Be Your Own Editor - Part II

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, February 1999
Last month, on editing, we talked about the opening, its seductive power its tone and delivery. This, taken into the body of the work, leads us to language and style.

Stories which capture me as an editor or judge almost always sing to me. By their tone, their music, their ease, they let me to sink into the fiction, they allow me to wallow. It's rare that a story is accepted because the language is beautiful -- indeed many editors would prefer the crisp to the lyrical -- but many stories are rejected because their delivery is staccato or repetitive. Writers don't have to be great stylists to be successful -- many greats weren't -- but if the writing is so awkward that the reader becomes aware of the words instead of the meaning, then the work is in trouble.

Sentences, once long and complex have moved into short and sharp, a harsher delivery. What was once necessarily "breath-spaced", carefully broken up by commas and semi-colons between clauses is now often gasped, crude, rat-a-tat-tat and worse, rat-a-tat-tatted repetitively. A simple trick I offer my students is to put a carriage return after every sentence and note (often) how almost every sentence is similar in length, "beats" and emphasis.

It's not uncommon to see as many as ten consecutive sentences, each with eight or nine words in a single basic phrase. Not enough thought is given to pacing, to lingering and weighting the reading of important information, skipping quickly over the less exciting parts of exposition, and certainly, not enough thought is given to matching the language, the speed, the loudness to the matters being described.

I suspect very few emerging writers read aloud, or have someone else read their work aloud. If they did they would surely hear the music is off key at best, quite possibly without any music whatsoever.

The excerpt below, broken into lines, is rhythmically representative of a student's work, but I've changed the words, to protect the guilty.

The wind was pure March, but heavy and thick with the cold of winter.

Bits of sleet pelted the man's face as he trudged along the broken sidewalk.

He pulled his coat tighter around him, and noticed the fabric was pilling.

The arms were flecked with gray and white fuzz balls.

He stopped under the chartreuse glow of a street lamp and picked off a few of the fuzz balls.

The wind snatched them up and carried them off with the sleet, into the darkness.

He looked at both his arms, at the front of his coat and down, toward the hem.

There were hundreds of the little things.

"The rest of you, come with me," he said, and started walking again.

He had a pretty good idea where he was going. He'd been there before.

Across the street, someone else was walking.

The wind whipped her black hair into her eyes and mouth.

Her coat, cashmere, already old when she bought it, wore its age like a tired but elegant woman.

One of the ebony buttons was gone and the cold slipped through the space it left open, wove itself into the lining and settled against her skin.

She didn't know where she was going. She was just walking.

The man stopped in front of the freight-loading door of what used to be a warehouse.

The bottom floor was a wall of red bricks.

Warm light glowed from the upstairs windows and there was music.

He couldn't see a way in. "Hey," he shouted into the cold air.

Then he saw an intercom by the door, and he pushed the button.

A moment later a voice crackled, "Come up."

He coughed into his glove and marvelled at the thick gray cloud his breath made.

The freight door began to open.

He took a step back and raised his arms.

"Open sesame," he said.

When the door had raised a few feet he ducked under it and went inside.




Presented like this, we see almost a monotone, a droning, affect-less story. It isn't the ideas here that give us a problem. The words and meaning of the song may turn out to be OK, but sheesh who wrote the music? Had the author laid out the story like this (or read it aloud), she might have realised her error.

Here, we have tried to improve the flow of the piece without changing too many of the words, pulling some of the sentences together, making others short, sharp and focused alone in their own paragraph.

The wind was pure March, but still heavy with winter. Sleet pelted the man's face as he trudged along the broken sidewalk and he pulled his coat tighter about him. He stopped beneath a street lamp and picked off a few of the fuzz balls from his sleeve and as the wind snatched them up and carried them off with the sleet, he grunted, looked at both his arms, at the front of his coat and down, toward the hem, still speckled with hundreds more

He chuckled. "As for the rest of you, come with me."

He started walking again.

He had a pretty good idea where he was going, he'd been there before, a warehouse owned by a wealthy stockbroker, a party where for a while he would be interesting but by ten he would be playing to a glass wall. He ducked his head into the wind.

Across the street, someone else was walking, a woman, the wind whipping her black hair into her eyes and mouth. He saw her, then her coat, cashmere, already old when she bought it, tired but elegant. A button was gone and the cold slipped through the space it left open, wove itself into the lining and settled against her skin.

She didn't know where she was going. She was just walking.

The man stopped in front of the freight-loading door of what used to be a warehouse, a wall of red bricks. From upstairs, warm light glowed and there was music. He couldn't see a way in. Then he saw an intercom by the door, pushed the button waited for the voice. He coughed into his glove his breath thick gray smoke. "Open sesame," he said. The freight door began to open. When it had risen a few feet he ducked under and went inside.


