Archive for the ‘Editing Tips’ Category

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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It’s a good habit to step back and look for the personal ruts you will inevitably develop in your writing.  One of mine is writing strings of three:  three phrases, three examples, three synoyms in a row to emphasize a point.  (See how I did it just now?)  I like the feel of three beats or breaths: it’s complete and yet pleasingly off-balance.  When I do it too often, though, the writing gets tired, and so does the reader. It’s a good habit to discover your habits and break them. 

But! As I write this advice, I keep thinking of pieces of writing I admire which employ this habit of threes.  And I admire them so much that I want to share them with you! So here are three texts that use threes. 

Thomas Lux:

Your baby grows a tooth, then two,

and four, and five, then she wants some meat

directly from the bone. It’s all


over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall

in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet

talker on his way to jail. And you,


your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue

nothing.  You did, you loved, your feet

are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.


Women of Troy,

They looked now toward the ships, uncertainly,

with animosity, half in unhappy love

of landscapes there before them, half still bound

to fated realms calling them onward–and

the goddess on strong wings went up the sky

traversing a great rainbow under clouds.

Now truly wrought upon by signs and wonder,

wrought to a frenzy, all cried out together, 

snatching up fire from hearths, despoiling altars,

taking dry foliage, brush, and brands to throw.

And Vulcan, god of fire, unbridled raged

through rowing thwarts and oars and piney hulls.

Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy:

Children stare in the grocery as if they know ghostly stories about me, and I hear the hushed talk when I hobble by or lose the hold in my hands, but Christ reminds me, as he did in my greatest distress, that he loves me more, now that I am despised, than when I was so richly admired in the past.

And Christ still sends me roses. We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, Surprise me.

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The Sock

One of the best ways to improve a piece of writing is to look at how it’s organized.  Like the government, like your dresser drawers, like the fleeting hours of your day, writing functions better when its parts–words and sentences and paragraphs–adhere to a clear structure.  A muddled piece of writing can take a great leap forward when you locate in the mass of sentences you’ve tossed on paper the best beginning, best ending, and best connections between them. 

Years of looking at writing both student and professional have yielded this truth: your best beginning is never in the sentences you wrote first.  The sentences you wrote first are almost always rather weak: a warmup.  Often it’s best to discard them.  Often you can find a gem of an opener buried in the middle of your draft, and sometimes at the very end.  Nothing pleases me as an editor more than plunging my hand deep into a text, pulling it inside out like a sock and saying, “What about starting it this way?”

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