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. Continue reading