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MFA Sunday School (Nine: Finishing Self-Editing by Understanding Writing Mistakes)

Welcome to MFA Sunday School, a once-a-week, free, online writing workshop. MFA Sunday School posts are uploaded on Sunday mornings, though you can read them or participate any time — the comment section is always open for people to post a link to their work or ask a question. You can subscribe to blog posts via the RSS feed, or look for them under the category heading “MFA Sunday School.” If this is your first time in “class,” you may want to jump back to the first post in the series in order to understand how things work, or peruse all of the past lessons as well as a glossary of terms by reading the MFA Sunday School Glossary and Course Archives.

Last week, we started looking for your writing accent, the small quirks that you use in your writing which make it undeniably yours.  It goes beyond your writing voice; it is about the tiny inflections you pepper into your writing that people respond to on an emotional level without realizing it.  Sometimes within your writing accent, we’ll also find your writing mistakes.  The goal is to clean up the mistakes without cleaning up the accent.  What you want to look at is intent: why are you utilizing that writing quirk/error?  Does it enhance or detract from your writing?

We’re going to define mistakes as anything that doesn’t bring the reader into the poem, post, or story.  That serves as the vinegar to their oil.  In other words, these things pretty much only detract from your writing.

Let’s begin with the most concrete ones that are easy to see and fix.

Concrete Mistakes

  • Passive Voice Instead of Active Voice: active voice is simply more interesting than passive voice.  From Alexicographer below: “Passive: She was run over by a car. Active: A car ran over her. Ooh, that sounds really bad. Let’s change it: Her umbrella was run over by a car. OR A car ran over her umbrella. Did the subject of the sentence perform the action? Active. Or was the action performed on the subject? Passive.”
  • Past Tense Instead of Present Tense: present tense is a little more interesting than past tense because it places the reader into the story.  The story is unfolding around them and they respond accordingly.  It’s not always possible to play with tense, but past tense keeps the reader on the outskirts of the story at times.  At the same time, I see this as a minor point that I bring up simply to challenge you to look at your writing.  There are plenty of engaging stories — Harry Potter comes to mind — that are written in past tense.
  • Boring Sentence Structure: do all your sentences begin the same way or close to the same way?  Mix it up in terms of structure and length.  Read the first paragraph in this post underneath the weekly opening (the paragraph that begins, “Last week…”).  Every sentence begins in a different way, and they all vary slightly in length (though I could have done better with that too).
  • Too Many Rhetorical Questions: your reader can’t actually answer your questions; plus, the reality is your reader is approaching your work to get information or a story.  A few questions that make them think are fine.  Too many becomes a chore.
  • Incorrect Words, Grammar, or Punctuation: quick fix once you familiarize yourself with the three billion grammar and punctuation rules in English…  But you get my point; incorrectly-used words, grammar mistakes, and punctuation errors take the reader out of the story because they create confusion.
  • Too Many Analogies or Metaphors: this is another one of my common mistakes.  It’s about trusting that your reader “gets it,” and using analogies sparingly.  Which leads us to…
  • Don’t Overwrite: don’t use more words or more sentences than you need to use in order to make your point.  This isn’t Dickens’ time period, and you’re not paid by the word (he wasn’t actually paid by the word, but since that myth exists, I thought I’d exploit it).  Sometimes it helps to strip out every unnecessary word, and then tuck back in colourful words that add to the idea.  But at the same time…
  • Don’t Underwrite: your storytelling capabilities are the doorway through which readers walk into your imagination.  Have you left that door wide enough open for them to fit through?  Do they understand the story?  Too many times, writers expect us to know what is inside their head (and makes perfect sense to them) without giving us access to the content of their brains.  Make sure your mind doesn’t fill in what is missing on the page, but instead note what parts seem confusing and explain them better.
  • Go Easy on Modifiers: make your word choice do the work of modifiers which are a quick (and albeit lazy) way to tell your reader how to read something.  Sometimes they’re necessary, but see if you can rework your word choice to clearly convey whatever is contained in the modifier.
  • Transitions: are you transitioning well between ideas, characters, scenes?  Take a look at your transitional moments because you need flow instead of jarring movement.
  • Repetitive Words: this applies both to using the same word too many times too close together as well as using an unusual word or phrase or metaphor too many times in the same piece.

Less Concrete

  • Focus: are you keeping a close focus on the subject matter or story; or is your reader being dragged away on too many tangents?  Tangents should only exist if they add to the understanding of the main story.
  • Foundation: you can’t build a house without a strong foundation because it will collapse in on itself, and you can’t build a story without a strong foundation and structure.  Do you clearly know your storyline and characters?  Have you clearly set the time and place?
  • Pace: you want your poem, post, or story to read at a good clip.  Not too fast so that the reader is confused and can’t process what is happening, and not too slow that the reader feels as if they’re plodding along.
  • Exhaustion: some long pieces — especially novels — are coated in writing exhaustion.  It’s clear to the reader that while the author started out confident with the story and characters, he/she lost focus somewhere in the middle and didn’t know how to get the story from Point A to Point Z.
  • Hollow Dialogue: make sure your conversations ring true.  That they sound like something someone would say.  By which I mean that they contain the meat of the conversation, not the piddly extras we throw into real conversations.
  • Show, Don’t Tell: oy… this one needs more than a sentence or two explanation.  We’ll have a whole lesson soon on show, don’t tell, but I wanted to put it in this editing list so you remember to check for it.

Things You May Have Been Told are Mistakes But are Probably Just Part of Your Writing Accent

  • Fragments: nothing wrong with a little fragment when used well.  Especially for impact. (A ha!  Like that fragment!  Or this one!)
  • Prepositions: I try not to end sentences in prepositions, but sometimes it works depending on where you’re coming from.
  • Splitting Infinitives: to unabashedly split your infinitives, place a word such as “unabashedly” between the “to” and the “verb” in the sentence.  Be a bad-ass.  Splitting them can have an impact.
  • Conjuction-led Sentences: yet there are so many good reasons to begin a sentence with a conjunction.

Homework: Choose something brief — perhaps a blog post — to practice self-editing.  Look at the information above and apply it to your piece, and then examine the before and after side-by-side.  What writing mistakes keep cropping up in your pieces?  Does it feel easier to stop yourself from doing them in the first place, or would that stilt your writing and is it better to edit them out later?  Are you starting to see your writing accent?


1 Lori Lavender Luz { 06.12.12 at 8:18 pm }

Sentences ending in prepositions are something I live for!

I’ll be mindful of these points as I edit my manuscript.

2 Alexicographer { 06.14.12 at 11:18 am }

Urgh. I’ve been away and am only just now catching up *and* haven’t been actively participating in this part of your blog, *so* what I’m about to say is obnoxious *but* apparently I cannot (or will not) help myself (or you), so, here goes, “Passive: She was running. Active: She ran.” Um, no. Passive: “She was run over by a car.” Active: “A car ran over her.” Ooh, that sounds really bad. Let’s change it: “Her umbrella was run over by a car.” “A car ran over her umbrella.” Did the subject of the sentence perform the action? Active. Or was the action performed on the subject? Passive. OK, I already feel better. As for ran versus was running, those are just two different ways to describe an action that is past, with different emphases (the first on the action’s completeness, its past-ness, the other on its ongoingness, its duration in the past). The same would be true in the present, of course — she runs versus she is running. If a verb (like run, if used to describe a form of exercise as opposed to, say, running a meeting) doesn’t take an object, it’s not going to have a passive form.

OK, sorry, .

3 Lollipop Goldstein { 06.15.12 at 1:09 pm }

Thanks — just changed it by moving a chunk of this above and crediting it to you!

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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