Plus techniques to focus your writing
As an eclectic reader, it feels appropriate that my editing is eclectic as well. I edit about 50% fiction and 50% academic nonfiction. Romance novels and graduate theses generally require very different skills—analyzing character development versus reformatting citations—but there is some overlap.
One stylistic fault pops up all the time, and it flows porously across the line between fiction and nonfiction. That’s because it’s symptomatic of the messy, human brain—the common tool we’re all working with.
It’s disorganized writing.
Sometimes disorganized writing manifests as an abundance of pleonasms, or redundancies. Fiction and nonfiction writers alike frequently turn in manuscripts with sentences like these:
She had dark, black eyes.
The young American youths were dissatisfied.
They left early due to a serious emergency.
The artist had unique ideas no one else had.
He faced bias and discrimination.
All black eyes are dark. All youths are young. No emergency is frivolous. Etc. Once you’re aware of pleonasms, they can become easier to delete in your revisions.
Why edit for redundancy?
Editor Marcia Riefer Johnston has an ever-growing list of more than 1,000 redundant phrases. Her list includes respond back, pinpoint the exact cause, deeply profound, still lingers, and Chicago is our last and final stop. These are all phrases that I myself would likely trim down.
But Johnston is a technical writer and editor; she teaches writing to engineers and edits the professional journal Technical Communication. Her deep interest in logical and succinct language therefore makes sense, but that approach isn’t applicable to all forms of writing.
This month, I edited two romance manuscripts and a professor’s memoir. In those kinds of writing, brevity isn’t always the top priority. Some phrases on Johnston’s list I might not edit are each and every, clear evidence, and naan bread.
Each and every might be redundant, but it can add emphasis and improve the flow of a sentence. Clear evidence might be used in a mystery novel to be contrasted with the mere circumstantial evidence and ambiguous gut feelings that have clouded a detective’s judgment. Naan bread might be a simple way to define a new word for an audience unfamiliar with Indian cuisine. And so on.
As always, editing is an art. While I don’t go into a text planning to root out each and every potential pleonasm, I find that looking out for faulty ones helps writers strengthen their prose.
Why do faulty pleonasms happen?
A first draft is a recording of our thoughts, and thought comes naturally tangled. This is the same stuff nighttime dreams are made of, after all; illogic is the brain’s norm. We’re cluttered thinkers, so redundancies are a given.
Sometimes pleonasms get splattered all over the page because the author thought of several synonyms instantaneously and wanted to get them all on paper before they slipped away. This is a completely appropriate way to write a first draft. Write She had dark, black eyes first and decide whether dark or black fits best later.
The real question is: Why do faulty pleonasms stay in subsequent drafts?
Sometimes this is just simple error. We read our manuscripts so many times that we lose the ability to critically weigh the value of each word.
However, I think it sometimes happens for another reason: a lack of faith in either the power of our own words or the ability of the reader to comprehend the text.
Trust the reader
“I see,” he rumbled in a deep, baritone voice.
Sometimes sentences like the above make it into subsequent drafts because writers aren’t sure what will resonate with the reader, so they’re hoping (consciously or not) that, if several synonyms are included, then something will stick.
In reality, this has a diluting effect on the prose. The excessive wordiness:
makes the text harder to understand
is halting and discordant, rather than rhythmic
Readers can feel when writers are trying to micromanage their thoughts. That lack of trust on the writer’s part translates to a lack of trust on the reader’s part. They’re being pulled out of the story because the writer is too present within the text.
A writer who trusts their reader knows that—
“I see,” he rumbled.
—is all that’s needed to summon a deep voice in the mind of the reader.
Focus, focus, focus, and don’t repeat
Let’s add another kind of disorganization to our examples. Notice that it’s not only pleonasms that bog down this writing:
He was tall and older, maybe middle-aged, about fifty, with darkly handsome, good-looking but somewhat off-putting, almost sinister features: a neatly, cleanly trimmed mustache groomed to perfection, hair turning silver and peppered with gray at the temples, and eyes so dark and black they were like the obsidian-tinted windows of a sleek, fast-running limousine that cost a lot of money, like the gleaming one that my father had hired to take me around town when I was a boy, which I had loved doing.
Compare the above to this:
He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features: a neatly trimmed mustache, hair turning silver at the temples, and eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine—he could see out, but you couldn’t see in.
The second example is from John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The first paragraph is what a lot of first draft writing looks like, in both fiction and nonfiction.
There are two main errors in the first version: pleonasms abound, and the end sputters off into an abrupt and confusing tangent that starts at the word limousine. If I received a manuscript like this, my guess would be that the memory of the father’s limousine is important to the main character and might come up later in the story. The author may have therefore pounced on that image of the limousine in a sudden burst of pattern recognition, rushing to introduce the narrator’s boyhood memory.
Again: This is a totally human way for brains to work. Creativity is fueled by these kinds of leaps and associations.
But also: This sentence had one goal, which was to describe the mustached man. Trimming the sentence as neatly as he trims his facial hair (I’m so sorry) helps the reader accomplish the shared goal of understanding the author’s story. Notice that the second example isn’t succinct, dry, or remotely reminiscent of technical writing. It’s focused.
I write tangents in my own essays all of the time. They’re almost impossible to spot when I reread something I’ve just rewritten; it’s only after I’ve had some distance from the text that I can see its (dis)organization.
Sometimes tangents are as easy to cut as the limousine bit. But sometimes they’re our darlings—great points with well-written turns of phrase. These darlings can be preserved as footnotes, moved elsewhere in the essay, or become the first beginnings of new essays. The approach varies on a case-by-case basis, but the solution is almost never to let a well-written tangent dilute the real point of the main text.
We all have a lot to say, but we can’t say everything all at once.
Maggie Stiefvater, author of The Raven Boys, wrote about organization on Facebook. Her status read:
This year, I'm focused more than ever on prioritizing my writing. Not putting my writing first, but rather, prioritizing what I ask the reader to look at and remember on each page. Priority. Organization. Organization is the difference between a story and a novel. It isn't enough to know everything about your characters, story, plot. In fact, sometimes knowing too much can get in your way. Because readers don't need to know everything: they need to know just enough to create an emotional and intellectual engagement. An unprioritized novel never builds to something unputdownable. It is just a series of facts and events the reader must remember. It's just work. It is up to the writer to aggressively prioritize, organize, and stylize those events to make them into something that feels effortless and purposeful.
Pleonasms and tangents appear different in execution, but both stem from disorganization and can be fixed by prioritization.
I find that different visualizations help me organize my writing. I once worked with a screenplay writer who thought a lot about camera angles while he was penning his scripts. Adopting his approach in my own writing has helped me. I think: If this were a movie scene, where would the camera be pointed at right now? Where am I directing my reader’s attention?
Another approach, which feels more applicable to nonfiction, is to imagine each paragraph as a painting in an art gallery. The reader is walking through your exhibition. How does each piece support the goals of your gallery overall? What can be changed in each piece to paint a clearer picture? Do any parts detract?
Thanks for reading!
I hope this little musing on disorganized writing helped declutter your own approach to “prioritized prose.” If you have any questions, feel free to ask!