Line Edits: the Art of Micro-Writing

24 Aug

by Kat Zhang

~*~

Hello?

…heelloooo?

(echo…echo…)

Hmmm…

*dials up LTWF central*

Hello? This is Kat. We have a problem. Seems like all our readers have disap—

Hello?

…anyone there?

Oh crud.

Well, alright. Here’s the article of the day for all you guys out there who aren’t reading MOCKINGJAY right now! I’ll keep it short, I promise.

In fact, this whole article is about “keeping it short.” I’m talking about your sentences here. Today, we’re delving into the world of micro-writing. Great stories aren’t just made up of great characters and a wonderful plot—they’re composed of well-chosen words and clear, beautiful syntax.

We’ll cover a few basics today, starting with this: Generally, the longer a sentence, the weaker it comes off.

Version A: All speech and all conversation slammed to a halt as a yellow tray soared through the air, smashing into the white walls, sending splotches of food flying in all directions.

Not bad, not bad. But I think this makes it tighter and stronger. And since this is an “action” shot, that’s especially important.

Version B: A tray smashed into the wall, sending splotches of food flying in all directions. Conversation slammed to a halt.

Now, yes, Version A is more descriptive, but in my mind, it has two problems. The first I’ve already mentioned: it weakens the action described in the story by being too long. The important bits of information (tray smashing into wall; conversation slamming to a halt) are buried under all the extraneous words.

Also, Version B changes the order of things. Version A tells you about “conversation slamming to a halt” before telling you about the tray smashing into the wall. Version B inverts things. That way, the last thought/image ringing in the reader’s mind is the deafening silence.

Okay, now on to point number two: present your information as clearly and concisely as possible.

Version A: The doors to the bathrooms were shut, but little panels declared in bright green: “Unoccupied.”

Version B: The bathroom doors were shut, but little panels declared Unoccupied in bright green.

There’s not a huge difference between the two versions, but I do think that B reads more smoothly. It paints a better picture in my mind. “Bathroom doors” and “the doors to the bathroom” mean the same thing, but the former saves you three words!

Which brings me to my third point: if a word can be cut, cut it.

What do I mean by “can be cut”? Well, if the sentence still makes sense without it, and you’re not losing any stylistic form you were going for, then say bye-bye.

Behold—

Version A: At eight, I jerked while Adie was bringing our dad his morning coffee.

Version B: At eight, I jerked while Adie brought Dad his coffee.

Not only did I change the “was bringing” to “brought,” which cut out the passive voice, but I got rid of “morning,” because it served little to no purpose to the scene. When I say coffee, you’re probably thinking “morning” anyway, and in this case, it didn’t matter whether you were or not. So out the window it went!

Honestly, I love doing line edits. To me, it’s like cleaning up a sketch. You get rid of all the extraneous marks until all you have left is the sleek, silver form.

Of course, we’re only looking at one or two sentences here. In a story, you need to vary your sentence structure, so if you have a paragraph with a bunch of very short, simple sentences, you do need to throw some longer ones in there to balance things out.

I’ll leave you guys with one final note: try reading your work aloud. If you stumble, then you might want to think about rewording things.

