A few years ago, when I was looking for an agent, a unique ‘Voice’ seemed to be the single most important thing they were looking for in debut writers. Maybe they still are. Yet when it came to editing with publishing houses, style seemed secondary to structure: the story was the thing.
I heard that sentiment echoed elsewhere in the industry, including from luminaries such as Barry Cunningham and Robert McKee. But I can’t think those agents were wrong; the trick, it seems, is to nail both.
Voice is a big topic, one I’m not comfortable holding forth about since it’s not a big thing my own writing. Rather, in The Goose Road and now in a World War 2 work-in-progress, I’m aiming at a coherent style – a sort of stepping stone to an identifiable Voice. Editing helped me achieve this no end.
So here are five editing exercises which I learnt while writing my debut novel. Not only did they help cut the flab from early drafts, they also pulled the manuscript together, purging a variety of styles that had crept in over the course of several years of writing.
- Read the text aloud.
This, I think, is almost universally accepted as a great thing to do. Reading aloud reveals clumsiness, repetitions, logical and stylistic inconsistencies, and complex sentence constructions that are bound to trip a reader.
One trick to speed up a spoken read through (and this advice, I think, comes from the marvellous Book Bound UK team) is to print out the manuscript – or at least sizeable chunks of it – and read it quickly, without interruption, marking in the margins every place where you stumble, and only going back afterwards to sort out the problems.
Personally, I can’t do a read through on-screen. It has to be a paper exercise. And worth every hour it takes!
- The Rule of ‘2+2’.
The rule? Never give ’em four!
My early drafts were littered with examples of me telling the reader the answers to an internal, rhetorical question or explaining a cliff-hanger, which left the reader nothing to figure out. Which is boring.
It may be that 2+2 isn’t actually a stylistic issue at all, and has more to do with the process of learning to trust the reader, which until I had a realistic expectation of having readers – as opposed to critique partners – felt way too abstract to worry about.
It was Stephen King’s fantastic On Writing that blew this misconception out of the water, and explained how the reader is integral to the story. As a writer, we must ask: what do I want the reader to know that my characters don’t know? How will they know it and when? For storytelling purposes, that takes precedence over details such as choosing active verbs and laying off the adjectives.
That epiphany, in turn, made me wonder whether other, purely stylistic issues can’t be left until the end as well. Can we, in effect, retro-fit Voice?
I know many writers (and some agents and editors) will say, ‘No. You can’t.’ For them, discovering the right Voice is key to unlocking the story itself. Maybe, then, it is a matter of degree. If Voice is all important, it’s not a question of style. Otherwise…
- Tidy up dialogue attribution.
The convention that ‘said’ is better than ‘expostulated’ or ‘remonstrated’ seems pretty well universally accepted these days. But don’t all those saids get boring!
I allow my characters to cry, shout, answer, mutter, spit, protest and a few others, too. I also love this formulation: ‘“That’s absurd!” She laughed.’ Where an action substitutes for attribution.
And if there are only two people in a conversation, I cut out attribution completely so long as it’s clear who is talking.
- Observe. Emote. Analyse. React.
Thus, ‘The bomb exploded. Her heart leapt into her mouth. The sound was terrifyingly close. She scrambled to hide herself under the desk, and waited for the ceiling to fall.’
Just as adjectives fit most comfortably into a particular order, and jar in any alternative sequence, so this progression somehow imparts the clearest sense of immediacy, allowing the reader to experience an event at the same time as the character.
However it works, THANK YOU, Em Lynas, who taught me about this order.
- The filter-ectomy.
It was the ever-brilliant Emma Darwin who opened my eyes to this fantastic editing tool.
Filtering (so named by John Gardner) is the process by which the writer shows the reader something via an observing ‘consciousness’ – usually through the eyes of a character – rather than describing the thing itself.
In her blog, This Itch of Writing, Dr Darwin quotes Janet Burroway saying, ‘Generally speaking – though no laws are absolute in fiction – vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as “she noticed” and “she saw” be suppressed in favour of direct presentation of the thing seen.’
Apparently, early in our careers, we all tend to write: ‘Turning, she noticed two soldiers’ bodies lying in the mud.’
After an edit, this becomes: ‘She turned. In the mud, lay two soldiers’ bodies.’
While homogenising every observation in this way would be dull and unoriginal, a thorough filter-ectomy works wonders for pace.
Emma Darwin’s blog is always a gold mine of good advice. Here’s the link to one about filtering:
This blog first appeared on Awfully Big Blog Adventure on Aug 15th, 2018. This is a corrected version!