Key Points: Line editing -- tightening up individual sentences -- is normally done after story editing. Avoid excess adverbs (ly words). Adjectives are like pepper -- a little adds flavor, too much ruins the dish. Be wary of anthropomorphizing. Watch mixed and conflicting metaphors (or similes). Beware "seemed to" -- does it or doesn't it? Character act -- active voice lets them act! Go ahead and give us a name.
[Note -- there is some guessing about the punctuation of the sentences from Brandon's lost masterpiece.]
[Brandon] And if we'd been real smart, we would have cut a line... a word or two out of our tag line this week. We are talking about line editing.
[Howard] I'm Brandon. I'm Dan and Howard.
[Dan] And we're that smart.
[Raymond] One of the things we get asked most often by listeners is to do more podcasts on editing. Right now, I'm doing a line edit of Towers of Midnight. I'm posting percentages cut from chapters, I'm doing the tightening, just line by line try to make it shorter. So we thought we would do a podcast where we showed you what we're talking about. In the classic sense of show versus tell, we're going to actually try out. Now, I have to give a disclaimer here. We're going to try it out on the first book I ever wrote. All right?
[Howard] That's from 94?
[Brandon] No, this would be... yeah, 94, actually, yeah.
[Brandon] This is 1994. This is a book that I started writing on my mission on P days scribbled in a notebook. It is very bad. But we're not going to talk about making it good, we're going to talk about making it tight. So are comments are not going to reference the actual material. We're going to try and rewrite sentences to retain the same meaning and enhance clarity, to make them more brief, and to get rid of passive voice and things like that.
[Dan] For clarification here, what we're doing, a line edit, usually comes in the process after you've done like a copy edit. After the book is good, you're making it better.
[Brandon] Well, not necessarily a copyedit. But...
[Howard] Story edit. The big story edit.
[Brandon] Story edit.
[Dan] Story edit. That's what I meant. Story edit.
[Brandon] All the story editing is generally done at this point... or the big things. Sometimes I'm changing them as I'm line editing but... yeah.
[Howard] In fact, we should point out that the temptation to line edit... if you catch yourself writing in passive voice or using too many adverbs or something? The temptation to go back and quickly line edit can derail you and slow things way down if you do that before story editing, because story editing, often the whole paragraph, the whole chapter just has to go.
[Dan] It's going to change all the content anyway. So this is really a final polish ish kind of thing.
[Brandon] All right. So. That forewarned, this is not going to be good. But it...
[Dan] It's going to be brilliant, because you wrote it and can do no wrong.
[Brandon] 16 years ago...
[Brandon] All right. This is my first line. You guys ready for this? All right. "The wind blew carelessly and freely."
[Dan] And happily. And windily.
[Howard] And adverbially. Let's lose the adverbs.
[Brandon] Okay. How do we lose the adverbs?
[Dan] You think "ly."
[Howard] The first thing I would do is pare it all the way back to: core meaning. "The wind blew." Do I need to know... I mean, was the wind changing direction as it blew? What are we trying to communicate with the adverbs?
[Brandon] To be perfectly honest, I think I was just unconsciously copying Robert Jordan, who started every one of his books with wind blowing around.
[Dan] Thus, the wheel turns. What I would do with this one is actually just cut out the second one. "The wind blew carelessly" is how I would edit that down.
[Brandon] Okay. I'm kind of tempted to go with what Howard said, and just say, "The wind blew." There would need to be something else there, but we're not going to change meaning. If you look at the beginning of Mistborn, I just talk about the ash falling from the sky that was to set the scene it wasn't to be a pow sentence, it was to set scene. "The wind blew" might just be enough. I actually... but "the wind blew carelessly" is nice. I might have just cut this myself to "the wind blew careless and free." If you lose the adverbs... the whole idea behind cutting those out is you don't need them. The sentence means the same thing without them. It doesn't draw as much attention to itself. The parallel structure... sometimes parallel structure is good. Most of the time it's going to draw attention, pull the reader out, and kind of give them an unconscious kick.
[Howard] "The wind blew carelessly and freely" versus "careless and free"... you're right, same meaning. "The wind blew carelessly" removes freely and changes some of the happiness that might have been implicit in the wind.
[Brandon] Just a little bit.
[Howard] "The wind blew" is completely contextless.