There is nothing wrong with short, sharp writing, and nothing wrong with longer, multi-claused work, what matters is that the work is varied enough to maintain interest and that the pace and feel of a passage is correct for the actions being described.

It's also important to check for important story information and consider whether it's highlighted enough, or pointed at too much, or is it lost in a mass of detail delivered too quickly? In mysteries, giving the reader the major clue in the middle of other details is a way of being fair but cheating. To do such a thing by design is one thing. Don't do it by accident!

I doubt if more than one story in a hundred that I receive needs loosening. Almost every story I see is wordy, not tight enough, carries redundancies, and is repetitious (like this sentence!). In my writing group I very often tell members they could cut 50% of their word-count to no ill-effect. 20% is easy, 40% achievable. As an exercise, trying to halve the word-count of a story is valuable in that it teaches the writer precisely what really is important, what is not as vital as it first seems. I often recommend cutting until the story seems jerky, then adding just enough words to make it flow again. Less words conveying the same message means more power.

An early success of mine, "Postcards from BalloonLand," began as a 5,500 word monster, was cut to 1,999 words and made a final, then was smoothed out at 2,150 to earn a thousand dollars in various printings. You can always cut. Never believe you cannot.

But when we talk about cutting, we are not talking about writing that need be terse, merely writing that is powerful and compact. Tight writing doesn't have to mean minimalist writing.

Here, is the opening paragraphs of a very recent student piece:

On a snowy January morning, three weeks after Henry Gray had been admitted to hospital with terminal cancer, God paid him a visit. They talked for fifteen minutes, and just before leaving God touched him on the eyes, nose and lips. Then He stood up, moved away from Henry's bed, and walked slowly through the ward, pushing open the swing doors at the end like any other departing visitor. Nobody else paid Him any attention, but then there was no reason why they should. The most remarkable thing about God was how ordinary, how very unremarkable He seemed to be. You'd pass Him on the street and not give Him a second look, thought Henry. That didn't seem right somehow. It wasn't what he'd been led to expect.

Before finally vanishing from view, God turned and gave a parting wave, very royal, very House of Windsor. Breeding will out, Henry's mother would have said. The wave caught him off guard, and he only managed a slight nod of the head in return, little more than a twitch really. But God saw it and smiled. Even the tiny sparrows, thought Henry as He moved into the corridor and out of sight. Even the tiny sparrows.

When God had gone, Henry lay back in his bed, thinking, mulling over what he'd been told. Listen to your body, God had said. Cautiously, Henry began tuning in to the messages that his body was sending out. This was hard to do at first, because he'd built up a barrier: these were the very messages he'd spent the last few weeks trying to ignore.

After a while, Henry began to grin. For a man who was supposed to be knock-knock-knocking on heaven's door, he didn't feel too bad. No, not too bad at all, thank you very much. Compared to how he'd been feeling before God's visit, you might even say he felt pretty good. Not on top of the world yet, although apparently that was only going to be a matter of time. Three days, God had said. Maybe less, certainly no more.

He was so deep in thought, so busy listening to his body, that he didn't notice the nurse standing by his bed until she began straightening his pillows. He smiled up at her and whispered his news.

"God came to see me," he whispered. "He touched me. I'm feeling a lot better now."

Even as he spoke he realised how true that was. Cancer or no cancer, terminal diagnosis or no terminal diagnosis, he was perking up a little more with every passing second. Three days? No, Henry didn't think so.

The nurse hadn't heard him. "What was that?" she said.

It had been quite a while since Henry had been able to speak much above a whisper. He thought he probably could now. In fact, he was certain he could, if he wanted to. He didn't want to, though. When he whispered, the nurses leaned in close to hear. He liked it when they leaned in close. He especially liked it when this one, Kathleen, leaned in close. Kathleen was his favourite. Young, Irish, green-eyed, pretty. There had been moments during the past three weeks when Henry had felt that, if only he hadn't been three-quarters dead, he could easily have fallen in love with her.

She folded at the waist, as he'd known she would, and leaned in close. He imagined the soft movement of each breast shifting beneath her uniform.

"What did you say?" she said again. The shifting curtain of her hair dipped and shimmered a few inches in front of his eyes as she waited for him to reply.

He took a deep breath, drinking her in. There was something about the scent of nurse-skin. It varied with the individual, of course, but there was definitely an underlying base common to all of them, an elusive element he'd yet to identify.

"Feeling pretty... bloody... good," he said, emphasising the final three words.


STOP READING! Can you cut the above 666 words to half that amount and give God some more space? Imagine you had to halve that total. Is that target realistic? Would we end up with a terse, choppy piece lacking information? If you could cut, what could you cut, where would you cut?

