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Three Writing and Editing References

Posted on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 11:18 PM

We owe our readers our best.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I wouldn't predict the following books will end up on your top shelf of writing and editing references, but they will offer benefits.

Practical Examples and Exercises

Don McNair's Edit-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave (Quill Driver Books) overemphasizes that publisher/agent angle. "You can be published" is the title of the introduction, and that sort of stress on selling suggests the author is focusing on novice writers.

Don't let that put you off, however. The book, by a veteran editor, contains solid advice on how to improve your writing, novice or otherwise. McNair has divided his material into sections. The most developed and useful ones are "Putting Words In" and "Taking Words Out."

Within the "In," he addresses hooks and point of view, warns us about dumping information, and shows how to create hardworking scenes. The "Out" brings us McNair's 21 steps "to fog-free writing."

"Now we're going to throw some of those wonderful words out," he warns. "Why? Because they fog up your meaning, suck power from your story, and put agents and editors on life support."

What follows is practical. Among the steps, you'll find: "Use fewer -ing words," "Use fewer infinitives," "Change passive voice to active voice," "Eliminate double verbs" ("She watched television all day" versus "She sat and watched television all day"), "Watch for foggy phrases" ("It eases the pain" versus "It has the effect of easing the pain"), "Delete -ly words" ("John crawled off the carpet" versus "John slowly crawled off the carpet"), "Eliminate redundancies" ("That was the result" versus "That was the end result."), and "Avoid clichés like the plague" ("He made it before the door slammed shut" versus "He made it in the nick of time").

The book bulges with examples and exercises.

Amusing Lessons and Reminders on Committing Writer Sins

The brother/sister writing team of Ross and Kathryn Petras has issued Wretched Writing: A Compendium of Crimes Against the English Language (Perigee Trade). "Wretched writing," they explain, "is, to put it politely, a felonious assault on the English language. It is the lowest of the low. It plumbs the depths of literature and spelunks the caves of nonfiction. In other words, it stinks."

There follows a close-to-200-page alphabetical display of writer sins, from "adjectives, excessive use of" to "zoological sexual encounters," as supplied by "politician-writers." Each entry gets an explanation and, usually, examples. Under "character descriptions, too much," one sample is taken from Bronwyn: Silk and Steel, a 1992 novel by Ron Miller. Here's a single paragraph of a description far more extensive than that:

"Her hair had the sheen of the sea beneath an eclipsed moon. It was the color of a leopard's tongue, of oiled mahogany. It was terra cotta, bay and chestnut. Her hair was a helmet, a hood, the cowl of the monk, magician or cobra."

The entry "eumerdification" requires definition: "Making academic writing at least 25% incomprehensible crap, to seem smarter." One example, from The Continental Philosophy Reader: "Since thought is seen to be 'rhizomatic' rather than 'arboreal,' the movement of differentiation and becoming is already imbued with its own positive trajectory."

You'll find: "constructions, confusing, convoluted, and otherwise confounding" and "dialogue, deadly" and "hipster writing, horribly outdated" and "modifiers, misplaced" and "obviousness, excessive" and "pretension, pseudo-philosophical prose" and "saying nothing."

There's fun to be had in the reading, along with the lessons and reminders.

Nothing the Same Again

To the contrary, very good writing can be savored in the 2013 version of The Best American Essays, part of the annual "Best American Series" published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. There's plenty in this collection to enjoy and to learn from. What is it we tell those who write for us? That reading is essential for writers (and editors).

The editor of this latest in the best essays series is Cheryl Strayed, an essayist, novelist, and teacher. In an introduction, she states: "When I teach writing, I tell my students that the invisible, unwritten last line of every essay should be and nothing was ever the same again. By which I mean the reader should feel the ground shift, if even only a bit, when he or she comes to the end of the essay. Also, there should be something at stake in the writing of it. Or, better yet, everything."

An intriguing thought, even when we're not engaged with essays but with news stories and features and columns: nothing the same again, ground shift, something at stake. Not all we write or edit can be that auspicious, that important, but aiming honestly and realistically for import is a noble, worthy, and appropriate goal. We owe our readers our best. We should aim to enrich their lives in some way and repay them for agreeing to spend reading time with us.

Twenty-six essays spread across just short of 300 pages. Each one is a journey twice taken, first by the writer, then -- because the substance and the writing are so involving -- by the reader. Editor Strayed says, "The essay's engine is curiosity; its territory is the open road. This is what makes them so damn fun to read. Their vibrancy and intimacy, their mystery and nerve, their relentlessly searching quality is simultaneously like a punch in the nose and a kiss on the lips. A pow and a wow. An ouch and a yes. A stop and a go."

I encourage you to take a look-see.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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"Hey, watch those stinky caver analogies! The terms 'spelunker' or 'spelunk' have a negative connotation these days -- denoting unprepared people who go into caves and get lost or hurt. Thus the bumper sticker: Cavers Rescue Spelunkers." --Curt Harler, freelance writer and editor

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