Do You See?

I’m not a great micro-editor.

I write instinctually; sometimes a long sentence feels good, sometimes a short one.  I mess around, but don’t put much thought into it.  When editing, however, I’m not in the moment— I can’t tap into that instinct.  Often I don’t know what makes good writing beyond good grammar and spelling.  Rhythm, tone, flow… it’s kinda lost on me.

My instinct is starting to speak up in strange places, though.  This is bad, I think as I write blog posts.  This feels confusing.  I’m not getting my point across.  Usually it’s the form that bugs me— not this time.  It’s taken a while, but I think I’ve pinpointed that feeling.

Over the past couple weeks, I read through the Query Shark blog archives.  I wanted to learn how to write a good query letter.  The form of a query letter, however, is simple.  The author of the blog spent more time on flow, rhythm, and word choice.  One in three queries had a note offering another version of a sentence, or another word choice, or a revamped paragraph.  She kept asking, “Do you see the difference?”  After reading about 200 queries and revisions, I started to see.

My ideas weren’t confusing— my sentences were clunky.

When I started this blog, I tried to write the way I would speak.  I tried not to worry about perfect sentences, or the perfect word, or whatever.  I allowed myself to communicate the best I could.  Unfortunately, I speak in clunky sentences.

Everyone speaks in clunky sentences.  We speak in run-on sentences.  We speak in fragments of sentences.  We speak in all the ways that grammarians hate.  That’s just how it is.  We want to get our point across, but we don’t have time to choose the perfect way to say it.  We just say it, and clarify later.

Yeah… that doesn’t work with writing.  You can speak a confusing sentence and people will understand it.  The same sentence, written down, could take a reader five tries to figure out.  That’s five rereads of a sentence— and the complete destruction of any momentum it contained.

That’s the problem with clunky writing.  It’s confusing, it takes a second to process, and it ultimately acts like a wall.  It stops the flow.  It cuts through the rhythm (in a bad way).  Even if the reader was completely engaged, a clunky sentence would yank them away.

Good news: we can stop clunky writing.  It just takes a little time.

First of all, you have to realize that clunky writing happens.  As you write, as you’re engaged in the story yourself, you might not realize that what you’re writing is clunky.  Sometimes, you will realize.  Sometimes, you just won’t care.  And that’s great.  On the first draft, write as many clunks as you like.  The first draft doesn’t care about clunk.

The second draft is where the magic happens.

Let’s have some fun.  I’m going to revise those last two paragraphs and take out the clunk.  We’ll see how it goes.

First of all, you have to realize that cClunky writing happens.  As you write, as you’re engaged—  in the story yourself, you might not realize that what you’re writing is your sentences are clunky.  Sometimes, you will realize.  Sometimes, you just won’t If you do realize, you might not care.  And that’s great.  OIn the first draft, write as many clunks as you like.  The first draft doesn’t care about clunk.  Clunk doesn’t matter yet.

The second draft is where tThe magic happens in the second draft.

Do you see what I did there?  “First of all, you have to realize that”— none of those words mean anything.  If omitting a word doesn’t change the meaning, omit the word.  Sometimes, the little words matter— here, they didn’t.  That next sentence was just long.  I squished it together and changed the rhythm.  The simpler the sentence, the better.  Complex sentences are great, but I have no clue how many clauses were in that sentence.  Better to break it up a bit.

Notice I left “And that’s great” where it was.  It starts with “and”, which grammar people say is taboo.  In fact, I probably could have cut that entire sentence.  So why is it there?  Rhythm.  After a couple of long, compound sentences, a short one breaks things up nicely.  (I think it does, at least.  You might have a different opinion, but that’s personal writing style.)

Omit unnecessary words.  Simplify.  Keep your rhythm intact— short, choppy, unvarying sentences are boring.  Try reading it out loud.  If a sentence feels off for some reason, that’s a warning sign.

Don’t cut too much.  I have personal experience with that— back when I was editing my fourth novel, I cut nearly half the wordcount, but kept most of the scenes intact.  I gutted the thing.  It didn’t recover.  If you’re keen on anti-clunk revising, make sure you keep the story alive.  Err on the side of organic, rather than organized.  I’d rather have a broken rule than a dead story.

I’m obviously still learning this.  I need a lot of practice.  I need to apply this to my novel, which is daunting.  Now that I’m finished with this post, I’m thinking I need to apply this here as well.

…And I just did.  I’ve included the original text below, marked up as before.  If you want to see what I did to it, go ahead.  This is officially the first blog post I’ve edited.

*****

This is bad, I think as I write new blog posts.  This feels confusing.  I’m not getting my point across.  These thoughts go through my mind with almost every post I write nowadays.

Sometimes it’s enough to keep me from writing them.  Sometimes I just give up.  Over the last couple days, however, I figured something out: every time I had those thoughts, it wasn’t the idea that was confusing.  It was the sentence.

I’m not a great micro-editor. [Line break added]  My writing is mostly instinctual I write instinctually; sometimes it feels like a long sentence is feels good, sometimes a short one.  I mess around with it, but don’t put much thought into it.  When editing, however, I’m not in the moment— I can’t tap into that instinct., and Often I don’t know what makes good writing beyond good grammar and spelling.  Rhythm, tone, flow… it’s kinda lost on me.

My instinct is starting to speak up in strange places, though.  This is bad, I think as I write blog posts.  This feels confusing.  I’m not getting my point across.  Usually it’s the form that bugs me— not this time.  It’s taken a while, but I think I’ve pinpointed that feeling.

