• The Music of Editing

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    I once thought of editing as a formulaic process, like following a to-do list. A few years ago when I wrote mostly academic papers, I approached editing simplistically. Yet I’d agonize over whether I should’ve used a complex sentence or if I could’ve used a less sophisticated verb instead of something frou-frou. I was looking at editing logically instead of thinking of it musically. Yes, musically. That entails hearing your writing like a composer would a musical composition. Punctuation is the equivalent of rests and adverbs and adjectives are like articulations. It may be an old trope, comparing words to music, but that doesn’t diminish the truth of it.

    Now that I’ve spent more time writing things other than literary criticism (and mostly free verse poetry), I’m more flexible with how I edit because I place more importance on “what sounds right” in different types of writing. It’s intuitive and less stressful. I still reference Elements of Style and On Writing Well occasionally, but I find that the best teachers are ultimately practice and reading a variety of literature. Learning how to edit is like learning a language in that immersion is an effective way to achieve fluency. I’ve also learned a few specific lessons that you can apply to all kinds of writing, and they’ve helped make editing a painless necessity.

    Cut down on adverbs

    Adverbs are “how” words and often used to support an inadequate verb. A phrase like “he spoke slowly” could be improved by eliminating “slowly” and changing “spoke” to something more specific like “drawled” or “droned.” In the end, I think it comes down to what sounds right. Sometimes adverbs prove useful. For instance, “he spoke slowly” sounds meandering, whereas “he drawled” sounds more clipped. If you want to convey your meaning through sound, I’d go with “he spoke slowly.” In fiction or poetry, you’re using sound to color your words; however, in academic writing and journalism, eliminating excess words is much more important. When you’re conveying information and opinions, you’ll lose a reader if you’re too wordy.

    Don’t underestimate simple words

    I remember having to go through my papers in grade school and replace boring words with better ones from the thesaurus. I think back to my choices and laugh because they sounded ridiculous. Not because my writing overall was bad, but because the bigger words made me sound self-conscious. Sometimes plain words have more punch without all the velveeta.

    Think of punctuation as a tool

    We use punctuation to manipulate the way readers hear and glean meaning from strings of words. Just because a sentence has correct punctuation doesn’t mean you can’t make it better using different punctuation. Maybe that comma you used to separate two parts of a compound sentence adds an unnecessary pause and takes the oomph out of your point. Again, fiction and sometimes poetry allow the most freedom with punctuation and reading your sentence aloud should ultimately determine your decision.

    Look out for awkward sentences

    Reading your work aloud is the best way to tell whether or not you’ve got an awkward sentence, but sometimes you can spot one by noticing punctuation, conjunctions, and transition words. Too much of any of those in one sentence will make it look and sound cumbersome–about as awkward as a nerdy kid with a dozen books in her backpack. (The memories…)


    In addition to writing for WriteByNight’s blog, Jenna Cooper writes for BE Mag and a blog called FemThreads.  Aside from writing, Jenna served as an AmeriCorps Member from 2008-2010 and will start her M.S. in Information Studies in Fall 2012.  She graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas.

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