to the main plot line?
Does the solution of this problem lead to a greater problem?
Is this a main plot development or a sub-plot?
What is this sub-plot for? How does it connect with the main plot? Does it reinforce the main them or offer an alternative viewpoint?
Are the subplots resolved before the main plot climaxes and is resolved?
Is there a twist or surprise at the end?
How many flashbacks do I have?
Do I have flashbacks at more than one level—that is, flashbacks from flashbacks?
What happens if I lose this flashback? How else might this information be conveyed?
Is this setting clearly envisaged? Sounds? Smells? Tastes? Touches? Sights?
Does this setting offet changes in mood, tone, action with what comes before and after?
How does it relate to the prevailing mood and action? Is that appropriate?
Does this setting have universally imagined attributes?
Do images and symbolic objects hold their significances across time and place?
Are the settings appropriately specific or generic?
Your Final Checklist
Extra/errors in punctuation marks ___
Extra spaces between words. ___
Words your spell check missed – e.g.’her’ instead of ‘here.’ ___
Wrong words – their/there/they’re; its/it’s; who’s/whose/lose/loose___
Easily confused words – effect/affect___
Apostrophe error — especially its/it’s___
All names of persons, cities, countries, streets and titles capitalized (and nothing else) ___
Extraneous flowery language ___
Sentence Sprawl – unnecessary clauses ___
Unnecessary adjectives/adverbs ___
Unnecessary speaker attributions ___
Common redundancies — ‘gathered together’, ‘climbed up’. ___
Words like ‘it’, ‘that’, ‘there’ point to a weak sentence. See if you can say it better. ___
The word ‘Because’. It is almost always be implied by the juxtaposition of your sentences. ___
Passive voice ___
Negative constructions ___
Exclamation points ___
Profanity — use sparingly and only when strictly necessary___
Excess or inapposite metaphors___
© Orna Ross 2011
Orna Ross writes novels, nonfiction, the occasional poem and - new venture! - screenplays. She also blogs about, and facilitates, Creative Intelligence for writers, artists and everyone. Check out her website http://www.ornaross.com/