Over the past couple weeks, I read through the archives of the Query Shark blog archives.  I was trying to teach myself wanted to learn how to write a good query letter.  As I read, though, I realized how good the blogger (a literary agent) was at hearing flow, rhythm, and word choice.  The form of a query letter, however, is simple.  The author of the blog spent more time on flow, rhythm, and word choice.  One in three queries had a note from her offering another phrasing version of a sentence, or another word choice, or a revamped paragraph.  Each time, she asked She kept asking, “Do you see the difference?”  After reading about 200 queries and revisions, I started to see.

Every time I thought my sentences were confusing, I had written a clunky sentence.  My ideas weren’t confusing— my sentences were clunky.

When I started writing this blog, I tried to write the way I would speak.  I tried not to think too much worry about having a perfect sentences, or the perfect word, or whatever.  I allowed myself to write in a way that would allow me to communicate the best I knew how could.  Unfortunately, everyone speaks I speak in clunky sentences.

Everyone speaks in clunky sentences.  We speak in run-on sentences.  We speak in fragments of sentences.  We speak in all the ways that grammarians hate.  That’s just how it is.  We want to get our point across, but we don’t have time to get bogged down in chooseing the perfect way to say it.  We just say it, and clarify later.

Yeah… that doesn’t work with writing.  Sometimes yYou can speak a confusing sentence and people will understand it.  If you write out tThe same sentence, written down, it could take a reader five tries to figure out what you’re saying.  That’s five rereads of a sentence— and the complete destruction of any momentum it contained your writing had possessed.

That’s the problem with clunky writing.  It’s confusing, it takes a second to process, and it ultimately acts like a wall.  It stops the flow.  It cuts through the rhythm (in a bad way).  Even if the reader was completely engaged, a clunky sentence will would yank them out again away.

Good news: we can stop clunky writing.  It just takes a little time.

First of all, you have to realize that clunky writing happens.  As you write, as you’re engaged in the story yourself, you might not realize that what you’re writing is clunky.  Sometimes, you will realize.  Sometimes, you just won’t care.  And that’s great.  On the first draft, write as many clunks as you like.  The first draft doesn’t care about clunk.

The second draft is where the magic happens.

Let’s have some fun.  I’m going to revise those last two paragraphs and take out the clunk.  We’ll see how it goes.

First of all, you have to realize that cClunky writing happens.  As you write, as you’re engaged—  in the story yourself, you might not realize that what you’re writing is your sentences are clunky.  Sometimes, you will realize.  Sometimes, you just won’t If you do realize, you might not care.  And that’s great.  OIn the first draft, write as many clunks as you like.  The first draft doesn’t care about clunk.  Clunk doesn’t matter yet.

The second draft is where tThe magic happens in the second draft.

Do you see what I did there?  “First of all, you have to realize that”— none of those words mean anything.  If omitting a word doesn’t change the meaning, omit the word.  Sometimes, the little words matter— here, they didn’t.  That next sentence was just long.  I squished it together and changed the rhythm.  The simpler the sentence, the better.  Complex sentences are great, but I have no clue how many clauses were in that sentence.  Better to break it up a bit.

Notice I left “And that’s great” where it was.  It starts with “and”, which grammar people say is taboo.  In fact, I probably could have cut that entire sentence.  So Wwhy is it there?  Rhythm.  After a couple of long, compound sentences, a short one breaks things up nicely.  (I think it does, at least.  You might have a different opinion, but that’s what makes a personal writing style.)

Omit unnecessary words.  Simplify.  Keep your rhythm intact— short, choppy, unvarying sentences are boring.  Try reading it out loud.  If a sentence feels off for some reason, that’s a warning sign.

Don’t cut too much.  I have personal experience with that— back when I was editing my fourth novel, I cut nearly half the wordcount, keeping but kept most of the scenes intact.  I gutted the thing.  It didn’t recover.  If you’re keen on anti-clunk revising, make sure you keep the story alive.  Err on the side of organic, rather than organized.  I’d rather have a broken rule than a dead story.

I’m obviously still learning this.  I need a lot of practice.  I need to apply this to my novel, which is daunting.  Now that I’m finished with this post, I’m thinking I need to apply this here as well.

…And I just did.  I’ve included the original text below, marked up as before.  If you want to see what I did to it, go ahead.  This is officially the first blog post I’ve edited.

Did this extra thing at the end help?  Should I do it with more blog posts, or a short story sometime?  As I figure out how to edit this way, I’ll probably do it more often.  Let me know if you want to see any of the results.

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5 Comments

  1. Very interesting. Nice job.

    Reply
  2. Agreed – and great examples! This post reminds me of the aphorism that you gotta know the rules to break them. Grammar rules don’t matter if you haven’t developed a feel for writing. But add a knowledge of writing to writing-feels, and that’s where magic happens.

    Reply
  3. Hey Liam – nice post! I definitely think you tend to write very well instinctually, and probably need the editing a lot less than most people do, but even so this post seemed a good bit more shiny and polished than your posts usually do. I totally agree re omitting useless words and simplifying sentences. That’s something I’ve got a good bit better at late, what with strict word limits for essays at university, not to mention a strong emphasis in philosophy (one of my subject areas) on making the expression of your ideas as straightforward and simple as possible.

    Reply
  4. This is fantastic! I should probably work more on developing those instincts. 🙂

    Reply
  5. Alexa Stein

     /  August 20, 2016

    I had an ACT style writing prompt assignment, this really helped me.

    Reply

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