Effective Writing Isn’t Affected, Part I

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Last week’s blog, “Being a Being Who Has a Pet Grammar Peeve,” was the first of a series highlighting some of the common errors I encounter when I edit and proofread. As promised, this week I’ll begin to tackle affected writing styles.

There are many different types of mistakes writers make when they attempt to sound “learned” or “literary,” but as any good writing coach will tell you, simpler is almost always better. Many beginning writers (and sadly, many established ones as well) think using “big” words is better, but I agree with Writing Rule #3 from Lifeloom.com: Eschew ostentatious erudition.

Description is important. So is clarity. As Dean Reick wrote on Copyblogger, “To sound smart, you must stop trying to sound smart. Brilliant writing is simple writing, a relevant idea delivered clearly and directly.”

I recently edited a manuscript with the sentence, “To facilitate this change, I suggested that [Mary] commence the exercises I had recommended.” While there is nothing technically wrong with that sentence, why fill your work with words plucked from a thesaurus if you don’t need to? Consider this alternative, which is much simpler: “I suggested that Mary begin the exercises I’d recommended to help her with the change.”

The Writing Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a great online style handout that includes a list of common stock phrases and their one-word replacements. For example: is able to, is in a position to, has the opportunity to, has the capacity for, has the ability to . . . are all ways to say “can.”

Now please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that you forgo every use of phrases that add some variety or nuance; that is a style choice.

What I am suggesting is that you take a moment to consider how you could rephrase a sentence to be grammatically correct while expressing your point as clearly and succinctly as possible. Strive to express your ideas in the most direct, elegant, and persuasive way possible. I love my thesaurus, too, but I make sure I understand the nuance of the word I’ve plucked from it before I choose it over the word I want to replace.

Here’s another example from the UNC handout:

For example, if your paper discusses the significance of memory represented by the scent of wisteria in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, you are going to write the words “memory” and “wisteria” a lot. Don’t start saying “recollection,” “reminiscence,” “summoning up of past events,” and “climbing woody vine” just to get a little variation in there. A thesaurus might even lead you to say that the significance of nostalgia is represented by the odiferous output of parasitic flowering vegetation. . . . Remember that your goal in . . . writing is not to sound intelligent, but to get your intelligent point across.

I’d love your comments about this or other grammar goofs. I hope you’ll share them here or write to me at cyjohnson5580@gmail.com. Thanks for stopping by.

—Candace

 

Next week: Passive Writing

How a Professional Editor Can Help You Get Published: Developmental and Substantive Editing

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Writers are often too close to their own writing to be objective. After spending hours trying to get a concept or dialogue “just right,” it is difficult to know what should stay and what should be cut. Even after you’ve self-edited, had your friends critique your work, and perhaps even asked a friend who is an English teacher to take a look, an objective and professional opinion from a professional freelance editor is the best way to identify what is and isn’t working.

No matter how well written a manuscript is, it needs more than what another writer or a friend can offer. Writers are often amazed at the amount of help a good editor offers; published authors who have already been through the process understand how valuable an editor is to the success of their work.

If you have a great idea but don’t know how to organize it into a book or article, or if you’ve written a draft and want to be sure it is well-ordered and doesn’t drift off somewhere it shouldn’t, consider hiring a professional freelance editor. A professional editor has an objective viewpoint and will be honest with you about the many ways you can improve your manuscript—yes, even when you think it’s perfect, you’ll be surprised at the things an editor will suggest that never occurred to you.

Scott Norton, an editor at the University of California Press and author of the first full-length handbook ever published on the subject of developmental editing, writes: “For our purposes, developmental editing denotes significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse. The DE’s role can manifest in a number of ways. Some “big picture” editors provide broad direction by helping the author to form a vision for the book, then coaching the author chapter by chapter to ensure that the vision is successfully executed. Others get their hands dirty with the prose itself, suggesting rewrites at the chapter, section, paragraph, and sentence levels. This hands-on approach is sometimes called substantive editing or line editing.

This important function is not meant to replace self editing; whether you engage an editor before or after you begin writing, developmental editing is synonymous with The Big Picture. Norton goes on to say:

“From this perspective, stylistic intervention alone is not ‘developmental.’ To be sure, there are cases in which a manuscript’s organization is sound but the tone so pervasively wrong that virtually every sentence must be recast. Severe as these problems of tone may be, they can usually be handled by a high-powered copyeditor—and those that can’t are beyond the reach of editing, requiring instead the hand of a ghostwriter or coauthor. Nevertheless, most manuscripts with structural problems have stylistic lapses as well, and DEs are often asked to fix both kinds of problems. . . .”

Developmental editing (also called substantive editing, heavy line editing, structural editing, or book doctoring) is the first step for many authors on their way to having their work published. If you are a first-time author, don’t make the expensive mistakes by hoping an agent or publisher will share your vision, even if your manuscript isn’t in top shape. Do your research and find an editor who will work as your partner to help you say it the way you mean it.

—Candace

Students Can't Write, Lack Effective Communication Skills

This is a Computer Fundamentals class taking a...
This is a Computer Fundamentals class taking an exam. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress: 2011 Writing exam show that few students can write successfully in both academic and workplace settings, educators said.

If you struggle to use just the right words to get your point across, you may appreciate the article that appeared in the Orange County Register (CA). Even in this day of technologically savvy students, “Nearly three quarters of American students who took the first-ever computer-based national writing exam did not communicate effectively, even when allowed to use spell check, a thesaurus and other word-processing tools, according to a federal report released Friday.” The test, which measured students’ ability to “persuade or change the reader’s point of view; explain or expand the reader’s understanding; and convey experience or communicate individual experiences to others,” was given to a sampling of students that officials felt were representative of the overall population.

These results are so disappointing. Basic writing and communications skills are still that—basic skills—and even with all the money spent on technology in the classroom, students continue to struggle with something that will define them and their futures. Read the full article at http://www.ocregister.com/news/students-371409-writing-graders.html.

I’ll bet at least one of those students has an idea for a terrific book; I just hope he or she realizes there are professional editors who can help when the time comes.

—Candace