I’ve often wished that writers were more grounded when they bestow advice about writing. We tend to sit high on a hill, looking down with amused benevolence at the amateurs who are struggling to put words to paper.
The truth is that we’re all amateurs. Each new writing task means starting from scratch – figuring out how to engage our readers and choose strategies to organize and present our material.
Time to descend that mountain! I am getting ready to republish a 1998 book I wrote about Shaw: Pygmalion’s Wordplay. In my next post I’m going to talk about what “republish” means (hint: it involves dealing with formatting and copyright issues). Today I’m going to look at a single sentence I decided to revise.
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The original 1998 book has a preface where I introduced myself and explained why I’d written the book. Now – 20 years later – it’s time for another preface explaining why I’m reissuing it. Here’s one sentence from that new preface:
I wish I could capture the exhilaration I felt while I was exploring the mysteries of language that Shaw was grappling with.
Not bad! I like “exhilaration,” “mysteries,” and “grappling.” But I don’t like that with at the end. A stickler would probably be annoyed because it ends with a preposition, but that’s not my problem. Or – more accurately – that’s not how I would explain the problem.
I end sentences with words like with, of, for, up and so on all the time. My problem is that the sentence sputters. I’m a big advocate for strong sentences. Pump that iron! It’s a skill that doesn’t get enough emphasis in school.
So here’s the revision I came up with:
My one regret about this book is that it doesn’t convey the exhilaration I felt as I learned more about the mysteries and conundrums of language.
The sputter is gone (yay!). But it’s awfully stodgy for a sentence that’s supposed to be about exhilaration. “I wish I could capture” (my original wording) is much livelier than “My one regret about this book is that….”
Worse, my revised sentence doesn’t mention Shaw. I want readers to see him as often as possible when they’re reading my book.
Here’s the revision that finally found its way into the preface:
I wish I could have captured the exhilaration I felt while I was writing this book – how much fun it was to watch Shaw dive into the mysteries and conundrums of language.
A dash (my favorite punctuation mark!) makes the sentence less stodgy and more human. Short, punchy words (fun, watch, dive) nicely balance the longer, more academic words (exhilaration, conundrum).
I subscribe to Medium, an online resource for articles about a huge range of subjects, including writing. I was dismayed to read this advice recently from a writer who’s published many articles: she never revises more than twice. (I can tell – she rarely gets it’s/its right).
Sheesh. This is an unusual post for me – only 8 revisions before I hit the Publish button. Usually I do between 18 and 30. Mind you, that’s not a rule. I’m always eager to get my posts up there for you to read. But I also want to make them as readable and lively as I possibly can.
I think Shaw would back me up there.