The Nitty-Gritty of Editing: Impact

CC image by ethermoon

How is your editing going? I hope that the last two nitty-gritty blogs have been helpful to you and that you are ready for part 3! Understand, the topics of deletion and consistency are fairly tangible and clear. From here on out, it only gets more abstract and instinctual. In this blog, I will be discussing edits regarding impact. This is something that can take a while to get a feel for, and often you need a second pair of eyes from an honest friend to help you to see it.

CC image by ethermoon

CC image by ethermoon

The gist here is that your writing is a cause and effect relationship. Your words will cause a response in the reader. You want to be sure that the response from the reader, whether positive or negative, is the one that you intended. I am going to show you part one of editing for impact, quantitative editing. The second part, collective editing, will be discussed in my next blog.

Quantitative editing is all about repetition. If used appropriately, repetition is a great asset to your writing. It’s what results in themes, extended metaphors, and motifs. This is more related to large-scale content editing, however, and goes beyond the scope of this blog. Perhaps I will revisit this topic another time to give it the attention it deserves. What I want to focus on is inappropriately used repetition that weakens rather than strengthens your work. You see, the more you use something, the less impact it has. I’m going to use a very Albuquerque-relevant analogy here. Snow. It snows one day and the entire city panics. Schools are shut down, people lock themselves in their homes for fear of the horrible driv—I mean the icy roads. It impacts us a great deal. But when it snows every day in the winter, like say in the northern states, it would just be an everyday part of life. Very little impact. Get it? Now, here’s my fancy list of things that you don’t want to overdo.

CC image by Daniel Stark

CC image by Daniel Stark

Clichés
We are told to never ever , ever use clichés ever! And for the most part, I agree. The majority of the time, you can find a much better way to express yourself if you delete that dang cliché. What I’ve noticed, however, is not a lot of people really understand what a cliché is. Some people think of clichés only as those idiomatic expressions we have like “kick the bucket” and “avoid clichés like the plague.” But, honestly a cliché is anything that is overused. There are cliché characters (the jock, the nerd, the prep), cliché stories (the love triangle, the revenge seeker, the weakest person becomes the strongest), and cliché images (a single tear, kissing in the rain, tripping while running for your life). Are you starting to realize how these are somewhat unavoidable? There are cliché descriptions, too—the coffee colored skin, the pounding heart, the dancing eyes, the gorgeous protagonists. Do you see what I am getting at? You can’t avoid all clichés; many of these have become overused because they work, after all. So be aware of them and be choosy. You don’t want a pounding heart in every action sequence, because the more you use it, the more you cripple your creative options, and the less impact it has on your reader.

Adverbs
Once again, some people hack and slash any adverb in sight. And again, I mostly agree. Many adverbs are just plain stupid. I don’t need to know that a character is “running quickly” or “crawling slowly.” It’s inherently implied! And if every one of a book’s dialogue tags has an adverb attached to it (said happily, said sarcastically, said emphatically) I will likely use the book for kindling. That being said, I’m not about to host a “Boycott All Adverbs” protest either. I think adverbs CAN be impactful if A. They are used only occasionally B. They concisely express complex ideas and/or C. They are contrary to what you would expect. For example, I’m all for saying that someone “whispered loudly” or “ran calmly” because the adverb goes against the implicit meaning of the verbs and creates a new meaning. That is just my opinion, so take it or leave it.

Metaphors/Similes
Metaphors can be profound and they can describe two things by comparison so perfectly that sometimes you can no longer think of one without thinking of the other. However, if they are overused, they are not only weakening, but distracting. Sometimes writers try really hard to be profound with their metaphors, and they end up with a mixed metaphor of five different comparisons in as many paragraphs. Don’t give in to that temptation. Stick with the one resounding metaphor that will follow your readers’ thoughts for the rest of the day. Also, be wary of similes. It’s scary how easy it is to throw the “like” and “as” words around multiple times in one paragraph. Be picky. Go with the strongest image and never doubt the power that plain, simplistic language can have.

