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Posts Tagged ‘editing’


I first heard of Richard Lanham’s books Analyzing Prose, and Revising Prose when I was taking a class called “Rhetoric,” in grad school. Though much of what transpired in that class is lost to me forever, Lanham and his works have stuck around.

Richard Lanham is all about good writing. Years ago he developed a little checksheet, which he called “The Paramedic Method” for revision. Anyone interested in writing clean, concise, vivid prose should know about this list. There are numerous versions around the internet, but here is the basic list. Print it out, then pull up a chair, grab something you’ve written, and see how your writing stacks up.

Before you get down to the nuts and bolts of the list, though, try something else Lanham suggests: Try reading your writing aloud, with emphasis and feeling. It’s a simple test–and one of the best ways to begin editing. When you finish (or think you’ve finished) editing, do it again. If you can’t read a sentence with emphasis and feeling, chances are good your audience can’t, either.

But to the list. I’m going to add notes in italics. Lanham’s words will be in bold, as well they should be:

The Paramedic Method

  1. Circle the prepositions (of, in, about, for, onto, into)
    Watch out for long lists of prepositional phrases (On the dresser in front of the mirror beside the brush and under the comb sat a letter.) They slow readers down and become singsongy and confusing.
  2. Draw a box around the “is” verb forms
    (am, is, are, was, were, been, being) These verbs do nothing except indicate existence. They’re incredibly useful, so you’ll probably use a lot of them, but eliminate them where you can.
  3. Ask, “Where’s the action?”
    Read your sentence, and then state it aloud in it’s simplest terms. Can you write it like that?
  4. Change the “action” into a simple verb
    Consider replacing multi-word verb forms with single forms wherever possible. Can you replace “he had been running” with “he ran”, or, “the water was pouring” with “the water poured”? Note you’re eliminating weak “is” verbs in these simplifications.
  5. Move the doer into the subject (Who’s kicking whom)
    Instead of, “The boy was kicked by the donkey,” write, “The donkey kicked the boy.”
  6. Eliminate any unnecessary slow wind-ups
    Consider eliminating weak beginnings like, “In my humble opinion…” “In the last analysis…” “To make a long story short…”
  7. Eliminate any redundancies.
    (“The girl had been weeping all day, and I had been crying, too,” can easily become, “The girl and I had been crying all day.” Dumb sentence, but you get the point. This point can be applied on a larger scale as well. As you read your work, be on the lookout for places where you repeat scenes, where you make the same points in only slightly different ways, and where you tell a story that illustrates a point, and then tack on a paragraph that basically restates what your story already said, better.

Try going through the list for a paragraph, or a page. Then try reading it out loud again. Remember language is spoken first. Listen to your words. I think you’ll be amazed. I know I was.

Original: In this paragraph is a demonstration of the use of good style in the writing of a report.  The action in the original sentence is a noun (demonstration).  Revision: This paragraph demonstrates good style in reports (or)...good style in report writing.   The action in the revised sentence has been shifted to the verb (demonstrates).

Now You Try

Use the Paramedic Method in the sentences below to practice.

Use the Paramedic Method in the sentences below to practice making your sentences more concise. After you use the Paramedic Method on these sentences, check your results against the sentences at the bottom of this handout.

  1. The point I wish to make is that the employees working at this company are in need of a much better manager of their money.
  2. It is widely known that the engineers at Sandia Labs have become active participants in the Search and Rescue operations in most years.
  3. After reviewing the results of your previous research, and in light of the relevant information found within the context of the study, there is ample evidence for making important, significant changes to our operating procedures.

Concise Solutions:

  1. Employees at this company need a better money manager. (Original word count: 26. New word count: 10).
  2. In recent years, engineers at Sandia Labs have participated in the Search and Rescue operations. (Original word count: 24. New word count: 16).
  3. After reviewing the results of your research, and within the context of the study, we find evidence supporting significant changes in our operating procedures. (Original word count: 36. New word count: 25).

This particular version of the list came from the English department at Purdue University. There’s much, much more in Lanham’s books; I recommend that you buy a copy of each.

