Editing Your Work: Very, Very Good Is Very Bad

The first documented Sasquatch capture. Actually, my hair, circa 1975, much in need of editing

The first documented Sasquatch capture. Actually, my hair, circa 1975, much in need of editing

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the very best thing you could do for your writing is to tighten it up, just a little. Still with me? With apologies to Jane Austen, the first sentence here that clogged your pores is a gasbag, a dirigible without a destination. Why? Because it’s filled with unnecessary words and phrases. It’s filled with air, not substance. But this is air that doesn’t breathe life into your reader’s lungs—it suffocates them.

Consider: any sentence that has a qualification, a dodge, is a sentence that whimpers. Words like “very” and “really,” which seem to be intensifiers, are the opposite. They are diminishers. They are the celery left a year in the cellar: no snap. And a clause or phrase like “It’s a fact …” or “just a little” might seem to refine a sentence, give it some razoring of thoughtful gradation, but instead it hobbles it.

Really, Just Very Bad

Remove some of the fluff, and you get a working-class sentence: “The best thing you can do for your writing is tighten it.” But wield the scalpel again, and you get something crisp: “Tighten your writing.” That sentence, which turns a key in a lock, implies that the tightening will improve the understanding, rather than making it bloatedly explicit.

Of course, if you’re an essayist, a fiction writer, a vaunted creative, you might chafe at the constraints. There are times when sentences need luxuriant branching, elliptical orbits to trace their flight across the heavens. But even then, the “verys,” the “justs,” the “reallys,” the “it’s clear that’s”—those blackguards rob your writing of vigor. Vigor = good. Languor = bad.

All Modifiers Are Not Created Evil

Sometimes modifiers can add nuance to a sentence so their absence is loss, not gain. “He took a few, halting steps, expelled a gust of breath and took a voluptuous fall.” If there is intent behind your diction, your use of “voluptuous” (and even “halting” in this instance) could serve a narrative purpose. At least it’s arguable. But the actually here: “Actually, I couldn’t stand him” actually, factually, does nothing. Same with “quite” and “rather”—something that’s “quite exciting” fails to excite.

I am very guilty of veritable volumes of verys in my writing; for me, “just” is also just a spasmodic touch-type away. One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes is, “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Verily.

Adverbs Under Editing Threat!

There’s been a threadbare-but-broad blanket of denunciation of adverbs and adjectives thrown over prose the last few years, but that’s employing a squinty eye blind to when modifiers can add color and spark to a page. All of those urchin adverbs and adjectives aren’t bad—just the ones that are padding, or those that substitute for strong verbs and nouns. Used with discretion, they are ketchup with fries. (Or sriracha, if you need more kick.)

But when you have expressions like “loud explosion” or “violent vomiting” (or “loud explosion of violent vomiting”), you have redundant words that put a wrapper between you and the reader. Fewer words say more. Or as our lad Twain said (with a wink) in his evisceration of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing: “Eschew surplusage.”

Big Words, Big Deal

One category of surplusage is big words, the pomp-and-circumstance diction that declares that the writer is educated, sophisticated, and a wee bit smarter than the reader. But if you aren’t writing for your reader, you are writing for no one. I am the guiltiest of wordslingers here: I love words, love the chewy ones, love some with peacock flair or sly intimation. Sometimes the right word is the big word, but sometimes when you write fornication, you should write—oh, never mind.

I’ll let some stylists smarter than me put that in perspective:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

— Strunk and White, The Elements of Style

But gosh, is it tempting to gussy up a sentence or two. I can’t always resist.

Tools for Tightening

There are a couple of interesting online tools that can help with your editing: the Hemingway app highlights overly complex sentences, long words, and those cussed adverbs. The Natural Reader is an editing approach from a different angle—your ears. The software reads your work to you aloud, which lets you hear, sometimes painfully, sentences that plod, or wander, or die a slow death from pulling a bulging cart of wayward words.

A useful exercise is to take a 1,000-word piece of your writing and condense it to 700 words. It’s enlightening (and lightening) to take the frosting off your phrasings and get to the actual cake. And then take that same piece down to 500 words: the cake is still spongy and sweet, but denser, deeper. Chasing the “littles” and the “sometimes” and the “oftens” out of sentences—and putting some caffeine in passive-voice phrasings—removes fat and makes muscle.

But the most powerful tool is focus. Inspect your paragraphs and sentences for diction, flow, grammar and clarity: is the expression of your ideas crisp, cliché-free, clean? Do verbs have verve? Does a subject play hide and seek with its predicate so that even a sugary gingerbread trail of subordinate clauses can’t lead the way home to understanding?

Keep in mind that when you clean up your writing, you’re not scrubbing it of the voice that makes it distinct and delightful. You’re clearing your throat so that voice sings out strong and true.

Mixing Martinis, Grammar, the Past and the Future

Dry Martini

As Magritte might have said, this is not a martini. This is the future.

My parents offered me a sip of a martini when I was seven or eight years old. I recall recoiling in disgust from its sharp, medicinal tang: “How can you drink that? It’s terrible!” Yet a crisp, cold martini on a Friday at five now seems the ideal reward for a week’s labor.

It is always amusing to remember the heated declarations you make in earlier days—”When I get outta this house I’m never going to cut my hair, ever!—and to consider the cooling of those declarations when they’re set out for a stretch on time’s countertop. That’s why I had to laugh when I saw the term “Future in the Past” in a grammar book the other day. Let’s relate it to the martini: who wants to read a grammar book for pleasure? Think of squirming away from grammar lessons in grade school; it would have been a difficult decision to determine whether you’d rather have a toothache or listen to someone prattle on about grammar.

Grammar: It’s Funnier Than it Tastes

But I’ve been in the writing trade for a while, and I think it’s good (and even fun) to continue to sharpen your tools. So, I’ve been reading Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide To Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar and Punctuation. Yes, you’re right, I’m a riot at parties. Anyway, in one of the sections on tenses (stay with me, people), there’s a discussion of some tense variants that are little used, and the one that seemed delightful to me was “future in the past,” described as expressing the idea that an an earlier time point, there had been an expectation that something would later happen.

Dig that! So, if you say, “I had a feeling that you were going to bloat like a dirigible if you ate that entire cheesecake,” you are using the future in the past tense. I also liked the further explanation that it doesn’t matter if your future/pasting was correct or not. So, we can all shoot to be soothsayers, but if that doesn’t work out, we can go into accounting.

Yeah, I guess you had to be there. But just to push it further: over time, with different editions of yourself, you learn a bit more of who you are. That kid who spat out that martini would never have dreamed that something in a grammar book would delight him years later. He might have said, “I knew that Tom was going to hate martinis and grammar when he grew up.” And he would have been wrong, but he would have crafted a fine future-in-the-past utterance. You live, you learn.

And continuing to learn: that’s a crisp, cold martini to me. I’ll take two.

Anchor Distilling’s Junipero Gin—delicious!