Invisibility is good

shocked“The story in this book is fantastic!” Rowlf exploded. “I can’t put it down.”

“Oh really?” Cyndy interrogated. “I found it annoying to read because of all of the oddball speaker attributions.”

“That’s because you have no vision,” Rowlf interjected. “This writer is being experimental.”

I’m proofediting a book right now for a publisher that is full of attributions just like these. It also has no discernible POV, switching within scenes to whatever character is most convenient at the time (head hopping)—or even to omniscient.

So why do I like the book? And what lessons can you learn from it? See my post today at Seriously Write, one of my favorite writer’s blogs.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Mike-9Michael loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor here at WritingOnTheFineLine.com, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

Joy in Revision

I’m somewhat of a revision monkey. I love sculpting words! Which likely explains why I prefer editing to writing.

chimp_at_typewriterSo, I’m revising—again—and that means I’m reading through James Scott Bell’s excellent Revision & Self-editing—again. This is not a commercial, this is a strongly held opinion: If you don’t own this book you may not be a real writer.

Anyway. Each time I read through the book I glean new insights and shore up the things I already know.

Read the rest in my post today at Novel Rocket.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Quote It! F. Scott Fitzgerald / Neil Gaiman

Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, an American author of novels and short stories



Laugh at your own jokes.

– Neil Gaiman, an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, and graphic novels


Wow. Sometimes writing advice is so contradictory. What’s an aspiring author to do?

When advice seemingly contradicts, I find it helpful to approach it from a ‘Yes, and’ perspective. First of all, Gaiman is likely not referencing exclamation points–context is everything.

But, that doesn’t negate the benefit of ‘Yes, and’. Fitzgerald and Gaiman are both right–even if talking about exclamation points. In my writing (and editing), I favor eschewing exclamation points for the most part. However, in the right circumstance, they are positively necessary! But only in those rare circumstances.

What do you think? About exclamation points and contradictory writing advice?


Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

In The Edit: Jennifer Slattery



In these posts, with the author’s permission, I look at their work pre-editing and post-editing—and at what I did to improve the piece. The idea is to catch a glimpse into not only the editing process, but the relationship between editor and author.


Jennifer Slattery

Jennifer Slattery is one of my favorite writers for the ACFW Journal. She comes up with great ideas, pitches them well, and then executes them pretty much to my expectation. She is an editor’s dream, because I know I won’t have to reconstruct or rewrite, but more than that, that she’ll make it interesting.

The piece we’re looking at today—a feature on author Athol Dickson—is one of my favorites. It ran in the July 2012 issue of ACFW Journal. I’ve attached the designed spread (below) so you can see how well it works.

Dickson is, for me, one of those writers almost of mythical proportions. His body of work is consistently engaging and thought-provoking. Yet, Jen has revealed him as entirely human.

Jennifer’s edit

See Jennifer’s original.

These are the three main things I addressed in this article:

  1. Article’s purpose: This is a little hard to define, but for magazine writing—and specifically for a writer’s magazine—the features have to show the reader who the subject is without coming across as a tour guide or promotional piece. I did this by:
    • Punching up the lead.
    • Enhancing Jen’s natural accessible flow
    • Paying close attention to word choice.
  2. Writing tighter: Paring down where possible and expunging unnecessary information.
  3. Style issues: AP style and manuscript style.

See my edit in track changes.

What are we doing here?

Any magazine you write for has a style, an audience they are trying to reach. The ACFW Journal’s audience is Christian writers, published and unpublished. Our mission is to instruct, inspire, motivate, and entertain them.

Since that’s our audience, we need to write with eloquence, while adhering to established writing mores the organization teaches.

We want to grip the reader from the get go and then make it disarmingly easy to continue reading. One example is the change in the lead. You can see that what Jen did in one paragraph, I turned into two. The content is largely the same, but trimmed and divided into the punch (graf 1) and the support (graf 2).

Advice: As you write, think about the map of the magazine you’re targeting. We use a 3-column grid, big art, and lots of pull quotes, white space, and color. Jen’s original lead, while containing the right information, would have been a mass of grey in our grid.

Did I mention tight?

Review my previous In The Edit posts for lots of tips on how to write tighter. Though I use many of them in Jen’s piece, today I want to focus on just one: Getting rid of information the reader doesn’t need or that doesn’t add substantially to the piece.

In the section, ‘I’m done with You’, where we learn that Dickson was angry at God, Jen originally included this quote: “There was a televangelist talking on the TV set at that moment, and I watched that man jabbering on and on and strutting on the stage.” But, Dickson had just said he was mad at God, so why diffuse that anger by including the televangelist?

Don’t get me wrong—it may have been an important part of Dickson’s thinking. But without a lot more explanation, the reader is not going to feel the same indignation. Better to get right to what he was feeling when he was angry with God.

You can see similar cuts made elsewhere in the track changes version of the article.

Stylin’ baby, stylin’

Each magazine, newspaper, or publishing house has a style guide they adhere to. Our go-to guide is the AP Stylebook, the preference for many newspapers and magazines. AP stands for Associated Press.

