Pick, pick, pick. I’m always going back over my sentences to make them just a tiny bit better. (At least I hope I’m making them better!) You could almost say I’m addicted to editing.
One of my unfulfilled yearnings for this blog has been to talk about what writers really do – the infinitesimal changes we make in our work – what we look for and how we think.
So why not just do that?
Two reasons. First, it’s hard to make editing sound interesting to readers. Second, many of those decisions happen in such a flash that I can’t grab them long enough to write about them.
But today something magical happened while I was reading a short story in the latest New Yorker. The story – called “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil” – was written by William Trevor. The New Yorker publishes the best fiction in the world, and its editing is absolutely world class.
Nevertheless, I came across not one but three sentences that cried out for editing. I was able to watch myself fix them – and now you can get an up-close-and-personal look at my editing process.
Maybe you’ll agree with my improvements – or maybe you’ll think the original sentences were fine before I started messing with them. No matter. Either way, you’ll be getting in touch with your own sense of what constitutes an effective sentence. That awareness is as valuable to a writer as a mechanic’s ability to diagnose a problem just by listening to what happens when you turn the ignition key in your car.
- His dark hair, not cut too short, was in a fringe.
I had so many problems with this sentence that I hardly know where to begin. “His dark hair was…” is too static for me. Another problem for me is that nothing in the story suggests that the pupil was badly cared for – so why say that his hair wasn’t too short? Another problem is that “was in a fringe” is a weak way to end a sentence.
My version: “He carelessly brushed back his fringed dark hair as he took his place on the piano bench.”
I like my version better because it lets us see the boy doing something. (I made it up, by the way – the story doesn’t mention brushing back his hair or sitting down on the piano bench.)
- Daffodils in vases were on the sofa table and on the corner shelf near the door.
Another static sentence. Please, somebody – do something! The piano teacher could glance at the daffodils, or admire them, or ignore them. Or the daffodils themselves could do something, like filling a vase.
My version: Daffodils filled a pair of tall, slender vases on the sofa table and on the corner shelf near the door.
- She would say nothing to the mother if the mother telephoned to ask how the boy was getting on.
Why repeat “the mother”?
My version: She would say nothing if the mother telephoned to ask how the boy was getting on.
(Are you wondering if I did any “picking” at today’s post? The answer – I’m sighing – is yes. The Revisions feature on my software says I’ve done 20 sets of edits.)
Some questions for you:
- What do you think of my rewrites?
- Could you come up with something better (If your answer is “yes,” good for you!)
- Do you ever read a sentence and itch to rewrite it?
- Do you pick, pick, pick at your own sentences?