[Dan] Very neutral.
[Howard] And what else is the wind going to do? That sentence all by itself...
[Brandon] Right. Yeah. The other thing to say about this sentence is I did begin with anthropomorphizing the wind. Which is not necessarily a good idea in a fantasy novel where the wind is not actually a character. So anyway...
[Dan] I think it bears mentioning that as a first line, it's kind of neat that that's essentially the opposite tone of "It was a dark and stormy night."
[Brandon] Ah, that's true.
[Dan] So, that's very clever of you.
[Brandon] I did it very intentionally, and not at all to just copy Robert Jordan. As we continue, the wind continues through the entire... like first four paragraphs. "It caressed the stark dunes with its whispering touch, catching fine grains of sand between incorporeal fingers and bearing them forth like hundreds of tiny charioteers." These guys have never heard these lines before.
[Dan] Wow. Yeah.
[Howard] Wow. My goodness.
[Dan] That's... a lot of anthropomorphizing again, which...
[Howard] Anthropomorphizing... it's okay. I would try and keep the metaphor consistent. "Caressing" and "whispering touch"... the whispering is a little weird, because we're... I mean, if we're caressing and whispering, that's very romantic.
[Brandon] The metaphor actually between those two sticks, the next metaphor does not match them, is what you're saying... the charioteers.
[Howard] Yeah, the charioteers.
[Brandon] That's actually a simile.
[Dan] Well, the line that concerned me was the incorporeal fingers... which at that point, the wind is a character rather than a force of nature to me, and is a little overwritten anyway, and so...
[Brandon] That's... the big thing you're going to notice about these opening paragraphs is that they're overwritten. You'll notice this for lots of early writers when they're first trying out. Their first paragraphs, they'll try really hard to make them very vivid. To new writers, very vivid means lots of adjectives and adverbs and lots of mixed metaphors.
[Dan] Yeah. One of the paradoxes of writing is that when you try to be fancy, you make it far less fancy. Really good writing tends to be much more lean, much more spare.
[Brandon] With this one, I... to try and retain meaning, but make it shorter, I would probably say just, "It caressed the stark dunes, catching fine grains..." you don't need the "of sand" so catching fine grains, cross out the "of sand" and "between incorporeal fingers" don't need that at all. So it becomes...
[Howard] "It caressed the start dunes, gently brushing grains"... you know, working with the caress... "gently brushing grains into the sky"...
[Dan] "Gently fondling grains into the sky?"
[Brandon] How can you fondle...
[Howard] Let's move to a sentence that doesn't make me feel quite so dirty.
[Brandon] I'm not done with this one yet, though. Let's see. "It caressed the stark dunes, catching fine grains and bearing them forth like hundreds of tiny charioteers." I actually think that's kind of a nifty little metaphor. If we just lose some of the fat earlier, the metaphor is allowed to sing, and we're not distracting so much from it.
[Dan] That's very true. It works a lot better.
[Brandon] All right. "The sand, bone white in color as if it had been bleached by the sun's harsh stare, seemed to shine for a second with a sharp inner light. Then it dulled in color to a deep black." Two sentences there. What do you do with those?
[Howard] Do you know what makes the sand white?
[Brandon] I do, but...
[Howard] Oh, okay. It's not the sun's harsh stare?
[Brandon] It's not the sun's harsh stare?
[Dan] Well, and the sun's harsh stare... I mean, you already said bleached which unless there's actual bleach, you know, the sun seems implied there. So I think that could go.
[Brandon] I think the entire...
[Dan] Though sun... I don't know.
[Howard] I wouldn't say... I wouldn't give the as if. I wouldn't give the red herring about what color is the sand. I'd just say the bone white sand... what was the rest of the sentence?
[Brandon] "The sand, bone white in color as if it had been bleached by the sun's harsh stare, seemed to shine for a second with a sharp inner light."
[Howard] The bone white sand...
[Dan] Seemed to shine...
[Howard] Seemed to shine with an inner light.
[Brandon] You know I might... since I know... this is one thing for readers to ask yourself... we use phrases... things like seemed to fairly often when we don't actually want to.
[Dan] That's true.
[Brandon] We overuse things like that. Yeah. I would probably just say, "The sand..." we've got this whole seems to shine... does it shine or does it not shine? If it shines, just say it shines.