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Good question. It used to be that self publishing was seen as the “easy way out” for books that couldn’t make the grade at mainstream publishing houses. For years, saying someone had self-published led to barely-suppressed smirks. Of course a self-published book would be sub-standard, went the reasoning. If it had been good enough to be profitable, a publisher would have taken it. Right? Somehow we all assumed that a book was good only if lots of people wanted to read it. There is a grain of truth in this; publishers, like responsible businesses everywhere, must keep a healthy bottom line, or they cease to exist. Clearly they have a responsibility to select the best books that they believe will appeal to the widest audience, and generate the greatest returns on their considerable investment in time and resources.

But what about the wonderful books that may address a desperate need in a comparatively small audience? Books that don’t seem likely to meet the benchmark for sales are often simply rejected by mainstream publishers, no matter what their literary or social merit may be, because they simply don’t offer adequate returns on the publisher’s investment.

The recent advances in self-publishing have changed all that. The proliferation of self-publishing and digital publishing, combined with Amazon and the major book-sellers’ online sales and distribution outlets, have largely removed the bottom line as a criteria in determining book production. At this point in history, for probably the first time ever, anybody who has about fifty dollars can produce and distribute a book for worldwide sale–or for an audience of one.

The upside to this is that now all those wonderful books for niche markets stand a chance of actually seeing the light of day. The downside is that it’s awfully easy to make a damfool of one’s self in print, and on a worldwide stage. It’s a scary thought. Self-publishing is great. I do it regularly. It offers me a way to maintain control of production and quality to a degree that authors who work with traditional publishers only dream of. Call me a control freak, but I like that.

But the decision to self-publish shouldn’t be make lightly. Before you select that pdf file and hit “send,” consider the following:

1. Are you considering self-publishing because you don’t think your book will appeal to a mainstream publisher? Why not? If you’re dealing with a limited subject with a limited audience, and you doubt that your book would pull enough market share to earn back a publisher’s substantial investment in getting your book from your manuscript onto the shelves in Borders, self-publishing might be right for you.

If you’re considering self-publishing because you think it’s an easy way out of doing all the editing a conventional publisher would require, maybe the question isn’t self-publishing or mainstream publishing, but whether you’re ready to publish at all. Though the requirements for self-publishing are different, and to a great degree driven by the author’s own standards, self-publishing is no substitute for good workmanship.

2. Have you done your homework? Most self-publishers offer a variety of packages. Each package includes a variety of services. The quality of those services can vary wildly from very good to very, very bad.

Take, for example, the matter of editing. Some self-publishing companies hire qualified editors, who do sterling work. Others seem to hire first-graders and provide them with a checklist of grammar rules. I’ve seen “corrections” that edited errors into the manuscript. And any attempt to clarify the finer points of grammar for the “editor” was met with mulish insistence on following the list.

If you’re doubtful about the quality of the services the self-publishing company offers, run far and run fast. If you must use them, consider hiring your own skilled editors and, if the self-publishing company allows it, designers. Some, like XLibris, require customers to choose from a limited palette of designs, and all design and editing must be done in-house. Others, like CreateSpace, provide templates, and allow customers to set up their own books, and use their own editors and designers.

Again, there’s an upside and a downside to this. For the writer who happens also to be a skilled typesetter such a system allows for far better quality control. For someone who is stumbling through the process, the system allows for those aforementioned unparalleled opportunities to embarrass one’s self.

Self-publishing can offer an amazing opportunity to produce the book you want, and get it to the audience you want to reach. But before you make your decision, ask yourself if you feel confident that you, experts to whom you have access, or the company you have chosen can reasonably be expected to produce a book of which you can be proud.

If you want to typeset your own book and design your own cover, take the time to educate yourself in some of the finer points of the tasks. Consider that there are people who actually go to school to learn how to do this. If you have doubts about your ability, check out some of the blogs on the blogroll; there are several run by excellent editors. There are some book designers here, too (stands up and waves hand).

3. Do you know how you will distribute your book? Most self-publishing companies offer to produce your book for you, and to offer it for sale–on their site, and perhaps on an affiliated site. Look for the ones that offer broader distribution. Some, like CreateSpace, will make your book available internationally through Amazon, if you wish, as well as through one of the major mainstream book distribution houses. What this means is that your book is available not only to people who know about and visit the self-publisher’s website, but to millions. A stranger across the nation can walk into a Barnes & Noble store and order my book–and get it. Make no mistake, one of the key factors in your book sales is the distribution system you choose.

