Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Joy of Editing

We Have JoyImage via WikipediaI have taken against a number of words and phrases as a consequence of my nasty writing habit. Some of these are insidious little things that creep into manuscripts like cockroaches, infesting decent prose with their chitinous scuttling.

It's odd, but the vast majority of sentences containing the word 'that', for instance, are improved by its removal. I have started taking against that in a mildly unreasoning way, even attacking unsuspecting thats as I walk down the street. (Have you ever walked into a grocer and complained about his apostrophes? No, me neither, but I have oft been sore tempted, I can tell you. Avocadoe's my arse!)

I have just purged a manuscript of the word 'before', which is almost always a symptom of lazy writing. Excising before almost always leads to better sentence structure or to forcing you to rewrite the sentence more elegantly.

He stood before walking quickly out of the room.

Not only includes a before, it also contains two other weasel words - stood and walking. We 'stand' so rarely and standing is such a passive thing to do. Stood goes 90% of the time to be replaced by a more active occupation or, ideally, no explanation of the movement - we can infer it. Similarly 'walking'. We run, jump, dash, fly, leap and race. Why bother walking? It's so humdrum.

Put and putting are also very passive ways to describe an action which can often either go (giving way to inference) or be replaced with a more active description. We rarely put things down - we drop them, bang them, toss them or perhaps even gently place them.

And then there's 'and then', which I recognise is a nasty little habit I have to consciously sweep up after. It's always redundant. Friends have other habits like 'just' - and 'started to' is an indication that you can usually lose the action altogether. Things starting to happen rarely interest us - it's the happening that engages.

Any contributions to my list of words up with which I shall not put are more than welcome!

Sorry for the writing post. Normal service resumed shortly...
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16 comments:

alexander... said...

The picture is 1982 classic from Killing Joke, 'We Have Joy'.

Just in case you were wondering...

Mita said...

My favourite hate is 'more than' instead of 'over' - why the preference of one over the other?

Keefieboy said...

I'm just reading an old kiddies book - one sentence almost made me stand, walk over to the window and place it on the pavement - it contained no less than five 'thats'. Sheesh!

Mich said...

I wouldn't presume to add to the list, but I totally agree with the removal of "that" from sentences. Will have to read my stuff more carefully now! :-)

Rupert Neil Bumfrey said...

Never having heard you say "of" instead of "have", I will leave with those guilty, to realise their ignorance! ;-((

Bonio said...

Oh yes - we should extend the COGs to include Word Fascists. I'm in.

I had a Twit rant a week or two back along similar lines i.e. words that "piss me off". Words that are flabby, used incorrectly or simply plain bastardizations, corruptions or amalgams (is that a word or a dental composite?)

The abusage of 'substitute' and 'replace' is always likely to spike my ire.

Oooo, Killing Joke. I'll be polishing the dust off my Cabaret Voltaire and Gang of Four C90 cassettes later.

Macthomson said...

It can all go the other way! I have often heard said that most identification of speakers in a dialogue passage are redundant.

"You are a bigot," he said.
"Of course," she countered.

But... how often I find myself forced to read again a long exchange of dialogue to identify exactly who said what?

Ah, the 'Joy Of Editing'. In my absence from the Sandlands I had forgotten how much fun the Khaleej Times could be!

alexander... said...

Absolutely, Mac - getting the 'beats' of dialogue right, knowing when to further identify a speaker or insert some action or description to break up the to and fro and not cluttering the passage with 'he opined' and 'she wailed' is part of the fun of the game...

kaaronwarren said...

My worst crime is 'a little'. Before I send any manuscript out, I go through and remove 90% of them.

Brn said...

I don't know if you meant to do this, but your second and third sentences together make a great self-refutation of prescriptive grammarian-ism.

alexander... said...

Many of the 'rules' are worth following, brn - especially in regard to things like point of view and over-descriptive prose (adverbs and the like). But sometimes rules are made to be broken - the big difference I have found (learning too little, too hard) is that only having lived through the rules can you have a hope of breaking them without looking silly. I am no fan of 'word nazis' who put grammar above style and substance.

It's a little like learning to drive though - nobody in their right minds drives for the rest of their lives like they did on the day they passed the test, but it's a necessary rite of passage.

If that makes any sense?

Seabee said...

My local butcher is offering Christmas ham's and turkey's.

My current pet hate, raised by Rupert, is 'I could of', which I hear almost every day - I've even seen it in print several times.

Brn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brn said...

Rupert and seabee,

I'm just curious, can you really hear the difference between "I could've" (which is a perfectly grammatical colloquial contraction) and "I could of" (which is not grammatical)? Obviously I'm only speaking of when this is spoken. Or is it that you just object to the use of "could've"?

Brn said...

I agree completely that many of the rules are good and necessary (for example subject verb agreement or using the proper case for pronouns). What I object to is the raising of personal preferences, which is what all too many of the 'rules' we are taught are, to the level of commandment.

If you believe that this sentence sounds better without 'that' in it, then that is fine, but it doesn't make it true for everyone. Personally I mentally insert all the 'that's that you are removing, but I would never argue that my versions are inherently better than the that-less versions.

Seabee said...

Brn, I have no objection to could've, indeed I say it myself. It's the clearly enunciated could of that annoys me.

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