You’ll note in Jen’s original, she referred to Athol Dickson on second and subsequent references as Athol. But AP style is to default to last names on second references. (Exception in this article: When quoting Athol’s brother, also a Dickson, for clarity we used first and last names for both brothers.)

Another style issue is the use of says instead of said for attribution. The thinking is this gives the article a stronger immediacy. Personally, I do not agree, but this is one area where I grit my teeth and go along with what is becoming standard practice.

Finally, in the style section, if you are sending an article or manuscript to an editor, it is still expected that you send it in double-spaced paragraphs, with half-inch indents, and a 12pt serif font such as Times New Roman. Unless you know with certainty, as Jen does, that your editor prefers another approach. (I prefer single-spaced, no indents, because I never edit on paper, only electronic.)

See my edited version, clean.

See the designed version from the ACFW Journal.



Jennifer, thanks for submitting this piece to In The Edit. As always, I enjoy working with your writing. Because you submitted, you are now eligible for a 25-percent discount on any of my editorial services.


If you would like to see your writing in a future In The Edit post, send a maximum of 350 words to opusmle (at) gmail (dot) com. Please send in Word format (.doc). You too can be eligible for a 25-percent discount.


Michael Ehret, for Writing On The Fine Line

Where’s Today’s Post?

I invite you to visit one of my favorite blogs, Novel Rocket, where I post today about ways to cut words from your manuscripts.


Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Quote It! Robert Louis Stevenson

“There is but one art, to omit! Oh, if I knew how to omit I would ask no other knowledge.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, 19th century author, best known for his novels Treasure Island and Kidnapped.



You know my love for tight writing. I am convinced knowing what not to include is far more important than what you do include.

Therefore I was surprised to recently run across this great quote from Stevenson that I’d never seen before. (Thanks to author Anita Higman for bringing it to my attention!)

Writers: What’s your best tip for writing tight, or, as Stevenson would say, for omitting? Share in the comments.


Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

What’s All The Fuss About Passive Writing?

I’m on vacation this week and re-running a couple of my favorite posts. Enjoy!



Go to any writing conference or eavesdrop on any writer’s critique group (both great things for the practicing writer, by the way) and if you hang around long enough, the subject of passive writing will be discussed—and usually with the same conclusion:

It’s bad. To-be-avoided-at-almost-any-cost bad.

Well, you won’t get any argument from me that writing in passive voice is best avoided. But how do you avoid it if you’re not sure what it is?

Active voice

In an active sentence, the subject performs the action.

  • Example 1: Linda dances the samba.
  • Example 2: Bill Withers sings Lean On Me.

In the first example, Linda is the subject and she is dancing the samba, the object of the sentence. In the second, soul singer Bill Withers is the subject and he is singing the song Lean On Me, the object.

Passive voice

Passive voice gets it backward, making the object of the sentence into the subject.

  • Example 1: The samba is danced by Linda.
  • Example 2: Lean On Me is sung by Bill Withers.

Here, the subject has become “the samba” (or the song Lean On Me) and the focus of the sentence has shifted from Linda to the dance (or from Bill Withers to the song).

Prefer the active

Most times, active voice is better. Why? Several reasons:

  1. Active voice sentences use fewer words. “Linda dances the samba” is four words. “The samba is danced by Linda” is six.
  2. Who wants to use weak words? Words like is/am/are/was/were/being/been, etc., are dull. Strong writing includes concrete nouns, powerful verbs, and vivid adjectives.
  3. No one likes confusion. Passive voice is often confusing or unclear.

Is passive always bad?

You know how it is. Nothing in the English language is always—not even the long-revered serial comma. (Don’t get me started. That’s a subject for the future.) But it is good to remember that passive sentences aren’t incorrect. What is true, however, is that passive sentence construction is not the best way to express your thoughts since it is vague, awkward, and wordy.

For examples where passive voice is preferred, visit this page on Grammar Girl’s site.

Tip

I found this invaluable when learning how to write in active voice. Microsoft Word has a setting you can activate within the program’s Preferences menu that shows readability statistics. One of the stats it shows is how passive your writing is.

In fact, you can check a single paragraph or a single sentence for passivity with this tool, make changes, then check again to see if your change helped. This helps you learn to identify passive voice.

To use this tool on a Mac, open the Word menu then click on Preferences (or press Command and the comma key). Then select Spelling and Grammar. The tool is also available on PC. Just play around in the menus until you find it or search for it.

Under Spelling, check whichever options you prefer. Under Grammar, also make your choices, but to use the passive identification tool, tick the “Show readability statistics” box.

Then after you run the Spellchecker a box will appear showing several interesting statistics, including the percentage of passivity. If your file has passive writing, to find it repeat the process paragraph by paragraph until the readability statistics box indicates you’ve found a passive section. Then, if necessary, repeat the process sentence by sentence.

Is it perfect? No, but it is a fantastic educational and self-editing tool.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Samba image from FreeDigitalPhotos.net