Editing Focus 4: Syllabic Editing

Okay.  So.  Long overdue editing blog post: check.

This is the last Editing Focus blog post we’ll have for our Fall Blog Fest…so…hope you enjoy it!  It’s my personal favorite, as far as annoying things like editing are concerned.  😉

Syllabic editing isn’t something you’ll hear talked about a whole lot.  I first heard about it from the amazing writer/teacher/mentor Dave Farland, who has really taught me so much about the business and the…well, business…of writing.

So what is syllabic editing?  It sounds mystical and amazing, so what exactly does it involve?

Quite simply, it’s listening.  I’m not trying to be flippant.  Writing is an oral and an aural art.  Most of us, when we read, do at least some amount of subvocalization.  We listen to stories as we read them, even if we’re not reading them out loud.  But more than that, we notice things like rhythm and cadence and musicality — it’s just our nature.  Our brains are designed for that.  Just think about how most storytelling has been done throughout human history.  It was an oral art before it ever got written down.  Language is meant to be spoken.  And it’s meant to be beautiful.

When we look at syllabic editing, we’re actually focused on a couple of things.  One is flow, and one is conciseness and focus — on the level of the sentence, not on the level of the story.  I’ll look at the conciseness issue first.

Here we’re actually looking at the sentence and saying, “Am I conveying this idea as clearly as I can in as few words as I can?”  Now, this doesn’t mean we have to strip our style down to postmodern minimalism or anything, unless that is — God help you — your true style.  I’m also not saying you should excise every single adverb or adjective.  But it does mean you can get rid of useless words that tend to clutter up the stream, like little dams that choke up and bog down the story as you try to drift through it.

For instance, if you have two characters in conversation, you don’t need to say: “Bob smiled at Anna.”  You can just say, “Bob smiled,” unless it’s absolutely crucial to the story that the reader knows he’s smiling at Anna — for instance, if Bob has a phobia of smiling at people but for some reason smiles at Anna just now.  You see.  Cutting out those two words is a syllabic cut.  You’re trimming down the number of syllables so that what is conveyed is what is most important.

I think a lot of this kind of editing comes from accommodating editors/publishers who insist on a certain word count for submissions.  So, if Publisher Bob only accepts manuscripts up to 100K words and your masterpiece is 110K words, well, you need to find 10K useless words to scratch.  But even if you’re self-publishing, you should go through your manuscript with the same brutality….err…..care.  Set yourself a word limit and then find all the places where you can cut.

Limits are a lot like deadlines.  They can be incredibly powerful motivators.  And the best thing is, the tighter your manuscript is, the better it is.  Always.  Trust me.  You might make a macro cut — like excising a whole scene — that you later regret, but I’ve never come across a situation where I regretted cutting out “at Anna.”

Now, the other part of syllabic editing — and the part I think is the most interesting — is what gives that first part a positive quality, so that you’re “adding by subtracting,” as they say, and not just subtracting.  In other words, you want your prose not only to get from Point A to Point B in the most concise way possible (for your particular style/tone), but also to get there as effortlessly as possible.  And I mean effortless on the part of the reader.  A well-made movie doesn’t draw attention to itself on a mechanical level, but lets you simply live the story.  Likewise, a good novel should sweep the reader along without giving them any reason to stop and say, “Wait, why did he write that sentence like that?”

So, look.  The goal of syllabic editing is not to go from, “Bob wandered in meandering lines through the cool autumn mist with a slow, steady stride, drinking in the intoxicating scent of coming snow in the wind” to “Bob walked home through the mist.  It smelled like snow.”  Fewer syllables, yes.  Better writing?  No.  Now, “Bob wandering through the cool autumn mist, etc.” is not really good writing either.  It’s actually kind of awful.  But to correct it, you want to listen to the way the sounds fall on your inner ear, and go from there.  Test out your potential revisions.  Taste them.  Roll the syllables around on your tongue, and find the one that packs the biggest punch.

My Bob sentence above has a major problem.  It stutters and gasps and falls on its face.  My mental tongue trips over the syllables.  The words don’t sound right to me.  Reading them makes me wince and take out my mental red pen.  So how would I fix it?  Well, for one thing, watching out for prepositional phrases is usually a good place to start.  If you’ve got a sentence that strings together more than two prepositional phrases in a row, or maybe three at the most, you should look at restructuring the sentence.  “Should” pretty much meaning “must” in this scenario.