CC image by Su-chan

CC image by Su-chan

Cursing
What a tricky topic. I have read books with cussing in every other paragraph and loved them. However, these books established that cussing as the everyday language and used very clever, creative language for the more impactful moments. Make your decision about the amount of cussing you use in your stories and remember that if your protagonist calls his father a bastard on page one, it will mean very little when he calls the antagonist the same thing on page 200. Cussing has to be handled with maturity. Using the F word for every other adjective in your book doesn’t make you an adult, cool, or edgy. By the same token, if your adult book has kidnappers that say to “Sit on your tushie” or if a car comes at your character through a red light and he says, “Oh darn!” you are no longer realistic; you are naïve. Make your decision wisely. Personally, I think about every single one of my cuss words. Some I use for comedic moments, and some I reserve only for the most impactful opportunities.

One Line Paragraphs
A one line paragraph is like a slap in the face, which can be very effective. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it is usually a short sentence (not dialogue) in a paragraph all its own that ties directly to the paragraph before it. Typically it is used to emphasize a realization or to make those words stand out. It can be dramatic.

Very dramatic.

If you’ve never used these, consider giving it a go. They can be beautifully impactful. However, if you are using these too often, you are once again chipping away at your impact. I have sometimes seen it where there are one sentence paragraphs sequentially.

It’s too much.

It’s too dramatic.

Now nothing stands out.

It’s like one realization leads to another, which leads to another. It also makes the author look indecisive, like they couldn’t pick which one they liked the best or they couldn’t find a better way to structure the initial paragraph. I’m going to be unusually one-sided about this and say that I don’t think stacking one line paragraphs should ever be done. What strikes you as more impactful? The single, resounding slap to the face or one then another? The second will always be weaker. Their face still stings from the first and you don’t get as good of a drawback. I know, I’m really extending this metaphor here, but I want to make sure my point is clear.

Punctuation
Can you believe I’m telling you to be intentional with your punctuation? But it’s true! Know the tools of your trade. In this case, I am specifically talking about semi-colons and em dashes. These two pieces of punctuation can be very handy, but if you have multiple ones on a page, you need to consider restructuring your sentences. Some people just love using semi-colons to put two sentences together willy-nilly, but you should put more thought behind it. Your sentences must build off of one another. The way I view an appropriate use of the semi-colon is that if you didn’t have the clause before the semi-colon, you wouldn’t understand the one after it. At the very least, you would feel like you missed something. That’s my usage of it; maybe yours is different. Regardless, be decisive with these and don’t overuse them.

CC image by IvanWalsh.com

CC image by IvanWalsh.com

Em dashes have two big uses. One is an aside that occurs in the middle of sentences. You definitely don’t want to overdo these as they’re not much better than parenthesis (aside from blogs, I never use parenthesis) and they can often be replaced with commas. Here’s an example: He would watch sports with his friends—mostly hockey and soccer—but he never admitted that he didn’t know the rules. If you see these all over your pages, they are most likely unnecessary information that can be deleted. If you think it’s important and you don’t think there is a better sentence structure, consider using commas. Just cut them down. The other use of the em dash is similar to the semi-colon. You should know the difference if you’re using them. I use the em dash if the following statement is an incomplete sentence or if the first statement is an action and the second is the effect. Once again, this probably varies depending on the writer. Regardless, don’t overuse them.

Rhetorical Questions
We end upon yet another potentially useful tool. In my opinion, rhetorical questions are best when they give the reader a better understanding of a character. In other words, I like this in a first person or close third point of view. I also like it when the question goes unanswered and opens up a plethora of possibilities. If the question helps focus your reader into a specific line of thought, it can be very impactful. However, there can be a tendency to stack these. I often see rhetorical questions in packs of twos or threes. Additionally, rhetorical questions can result in too much handholding. If you want your reader to have a specific question in mind, that doesn’t mean you should plop that question onto the page for them. You should be able to shape your writing such that the question emerges into the reader’s mind all its own.

See what I mean when I said abstract and instinctual? A feel for the impact of your writing comes with time and practice. That means that the first step is to look at the quantity of each of these things. If you have too many, then analyze them, learn about them. If you don’t have very many, then start expanding your tool box. And once again, it always helps to have others read it, but be sure to ask them specifically to comment on the impact of your writing. Next time I will be writing about editing the collective impact of your writing. Until then, take care and have fun improving your work!

By Rachelle Clifford