[Howard] Is it day or night?
[Brandon] Yeah, we don't even know if it's day or night. Well, we've got the sun's harsh stare, which is actually a bad thing to cut here because we actually need that, but it needs to go somewhere else. Maybe that would be best in the first sentence... "The wind blew carelessly beneath the sun's harsh glare." I'd take out stare to get rid of the...
[Howard] Or "the bone white sand glistened under the sun's harsh stare."
[Brandon] Yeah. "Glowing with it for a second with a sharp inner light. Then it dulled in color to a deep black." You don't need the "color"... we all know that's a color. So you could cut that and say, "Then it dulled to a deep black."
[Brandon] All right. Let's stop for our book of the week. Hopefully one that's better than this book. Howard, you are going to give us...
[Howard] I've got one that's a lot better than this book, as demonstrated historically. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God's Eye. Jerry Pournelle... we've told this story before... came to Life, the Universe, and Everything and talked about this book and the editing process during a panel on Crispy, Crunchy Writing. He said that they needed to pull 10% of the... they needed to shorten the book by 10%, and so he and Larry sat down and did line edits just like we are doing and kept score on every page to see how many words they were removing from each page. If they were a little more than 10%, great. A little less than 10%, well, maybe we can make it up on the next page. And just polished the book in that way. Jerry said that one of the products of that tight editing is that the book has continued to sell strongly for 20, 30 years. Now, it's just continued to sell strongly because when you remove some of those quirks of voice, it gains a sort of timelessness and performs well. So have a listen. It's at audiblepodcast.com/excuse where you can go and get your 15 day free trial, support the cast, and the book is Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
[Brandon] It's really a classic of science fiction. If you haven't read it, you're missing out.
[Brandon] All right. We're going to get back to this. I'm going to warn you, we're going to skip all of the next overwritten scene setting. It goes on, I just looked, for something like five pages. I'm really...
[Dan] Oh, nice.
[Brandon] I'm serious.
[Howard] That's a lot of sandy, glistening wind.
[Brandon] Yeah. It's a lot of sandy, glistening wind.
[Dan] It's a lot of... um... yeah.
[Brandon] Until we finally get to...
[Brandon] The line, "It was across these stoic sands that the form stumbled." Edit this.
[Dan] Okay. "The form stumbled across these stoic sands."
[Brandon] Okay. Why did you do that?
[Dan] Because now it's in active voice.
[Brandon] Okay. Explain why that made it the active voice.
[Dan] Okay. Because all the words were out of order in the first one. Um... I don't know how to explain this.
[Brandon] People do this a lot. The reason I'm pushing you on this, new writers do this a ton. It was across these stoic sands... they think, "Okay, the stoic sands... we've just spent all this time establishing these cool sands." So those are our power words, our power image. We're going to start with those and then move on from there to the next idea. Which makes a lot of sense, logically. But when you read it on the page, it's confusing.
[Dan] It does sound weird.
[Brandon] Because it's... the form is doing the action. So having the form that is stumbling be in the predicate instead of the beginning of the sentence... I don't even remember what the beginning of the sentence is...
[Howard] It was across...
[Brandon] Here's a guy with a Masters degree in English. It's the subject.
[Howard] The subject of your sentence is it. It was across...
[Brandon] Yeah. It was across... so just by saying, "The form stumbled across these stoic sands," you lose a couple words and you start with what is actually actively doing it.
[Dan] And you start with action, instead of hiding the action at the end.
[Howard] In a later paragraph, do we get a name? Is there a reason why we don't lead with a name or any sort of descriptor?
[Brandon] Excellent point. This is something that new writers do a lot, and it looks like I did it. I had forgotten this. I don't think we get a name for... like three pages. There's no reason to not give us a name except that... um, I don't know. I don't know why we do this.
[Howard] If I am supposed to be... and this is verging into story edit I know, but... if I am supposed to be attached to this character, the lead-in should be more than just form.
[Brandon] I think I know why we do this. It's because we're trying to set... new writers... a panoramic scale, narrowing slowly into this character. Right now in our cinematic visual, we've just seen the sweeping sands that Lawrence of Arabia is wandering across, and now we're going to zoom in on this figure, and describe this figure probably for several pages. I'm sorry, but... and then we'll find out who this figure is. It seems like that's what the progression is.
