Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Revision: Fine Tuning

After getting a book on Italian cooking from the library last week, today on my way home from seeing the doctor (the shoulder is just about back to normal, making good progress, and I don't need to see the doctor again unless something happens) I went by the grocery store to get ingredients, and for lunch I did something absolutely wonderful with tomatoes, garlic, zucchini and pasta. There's another recipe using mostly the same ingredients but put together in a different way that I'll have to try tomorrow. This one cooks the zucchini with the tomatoes, and the other one cooks the zucchini first, and that supposedly makes a big difference in flavor. And then there's something I want to try using zucchini and carrots.

In my writing posts, I've been talking about revision, going from the big picture on down, and now I'm down to the fine tuning. This is the part where you fix the words, making sure you've got the right ones and no unnecessary ones.

Here are some things to look for at this phase:

Any words you use too frequently -- the same word showing up more than once or twice in a paragraph or page, depending on how common the word is. A word like "and" will naturally show up a lot, but a word like "egregious" probably shouldn't appear more than a few times in a book, unless you're repeating for a purpose, like maybe one character saying it when mocking another character for saying it. I find that I often have a "pet" word in each book, a word that seems to fit the characters or situation, but that I use too often. This is why I like to do a very quick read-through, in which I go through the whole book at about the same pace a reader would. You notice different things when you're reading that way than you do when it's taking you weeks or months to get through a draft, and you'll definitely notice the words that are more obvious when you see them hours or minutes apart instead of weeks or months apart.

"Waste" words -- words that don't add much to the meaning. One of my journalism professors called many of these "weasel" words, words that you use to avoid being absolute or concrete. These are things like "kind of," "sort of," "a bit," "a little," "almost," or "nearly." "Really" and "very" can also fall into this category. Most of the time, you can remove these without changing the meaning. Save the words for when it is important that you modify what you're saying, or see if you can find a more specific noun or verb to give the impression you want. A big waste word that shows up for a lot of writers is "just." It's amazing how often that one pops up.

"Ing" verb forms -- These don't all have to go, but take a good look at them and save them for when there's no other way to convey the right meaning. That includes "was -ing" and "were -ing" forms, which should only be used when it's important to note that the character was already in the process of doing something when something else happened. Otherwise, use the active form of the verb. So, "He was walking down the street when he saw his old college roommate." Otherwise, try to use "He walked down the street."

Starting and trying -- I find a lot of "He started to" or "He tried to" forms when all I really need is the main action. Limit these to when the starting or trying are what's important -- usually when the other action isn't finished or isn't successful. Otherwise, just stick with the action itself.

Vague or non-specific words -- You can eliminate a lot of adverbs and adjectives by finding the right verbs and nouns. Try to find the most specific nouns and verbs you can. Instead of "He walked slowly," try "He trudged" or "He plodded."

Sentence structure -- Variety is good, but don't strain yourself mixing it up. You'll want shorter sentences and paragraphs in action sequences when you want a rapid pace. In those sections, you might want to break complex sentences down into several shorter, snappier sentences. You can have longer, more complex sentences when you want to give a more languid or thoughtful impression.

Awkward structure -- At this phase, I usually read the book out loud to myself. If any sentence trips up my tongue, I find a way to rephrase it. Any sentence you have to read twice or mentally diagram to be sure what it means also needs work.

Dialogue -- Even if you don't read the whole book out loud, read the dialogue out loud. Does it sound like people talking, or is it "speechy"? Do the characters have distinct voices? Can you say each dialogue sentence without taking a breath? (Remember, your characters usually have to breathe at some point.)

Full impact -- Does what you've written give you exactly the mental images and emotional impact that you had in mind? Could you find better words, similes or metaphors to convey your thoughts more clearly? Also take a look at the last words of your sentences and paragraphs. You want to build toward the most important or powerful idea because that's the thought that will linger.

Of course, you'll also be checking for grammar, spelling and punctuation while doing all this. The search function in word processing software can be helpful for finding pet words or overused waste words. If you notice a certain word popping up way too often, do a search for it. You don't have to remove all of them, but read the context and see if you can find another word or a different way to phrase things. I like to do my searches early in the process so I can have at least one more read-through to make sure the changes do work in context and that I haven't replaced one pet word with a new one, or with something that's already used repeatedly on that page.

I'm now throwing the door open for new writing questions or topics to address. Let me know if there's a topic you'd like me to write about.

No comments: