Monday, November 23, 2020

Wordsmithing the Heck out of Your Revision--Ten Steps to Make It Shine

After the gathering stage, after the storyboarding and brainstorming your book's flow, after the first and tenth drafts are created, comes wordsmithing.

Wordsmithing is the final craft we book writers need to have in our toolbox. It's what makes the actual writing shine and sparkle.

Without the other steps, though, it's a wasted effort. I often think of it like putting curtains up on a framed house--window holes but no walls. The framing needs sheet rock, mudding and taping, sanding and painting, and glass in those windows, before the curtains go up.

So, for me, wordsmithing is the absolute last step on your revision task list.

Thing is, it's often the fun part. The skill we hone in school, in our jobs, in our teaching and classes. We love words--that's one reason we write. Words don't make a book, as you know. You have to also be sure the structure is solid and the content is strong. Wordsmithing focuses on the small stuff after all the big stuff is in place.

Think sentence structure, verb choice, adjectives, dialogue tags. Essential. When wordsmithing is done well, there's a vividness to the prose, and the pacing is just right for the story. So obviously, it's a needed step before sending your manuscript out to beta readers, writer's groups, agents, editors, or publishers.

How do you learn wordsmithing? I learned it the hard way, by being an editor for 18 years at a small press (publisher). I honed other people's writing every day for years before I felt the lessons learned as an editor seep into my own writing. From editing, I learned about pacing, the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs. I got better at spelling (still not my best suit). I definitely could tell if a story worked or not--if it sang or slumped--and how to bring it to life. But editing others' work didn't automatically transfer to my own.

One benefit of editing, though: it showed me exactly where my own weaknesses lay. So I could start educating myself.

I studied several excellent wordsmithing primers. I'll list three of my favorites (you have yours, no doubt).

I still refer clients and students to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King, and Dave King's posts on Writer Unboxed. Self-Editing is an older book but well-loved on my shelf. Even though it's labeled as "fiction" it applies to all kinds of writing that uses storytelling. So memoir and nonfiction writers benefit too.

Another great help was Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark. A very detailed compendium of wordsmithing craft tools.

And I enjoy the specificity of Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence.

There are also great wordsmithing blogs online, and my last recommendation will be this one on Pinterest that lists David Michael Kaplan's top tools (from his book Revision--another favorite on my bookshelf). Great charts and ideas there!

But the most common question I get about wordsmithing is whether there's a logical method, an approach, that writers entering revision can use. Yes, and it's also tricky.

Tricky part first. As you start jazzing up your verbs, for example (a classic wordsmithing task), or looking up more vivid nouns in your thesaurus, you may get diverted back to structure. Your sentence-level edits make you realize, sadly and shockingly, that a whole scene actually doesn't work. So it's back to structuring. You pause, begin to rework on a larger scale, and totally forget where you are in the wordsmithing process.

This happens ALL THE TIME so be prepared for it. (By now, if it doesn't happen to me when revising, I suspect I am missing something.)

Enter lists.

When I'm ready to begin wordsmithing, I first myself a list of tasks. I use the above books as helpers--they have great lists to borrow. Here is how I use my lists. You've heard some of this before, if you're a regular reader of this blog, but hopefully you'll see some new stuff below.

I read aloud. I try to read through in one to two days, the entire manuscript. I have a highlighter in hand and I mark anything that sounds awkward. Sometimes I'll note why in the margin, but usually I don't--it interrupts the flow.

Then I start with my list. The list works from chapter to paragraph to sentences to words.

For chapter, I look at the beginnings and endings. I make sure they are varied, chapter to chapter (I don't start every chapter with the weather, for example). I make sure the endings lead into the next chapter's beginning. I make sure the last sentence of each chapter is a cliffhanger, not a wrap up.
I squint at the chapter's pages. I look for white space--there should be a nice variety of it, not just dense blocks of text. That tells me the pacing is good. If not, I highlight the dense stuff to break up later.

Then I go to paragraphs. I count lines (I know, I know, but it's amazing how many writers fall into a sleepy rhythm of, say, five sentence paragraphs). If 

I find that, I mark with the highlighter to break up later. I look at the opening and ending sentences to make sure the paragraph has actually moved the story from start to finish.

Last, I approach sentences. I look at words now. I'll sample out a few paragraphs and count the number of words in each sentence. Again, looking for variation. I mark with my highlighter when I find too many the same--all short, all long and complex.

I work with the individual words after that, starting with the adverbs and adjectives, our descriptors. Descriptors are great, and necessary, but sometimes writers wax lyrical and use descriptors instead of showing character more vividly.I try to eliminate what I can, especially "ly" words.

I look at my dialogue tags (verbs in spoken dialogue) and eliminate as many as I can without confusing the speaker. Also, I make sure I've used "said" and not more intricate tags like "exclaimed"--a mark of poor wordsmithing.

This is just part of my wordsmithing process for my books. It's different for every writer. Check out the resources listed above--full of great ideas too.

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