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Archive for August, 2009

If you’ve seen the second Toy Story movie, you’ll remember the ancient repairer of toys who sews Woody’s arm back on and who touches up the paint on his hair and the bottoms of his shoes. You’ll remember the funny glasses he puts on, fitted with multiple hinged lenses he can flip on or off at will. That pair of glasses is a useful metaphor when you want to improve a piece of writing. Viewing the work through different lenses will allow you to see the errors–not just typos or grammar mistakes, but also lazy pronouns that confuse the reader, subtle shifts away from the topic you’ve promised to explore, and tiny, outright lies.

A good editor switches lenses a lot. She’ll go microscopic, choosing one word to look for throughout a text–a word like “as,” for example, or all the verbs. Suddenly a problem will come into focus: the writer is relying too heavily on conditional clauses to open her sentences, or he’s pounding us with so many active verbs that we can’t catch our breath and want to quit reading. A good editor will also use a macroscopic view, holding the whole work in his hands and asking, so what? or what is the thrust of the argument here?

Like a three-dimensional, much-loved, artificially crafted cowboy doll, a piece of writing can be handled, ripped apart, and repaired. And like Woody, our writing needs a second pair of eyes to make it better.

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I’m sitting next to my husband, who is blogging (sportsandfaith) and ragging on me for not crediting him as the one who got me thinking about randomness and the way it can help writing. He’s been reading a book on quirky mathematical theories, one of which posits that if you can get enough monkeys to type randomly, eventually they will type the works of Shakespeare.  This theory explores the idea that randomness can lead to order. 

But what if what you need is not more order in your writing, but less? What if you need to shake things up a little, and the freewriting I talked about in the last post just isn’t your thing?  I have two suggestions: visualthesaurus.com and bananaslug.  The first site is just what it sounds like, but cooler, and the second is an ingenious twist on the recent invention of the internet search engine.  Check it out!

And consider yourself credited, Kevin.

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