Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Style and Edit

I am neither Hemingway nor Dickens. I don't mean this in a conceited  way, I would not be so brave as to put my standard of writing on a par with them, let alone above (nor is it false modesty). I am talking about style -  the way in which I construct my sentences and the words I use. Stylistically I fall between these two literary pillars. My writing is far from the sparse, adjective and adverb light style of Hemingway. Neither is my writing style as dense, and quite frankly verbose, as Dickens'. I do like a comma or a semi-colon but I do not go to the lengths of Charles. I will happily populate a page with adverbs and adjectives (see what I did there?); indeed my first drafts are invariably crammed with them. However, and here I take solace from Hemingway's quote, 'The first draft of everything is shit', subsequent drafts are revised to remove superfluous words. If I can dispense with an adverb or two because the following sentences make the position clear, I will.

My latest book, currently out with an editor, saw me describe just about everything as either beautiful, gorgeous, awe-inspiring or other such adjectives, in the first draft. The second draft saw a lot of red ink through what are unnecessary and quite bland adjectives. I still expect my editor to return the manuscript with a number of suggested corrections despite my notes to self, dotted all over the house, beseeching, nay ordering, SHOW DON'T TELL.

There is a current editorial tendency to cut out the majority of adverbs and adjectives from works, and any number of articles exhorting writers to avoid them like the plague. It makes sense, to a degree. But by showing, not telling, you need to have enough pointers in the work for the reader to pick up your message without you literally spelling it out for them: 'He was sad.' Good for him; next! You can describe that sadness through the character's actions, reactions, emotions, thoughts, and responses, and those of other characters or the surroundings. That does not mean that every now and again you cannot slot in a simple sentence complete with an adjective, but you need to follow it up with some pretty good stuff.

I am not suggesting that all writers change to a Hemingway style for one minute; I, for one, would fail dismally. Adverbs and adjectives do have their place and Hemingway did use them, albeit sparingly. I would, without a shadow of doubt, be resigned to reading only my own works if the style of Dickens was de rigeur. There really is a middle way. Other writing devices can be used in conjunction with, or in isolation to, adverbs and adjectives to show the reader the author's message. A change in sentence length and style can impart so much - slow down or speed up the pace, create tension or a sense of relief.

There is a lot to think about when writing and it can be daunting, irritating, confusing and at times soul-sapping; but then we wouldn't write if it didn't challenge us in some way. There is a process I would rcommend. The first draft should flow freely. It may be 'shit' from an editor's point of view, but it is the skeleton upon which you can build your creature. Write it, re-visit it, self-edit and when you are relatively happy with it, pass it to a professional. The very best authors have editors. Your work my be your 'baby' but even the most coddled child has to go to school and undergo professional tuition in order to become a grown-up version of itself.

Choose your style, work with it, perfect it, but don't be too upset when an editor returns it with more corrections than you ever thought possible. We can't all be Hemingways or Dickenses, but we can give it a damn good try.

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