[Howard] Is he carrying a mirror that he checks?
[Brandon] I don't think I did that. I think I knew by then that you weren't supposed to do that.
[Dan] The thing is this is not just a guy without a name. It's not even a guy, it's a form.
[Howard] Yeah. It could've been a horse.
[Dan] We don't know if it's male or female. We don't know if it's human.
[Brandon] We find out that it's a man three sentences later. Let's go on to the next one. "The figure was not really all that unnatural; many found themselves, whether by accident or intention, within the sun's sandy domain."
[Brandon] Within the sun's sandy domain. So, Howard, I'm pitching this one at you. "The figure was not really all that unnatural..."
[Howard] Okay. What you are saying in this sentence is it is not uncommon for people to cross the desert, but it is also not pleasant?
[Brandon] Yes. I think that's what I was saying.
[Howard] Okay. If I've got the name and I got information about the character, I would jump at this point all the way into the character's POV and talk about how he knows... you know, "This wasn't his first time crossing the desert and he hated it just as much as if it had been."
[Brandon] Okay. But see...
[Howard] That's a story edit.
[Dan] Now we're content editing...
[Brandon] I'm not going to let you give us that one, because that would be a wonderful way to start this, to establish character straight up, but that's content editing.
[Howard] I know. So...
[Brandon] I think we can cut the really. How about that?
[Dan] Cut the really. I think...
[Brandon] Everyone agree with that?
[Dan] Maybe we can remove... maybe the double negative? It was not an unnatural?
[Brandon] All right. "Figures like this were natural; many found themselves, whether by accident or intention, within the sun's sandy domain."
[Dan] It's so hard with this line, because it's... I think we could just beat this to a pulp and it still might not be readable.
[Brandon] Next line? "The desert was unperturbed by the man's presence, methodically reclaiming his footprints with stoic tolerance."
[Howard] Can't use stoic again.
[Brandon] Nice catch. I just saw that myself. I think I really liked that word. I wonder how many times I used it.
[Dan] Stoically. And stoically continued to use it for the...
[Brandon] So, the desert was unperturbed.
[Dan] That line actually is not terrible, if we cut out most of the adjectives. I like...
[Howard] The desert was unperturbed, methodically covering the man's footprints? [pop]
[Howard] As he passed.
[Brandon] You know, I might just say... I might combine these sentences, try and shrink them down and say, "the desert, methodically reclaiming his footprints behind him."
[Howard, Dan] Yeah.
[Brandon] Something like that. We've still got a lot of making the desert a character, the wind, everything... but that might just be all right in this book. All right. Here's a great one for you. "The man couldn't, in any honest definition of the word, be regarded as being conscious."
[Dan] Wow. That's an archaic construction.
[Howard] He stumbled mechanically as if asleep.
[Brandon] Hey, wow. Nice. Man, are you a writer or something?
[Howard] Well, okay. Now let me backpedal on mechanically, because contextually the likening of something to something mechanical might not work in this book. But... he stumbled as if sleepwalking.
[Brandon] Or you could say he stumbled like a marionette or something like that.
[Dan] Which actually, given how much we've personified the desert, dehumanizing this guy with a word like mechanical actually is very cool.
[Brandon] "It was stubbornness that guided him now; sentience had been sucked away long ago."
[Howard] Stubbornness guided him now... you don't need it was. And what was the rest of the sentence?
[Brandon] Sentience had been sucked away long ago.
[Howard] The desert had long ago sucked away his sentience.
[Brandon] Oh, so you actually added words to that one?
[Howard] I added that because I'm working with... we've made the desert a character. Let's make the desert a little more aggressive.
[Dan] Provided that it was the desert. Not knowing his background, he might have actually lost his sentience [garbled -- at hands or something?]
[Brandon] I think it was the desert. Wow, that keeps going for two more pages.
[Howard] Brandon? We're going to need more than 15 minutes to fix this book.
[Brandon] Maybe we'll do this again in another podcast if people like this. We are out of time. Dan, do you want to give us a writing prompt?
[Dan] Yes. Your writing prompt is you need to write a story about a man stumbling through the desert and is aided in some way by a headless monkey.
[Howard] Well, okay.
[Brandon] Okay. This is been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, and have headless monkeys. Now go write.