5. Marketing. I’m planning a more detailed look at book marketing shortly, so I won’t go into great detail except to say that whether you publish with a mainstream publishing house or a self-publishing company, you should plan to market if you plan to sell books. Shrinking marketing dollars must be spent where they can be expected to earn the most return. If you’re a first-time writer, unless you have a dynamite book on a dynamite topic, this is quite likely not  your book. Publishers openly acknowledge that the books that sell the best are those in which the author is most actively engaged in promotions. There should be nobody who works harder than you do to make sure your book sells. That’s true across the board.

So–what about it? Are you ready to self-publish?

If you’d like to find out more about self-publishing through sites like CreateSpace (no, I’m not sleeping with anyone who works there, but I’ve tried several online publishers and I like their services the best) visit them online. If you’d like to see what I’ve done with within their very generous parameters visit my Amazon Author’s page. If you’d like a closer look at my work, email me for samples.

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When I was in college, I worked in the Writing Lab. Common wisdom had it that students who were floundering came to the lab to be nursemaided along by geeks in glasses who actually understood how to diagram a sentence. And we did get a lot of struggling freshmen, drowning in the concept of the Well-Constructed Five-Sentence Paragraph.

But as the year progressed, I noticed something interesting. A lot of the people who came in for “tutoring” really didn’t need tutoring. They came in for a fresh set of eyes. These were the seniors, the biology majors, the engineering students. One memorable student went on to become an anesthesiologist, and administer my epidural when I was having my son. I was happy to remember that he had been very, very smart. I was equally glad to remember that I had been nice to him. We all know what Payback can be.

As the year wore on I found myself hiring tutors not because I couldn’t write–I was, after all, a tutor myself–but because I, like my smartest clients, realized that  there are two groups of people who need that fresh set of eyes. The first is the struggling writer. The second is the successful writer who understands that no matter how good you are, you can not adequately edit your own work.

The reason is simple. Writing is a recursive process. Things get added in. Things get taken out. After just so many trips through a piece (or worse, a novel) it’s impossible to maintain the clarity that notices things like a character’s name change, a faulty parallelism, a dropped line of dialog that throws everything off, or even an out-of-sequence chapter number.

For that, you need an editor. I need two, because I ask for editing at two steps in my writing process. I ask for it the first time when I think I have a polished draft, just about the time that I’m first starting to see publication as a foreseeable event. Instead of googling publishers or booting up my layout program, though, I send my draft to my content editor, and I ask her to read it for continuity, to flag places where the story jumps or drags, to note places where I seem to be making unwarranted assumptions, or where a narrative line relies too heavily on coincidence–in other words, I ask her to read for the story, and note any place that the story just doesn’t hold up.

When I get her comments back I generally realize I still have a lot of work to do. I have to clarify motives. I have to develop characters. I have to flesh out scenes–or in my case, cut unnecessary description.

I write again. In the case of my most recent novel, Good on Paper, I ended up writing the whole thing four times, from the viewpoints of each of the four narrators, and that was after I thought I had a finished book. I was concerned about having so many speakers, and wanted to see if any one character could really do the story justice. And so I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And in the end, I wound up where I started–with four narrators. But I understood each of them far better, and the book is far better for it. That’s the value of a content editor.

The problem is, though, that a good content editor sees your book a lot. She can develop blind spots, just like yours. She can no more be a really effective proof reader than you can, and for exactly the same reason. Like you, she has too much history with the book to see it clearly.

And that’s why before I submit a book for publication I ask a second editor to do my line edits. And, even though I am an excellent writer, and my content editor is both an excellent writer and editor, my line editor still finds things. Because she is not familiar with my book, because she has not been involved in all the wrangling over character and plot development, she can see the book the way my readers will see it–fresh, new, and, once she’s done with it, error-free.

Everybody needs at least one good editor. The best writers know it.

Have a specific editing question? Check out the Blood-Red Pencil‘s Ask the Editor Tuesday Free-For-All.

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