Bob wandered in meandering lines…

Okay.  I don’t need to put the “meandering lines” bit in there.  It’s superfluous.  I already know he’s wandering, which suggests he’s not walking with a definite purpose.  So, SLASH.

Bob wandered in meandering lines through the cool autumn mist…

Meh.  Autumn suggests cool, unless you’re talking south Texas.  There are probably better ways to describe the mist than this, but for now I’m just going to cut what I don’t need.

Bob wandered in meandering lines through the cool autumn mist with a slow, steady stride…

That whole chunk is pointless.  He’s wandering.  It’s going to be slow.  SLASH.

Bob wandered in meandering lines through the cool autumn mist with a slow, steady stridedrinking in the intoxicating scent of coming snow in the wind..

Blah blah.  Yes, the smell of coming snow is intoxicating.  But this is a terribly convoluted way of saying it.  Let’s see.  How about making the description a little more active?  Like…

Bob wandered through the autumn mist, the wind intoxicating him with the scent of coming snow.

Okay, it’s still not high literature, but do you see what a difference that makes?  Doesn’t it fall much easier on the ear?  Look, as writers, it’s our JOB to make the reader’s job (reading) as easy and effortless and delightful as possible!  And part of that means writing in such a way that the reader likes to listen to the story.

Also keep in mind certain turns of phrase that are common in our language because they seem to roll off the tongue easily.  Example:  It’s perfectly acceptable grammar to end a sentence with “were once,” as in, “They’re not as kind as they were once.”  BUT.  Our mind often pitches a tiny little tantrum when it sees that, instead wanting to say, “They’re not as kind as they once were.”  For me, I get to the “w” of “were” and try to insert “once” instead, and then get sad and confused when that doesn’t match what I’m reading.  (In the middle of a sentence, it’s different.  “Were once” and “once were” are both fine, and in some cases, “were once” has better cadence.)  I’m sure there are scientificky things that explain progression of sounds and the rhythm of syllables and such, but it’s enough to know that some things just naturally fit better than others.  It’s a lot like…fine-tuning your inner ear.  It takes some practice.  But once you’ve trained your ear, these sorts of things are much, much easier to detect.

Now, this is not a license to purplify your prose.  Please don’t.  There’s being descriptive and lyrical, and there’s being vibrant in variegated shades of amethyst splendor.  Don’t. Commit. Purple. Prose.  Just don’t do it.  If you feel the urge to drip heliotropic dew upon the intrepid pages of your manuscript….STOP.  Back away, slowly.  Go outside and run around, climb a tree, wave your hands around…and when your sanity returns, get back to work.

Like line editing, this is one of those situations where reading out loud really helps.  Sometimes we don’t realize how something actually sounds when we just read/scan it silently to ourselves.  Especially because, as writers, we tend to do a lot of filtering and filling in.  We know what we want to say.  We know how we want to convey information to our readers.  But sometimes having our noses buried in the minutia of our stories makes us a bit myopic.  We can’t visualize as a reader until we force ourselves to think as one.

So, reading out loud is one trick.  Here’s another one — and shhh, this goes for all stages of editing, but I’m just cluing you in on it now (I think.  It’s possible I’ve told you this twenty times already.  *sigh*).  Copy your entire document, and paste in a new document.  Then, do something funky, like put the entire story in Courier or Arial or Comic Sans in green 14 point type, single spaced, ragged margins….or SOMETHING like that.  Anything you can do to make it look totally different than the manuscript you’ve been staring at for forever.  You wouldn’t believe how much stuff you can catch just by that little trick.

Syllabic editing should be the fun part.  It’s the little reward after you’ve done all the other hard work.  It’s the part where you go through and polish and streamline and beautify your prose, making sure it says what it needs to say in the best way possible.  You’re a storyteller, a bard, a scop.  With solid syllabic editing, you’ll make sure your audience sticks around to listen.

About J. Leigh

Author, photographer, awesome ninja. I only kill people in stories. View all posts by J. Leigh

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