Monday, September 20, 2010

The Economy of Word-Crafting: Shopping for the Right Words

Yes, you can shop at the Under-a-Dollar store of words if you seek words merely to fill pages, but you'll end up paying for what you get: cheap, trite sentence fragments, products that last only a short while, rather than finely wrought, unique verbal images that become treasured keepsakes. Don't just toss the most-sold items into your paper cart; travel the aisles, search the overhead storage shelves and back rooms of the word warehouse. Take the extra time and walk the extra yards to find the highest quality product for your communication needs.

Before you check out, carefully observe your word choices as they move along the conveyor belt before your eyes. Ask yourself whether you can swap any items for more economical choices. This does not mean cheaper choices, but BETTER ones: one superior word for the price of a few inferior ones. The "Two-for-the-Price-of-One" mentality guarantees only a cart full of unnecessary items that you'll later feel sorry that you bought.

In the Economy of Words, scarcity ensures higher quality than abundance. Less is more in the word store!

For All Writing Students and All Genres

Editing Checklist for Writing Students:
For Self-Editing or Editing the Works of Other Writers

by Susan L. Lipson

Remember to double-space your written work for easier, clearer editing later. Complete all 15 steps, writing your comments on a separate piece of paper so that you can reuse this checklist for everything you write or edit.

For Draft One:

1) Listen to someone read the entire piece aloud to you, or read it to the author if you are editing for someone else. The reader should read slowly and with expression. If you have no one to read aloud for you, read your own work aloud, to allow yourself to hear your words outside of your own head.

2) Note your observations about the following issues:

* Is the main idea clear or unclear?
* Does the story or essay show a clear beginning, middle, and end, flowing along in a logical order?
* Does the work move from point to point at a reasonable pace, maintaining a balance in the depth of each point or scene (versus rushing certain points or scenes without developing any depth)?
* Does the work stay focused on its topic (rather than veer off into unnecessary tangents, or side stories?
* Do the word choices reflect the proper tone for the piece, and, in fiction, the proper voice for each character?
* Do you enjoy hearing it aloud (without wincing over awkward-sounding parts?

If you answered “no” to any of those questions, revise before continuing with the second level of editing, which follows.


3) Check for repeated adjectives and verbs, and delete those that add nothing to your piece. If the repeated words seem absolutely necessary for the reader’s understanding, substitute words of the same meaning for the recurring words. Also, if any of your word choices strike you as not exactly what you wished to convey, now is the time to find more powerful words. Use a thesaurus, if necessary.

4) Lightly circle all descriptive words and phrases.

* Write T for Telling over any description that only tells, but doesn’t show a word picture, such as “opinion words” which mean different things to different people (like “ugly,” “scary,” “beautiful,” “awesome,” “old”...) or words which can be imagined in more than one way (like “sad,” “annoyed,” “shocked,” “excited,” “angry,” “kind,” “nice,” “big,” “little,” “smart”...).

* Replace every telling word with a more specific, colorful SHOWING word or phrase. Use a thesaurus to help you, if you need it.

5) Reread the changed sentences. Will your words paint a picture that stimulates more than just the visual sense in your reader? If not, look for a way to add a sound or a smell, a feeling or a taste in a natural way, to help the reader EXPERIENCE the scene, rather than simply observe it.

6) Have you included a simile or metaphor in any of your descriptions? Try to include at least one in your work, but no more than two in a paragraph.

7) Lightly underline ALL verbs and verb phrases. Immediately DELETE any of the following PASSIVE VERBS (except when no alternative exists): AM, IS, ARE, WAS, WERE, BE, BEING, BEEN, GO, GOES, WENT, DO, DOES, DID, SAY, SAYS, SAID.

8) Now replace the passive verbs with active verbs that SHOW an action, not just tell about it. (SHOW, DON’T TELL!) If the passive verbs follow “there”—as in “there was,” “there is,” “there were,” and “there are”—delete “there” from that sentence as well. Also, replace “said,” whenever possible, with a dialogue tag that shows how a character says his words (“whispered,” “shouted,” “snapped,” “cooed,” “barked,” etc.).

9) Now look at the rest of the underlined verbs and verb phrases. Label D for “Dull” over any vague words and replace them with more specific ones (like “sprinted” instead of “ran,” or “snapped” instead of “said in a mean voice”).

10) Have you used any DIALOGUE or QUOTATIONS to show what someone says, to illustrate your ideas or main points? Add either of these kinds of “spoken words,” if possible. (Remember, in nonfiction, to cite your source in parentheses after quoting other authors!)

For Draft Two:

11) Recopy or retype the piece with the changes.

12) With your fresh-looking copy in hand, PROOFREAD for misspellings, punctuation problems, paragraph formatting errors, and grammatical difficulties. Correct the errors you have identified.

13) And for the errors you have not identified: Ask a writer or reader who has more writing experience than you to read your second draft and proofread for you. A fresh pair of eyes can make a significant difference at this stage.

14) Make final changes based on your reader’s suggestions—if you agree.

15) Carefully recopy or type the changes onto the document. Double space!

16) Reread the final draft. Write on a separate piece of paper the grade or evaluation that YOU would give your work, based on the quality of your previous works, and on a rubric founded upon the relative strength of each piece. In other words, on a scale of 1 to 6:

1 means a weakly written, barely readable piece that merely tells without SHOWING, using vague, nonspecific, forgettable word choices, and no D.A.D. or M.O.M. elements. A 1 exhibits a lack of attention to, or knowledge of, basic writing mechanics, with frequent errors in basic mechanics, also known as proofreading issues: problems with spelling, punctuation, format, grammar, and unnecessary extra words.

2 means a piece that uses one or two aspects of the D.A.D. and/or M.O.M. elements, but possesses little word power in its mostly nonspecific word choices. A 2 also shows numerous errors in basic mechanics, though not as many as a 1.

3 means that the piece shows a balance between its strengths and weaknesses, indicating the potential for a powerful revision. A 3 offers some memorable lines and uses at least three of the D.A.D. and/or M.O.M. elements.

4 means a work in which the strengths overpower the weaknesses, and the weaknesses are limited to minor stylistic and/or proofreading issues to resolve, rather than substantive problems. D.A.D. and M.O.M. clearly influence a 4, even if the writer has not mastered the subtle use of those elements yet.

5 means that the writer has created a powerful, memorable work that clearly shows the writer’s control of both the D.A.D. and M.O.M. skills by using specific, apt word choices and a strong, yet subtle style. The 5 needs no editing, only proofreading—for either very few misspellings, incorrect punctuation, or minor grammatical errors.

6 means vivid, memorable writing that employs the D.A.D. and M.O.M. models, painting a clear, logical, multi-sensory word picture or argument (in the case of an essay), without any mechanical errors. A 6 motivates the reader to reread the piece, for enjoyment.

17) Turn in your final draft for a teacher or peer’s evaluation. Later, compare the reader’s assessment to your own. If they differ a lot, be sure to discuss why with your reader.

18) File your work (by date) so that you can chronicle your progress as a writer. Review your works, from first to final draft stage. LEARN FROM MISTAKES; THEY’RE TOUGH, YET HELPFUL TEACHERS. Also keep in mind that teachers and editors are NOT always right; some critiques are matters of opinion, not fact. Make sure you agree with and accept their criticism before you make further changes in your work.

If you have completed these 18 steps, I guarantee that you have added new life to your writing! --S.L. Lipson