What are your favourites?

The Different Lives of Dogs by Ida Waugh

The editing process has shown me that I favour certain words and expressions. I don’t notice them when I’m capturing the story for the SFD. But when I go back and revise, I’m astonished at how certain phrases are repeated many times. Even though many eyes will pore over my book before it goes to print I’m nervous that I’m going to bore my readers by my favouritism.

Word count: 442  Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Because I’ve seen this kind of tic in other writers’ work, I know it happens, even after the most meticulous editing. A couple of years ago I read a memoir where the author loved the verb schlep; he used it in almost every chapter. Recently I read a book by a different author where his characters frequently ‘bellied up’ to the table. The first time I read that it was a unique and fun image. By the third time, it jumped out like someone had underlined it.

I’m not casting stones here – I know all too well how easily my darlings slip into my writing. I let them curl up in front of the warm winter fire and shut the rest out. Sometimes this is the right thing to do. It shows I’m comfortable with my vocabulary as Stephen King (On Writing) encourages writers to be. By sticking with words we know, he says, we find our own voices. 

Then I think of my own exasperation when authors fixate on an odd word like the two examples above and I read my draft one more time. In spite of all the dissenting opinions on this question, I even reach for the thesaurus when I’m stuck. It’s a valuable writing tool. Like any tool though, it has to be used with discretion. Not all synonyms are created equal and I hesitate if I find one that is unfamiliar. If I trip across an unknown word that sounds wonderful, I look it up in several dictionaries. If it means what I need it to, I happily use it. But I have to be comfortable with context. A thesaurus is a tool to keep the engine running, to push through vocabulary block; it's important not to let it misguide me.

Until then, I’ll try to stop myself from incessant use of xxx, xxx, and xxx. I’m not actually sharing my sins because I hope to be free of them before the end of this summer. At least in this manuscript.

Do you have favourite words that crop up in your manuscript no matter how hard you try to banish them? Do you find them for yourself or do you have a critique partner who keeps you honest?

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Image from Wikimedia Commons: Different Lives of Dogs by Ida Waugh

 

Thanks for Judy Mayhew for pointing me to this valuable tool: WordCloud

Critical mess

Word count: 394            Reading time: 1-2 mins.

No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft said HG Wells. I wish I’d known that quote when I sent my first short story to a competition. It was rated Highly Commended and one of the judges asked me if I’d like some help polishing it. Without so much as a by-your-leave, she rewrote it and read her version to the audience on the awards night. Her rewrite wasn’t wrong; it was just different. It wasn’t my voice.

Do-not-rewrite-someone-else’s-work was my first lesson in editing. Here are a few more I’ve picked up since:

  1. It takes courage to share your work; make sure the person who sees it is worthy of your trust.
  2. A good writing partner pinpoints the areas that might benefit with revision. She never replaces your words with hers but suggests solutions to problem areas.
  3. A constructive editor encourages your strengths. Note: I’ve paid for professional reviews where the readers seemed totally unfamiliar with classical thinking like: correction does much, but encouragement does more (Goethe). If you have to ask questions - like what parts worked better than others - it’s time to find someone else to help you.
  4. The more you study and learn about writing, the better your writing gets and the more you have to offer as a writing partner and editor.
  5. Some people want intensive feedback; others only want their typos caught. Remember Somerset Maugham’s words: [some] people ask for criticism but they only want praise. If you’re committed to doing a meaningful review, the latter will waste your time.  
  6. You don’t have to take onboard everyone’s suggestions but it doesn’t hurt to listen. You’re the creator; you decide whose opinions are most relevant.
  7. Still, even when you think you’ve absolutely nailed something, be receptive to the fact that it could be better.

Once books are published and hit the public domain, imperfect strangers emerge from the woodwork to criticize them. Until then, we can select readers who help us strengthen our voices, not drown them.

What are your expectations from an editor or writing partner? Is there something else you hope for that I haven’t listed? Do you use other writers, professional editors, or good friends - or a combination of all three - to help you improve?

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Artwork by: Tom Morris via Wiki Commons