Well, let's look only at the first paragraph, the first two sentences.

On a snowy January morning, three weeks after Henry Gray had been admitted to hospital with terminal cancer, God paid him a visit. They talked for fifteen minutes, and just before leaving God touched him on the eyes, nose and lips. Then He stood up, moved away from Henry's bed, and walked slowly through the ward, pushing open the swing doors at the end like any other departing visitor. Nobody else paid Him any attention, but then there was no reason why they should. The most remarkable thing about God was how ordinary, how very unremarkable He seemed to be. You'd pass Him on the street and not give Him a second look, thought Henry. That didn't seem right somehow. It wasn't what he'd been led to expect.

A hospital for terminal cancer patients is a hospice, and do we need to know the weather? How about, "Three weeks after Henry Gray had been admitted to the hospice, God paid him a visit."? 23 words becomes 16, a reduction of 30%.

Or, "They talked for fifteen minutes, and just before leaving God touched him on the eyes, nose and lips. Then He stood up, moved away from Henry's bed, and walked slowly through the ward, pushing open the swing doors at the end like any other departing visitor." Can we compress here, can we combine, maybe use some of the saving to make God a better role? Is there an advantage in detailing God's leaving? Is the lingering that important? How about, "Henry and God talked for fifteen minutes, but then God had to go. He stood up, touched Henry's face, turned, walked slowly down the ward, pushed open the swing doors at the end and left."

We added detail here yet cut 47 words to 35. This allowed us to add a whole and detailed sentence which allows us more characterisation of God and removes the neccesity for a flashbacked explanation later. So when God arrives: "He sat by Henry's morphine drip and said he was sorry he couldn't stop long, but he had a job for Henry and if it was all right with him, he'd rather he didn't die just yet.

128 words have been cut to 88 (31%) and savings also made later. By concentrating on which details matter, removing or condensing the least important, we gave ourselves room to expand on the interesting bits, here, God's conversation with Henry.

Continuing with testing the word-count to death, I would argue we could dispense with the "sparrows" paragraph completely. It's not a bad paragraph, it has some character, it's "Henry", but does it really enhance the story or does it delay us reaching the true action -- what happens after Henry recovers and is put to work by God? And note a classic dialogue redundancy here:

The nurse hadn't heard him. "What was that?" she said.

Look for these, every story has them, better stories have less. In my articles "Seduction not Instruction," I pointed out that when we write sentences with implicit meaning, the reader becomes involved in interpretation and enjoys the experience more fully. If someone says "What?" it's my guess they didn't hear us the first time!

This article finishes with a quickie edit of the passage. The 666 words reduced "on the fly" to 361, a reduction of 48% even though we added some interactions between God and Henry. What we have done is eliminate the unimportant and expanded on the important, and condensed that part of the story which is leading to the real meat.

This edit is imperfect. Had the work been my own much of the editing would have come before writing and during writing. As the country boy once said, "If I wanted to go there, I wouldn't start from 'ere..." Nevertheless, why not take the longer passage and do your own edit. See how many of the words are truly necessary.

Three weeks after Henry Gray had been admitted to the hospice, God paid him a visit. He sat by Henry's morphine drip and said he was sorry he couldn't stop long, but he had a job for Henry and if it was all right with him, he'd rather he didn't die just yet.

Henry and God talked for fifteen minutes, but then God had to go. He stood up, touched Henry's face, turned, walked slowly down the ward, pushed open the swing doors at the end and left.

When God had gone, Henry lay back in his bed, thinking, mulling over what he'd been told. Listen to your body, God had said. Three days, he said, maybe less, but certainly no more.

After a while, Henry began to grin. For a man who was supposed to be knock-knock-knocking on heaven's door, he didn't feel too bad and compared to how he'd been feeling before God's visit, he felt pretty good.

He was so deep in thought, so busy listening to his body, that he didn't notice the nurse standing by his bed until she began straightening his pillows. He smiled up at her.

"I'm feeling a lot better now."

"What was that?" she said.

It had been quite a while since Henry had been able to speak much above a whisper. He thought he probably could now, if he wanted to, but when he whispered, the nurses leaned in close to hear. He especially liked that with this one, young, Irish, green-eyed. There had been moments during the past three weeks when Henry had felt that, if only he hadn't been three-quarters dead, he could easily have fallen in love with her.

"What did you say?" she said again. Her hair dipped and shimmered a few inches in front of his eyes as she waited for him to reply.

He took a deep breath, drinking her in. There was something about the scent of nurse-skin. It varied with the individual, of course, but there was definitely an underlying base common to all of them, an elusive element he'd yet to identify.

"I'm feeling better, Kathleen." he said. "Feeling pretty bloody good."


We'll continue with Editing next month.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.





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