Now get back to that MOCKINGJAY reading! 😀

~~~

Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She spends most of her free time either querying HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–or pounding out the first draft of her work in progress. Both are YA novels. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.

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26 Responses to “Line Edits: the Art of Micro-Writing”

  1. inkgwen August 24, 2010 at 12:17 AM #

    You’re absolutely right about reading your work out loud and stumbling over unnecessary words. Thanks for the information. I loved the examples. 🙂

    • Kat Zhang August 24, 2010 at 8:42 AM #

      Thank you, inkgwen! I used to think it was a weird idea, but it definitely works!

  2. Angela August 24, 2010 at 1:13 AM #

    Great article! I would have never thought of that, and now I`ll be on the lookout for long sentences and unnecessary words when I write.

    *sigh* I`m jealous of all the people who have their copies of Mockingjay. I live in Japan, so I don`t know how long it will take for Mockingjay to arrive at the bookstores here. I`m still going tomorrow just to check.

    • Kat Zhang August 24, 2010 at 8:44 AM #

      I’m hoping, hoping that the Borders near me has a copy. It doesn’t open until 10am, though, so I’m just sitting around with nothing to do, hahaha. I’m expecting to get a bunch of writing done today, though–reading good books always inspires me to write.

      Hope you find a copy!

  3. tymcon August 24, 2010 at 7:58 AM #

    (looks at empty seats) Well I’m still hereXD Strangely enough i’m pretty good at edits (i think everybdoy is:P), but crap at actual writing. I hate writing storys in english class (that’s a lie, it’s fun, but I hat handing them up), because first draft and all that jazz.
    Lol do you know how I soemtimes do that crazy thing where I say Oh no more books, damn you or soemthign like that as a joke? I did that on another blog (I always do:P) and they thought i was serious. Yeah judging by the reply…they think i’m crazyXD

    • Kat Zhang August 24, 2010 at 8:47 AM #

      lol, tymcon. Glad you’re here!

      And yeah, writing stories for English class isn’t my favorite way to do it, but it’s better than writing essays for English class 😛 Although…that is fun, too!

  4. Rowenna August 24, 2010 at 8:18 AM #

    Nice article, Kat! You’re right–reading aloud, or at least slowing waaaay down, helps to pinpoint if a sentence is running smoothly or not.

    I have to admit a love for long sentences–they used paragraph-long sentences in the eighteenth century and I adore reading those snarky, witty turns of phrases–but it’s ungodly hard to keep a long sentence clear most times. So great advice on ferretting out where and how to cut from them for clarity and smoothness!

    • Kat Zhang August 24, 2010 at 8:48 AM #

      Thank you, Rowenna!

      I took a class on Austen last semester, so I know what you mean about the paragraph-long sentences! Some of them are great–it’s like they’re setting up a punch line, which hits you at the very end. I must admit I had to re-read a couple, though ;P

  5. Ella August 24, 2010 at 11:52 AM #

    *whistles, waits for echo*

    Woo. I’ve never read the Hunger Games, but it’s hard not to get curious just by observing all this excitement. >_>

    But anyway, great article Kat! Writing concisely is a WIP for me, because I’m always torn between pretty sentences and a manuscript that actually makes sense. The first blast of inspiration always has me typing paragraphs and paragraphs that are more or less an excuse to ramble in the most lyrical fashion possible, so I always have to come back later to edit (and smack myself upside the head). This helps a lot, I’ll keep it in mind. :3

    • Kat Zhang August 24, 2010 at 2:21 PM #

      Thanks, Ella! I used to write purely for the beauty of the sentences, too. Plot was probably the last thing I learned how to do properly, haha. Lyrical writing is still one of the most important things to me. I can forgive a lot in a book as long as it reads as pretty is poetry 🙂

      But yeah, concision and lyricalness don’t conflict!

  6. Elle Strauss August 24, 2010 at 12:28 PM #

    Thanks for reminding us that sometimes less is more.

    • Kat Zhang August 24, 2010 at 2:21 PM #

      You’re welcome! Thanks for reading 😀

  7. Heather August 24, 2010 at 1:13 PM #

    It looks like I won’t be getting Mockingjay until August 31st, unless I just go and buy a copy from the bookstore, in which case pre-ordering it from Amazon will have been a complete waste of money. I don’t know what to do! 😦

    I’m not onto line editing yet, but this is useful advice. I think I definitely have a tendency to ramble sometimes/all the time.

    • Kat Zhang August 24, 2010 at 2:23 PM #

      Oh no! Well, the 31st isn’t so far away! Just threaten to beat up anyone who tries to spoil it for you ;P Always works for me!

      I’m glad you liked the article 🙂

    • Vanessa August 25, 2010 at 11:24 AM #

      Oh no! Avoid Twitter and Facebook and Goodreads like the plague until you get it!

      I’d wait it out. It’s not THAT much longer! It’d be a shame to waste money!

  8. Savannah J. Foley August 24, 2010 at 2:17 PM #

    I’m such a big microwriter when I’m editing. 😛

    • Kat Zhang August 24, 2010 at 2:23 PM #

      Oh yes, me too 🙂

  9. henya August 24, 2010 at 2:50 PM #

    Great to be reminded that a sentence that carries the best punch is one which is trimmed to its essence.

    Good read.

    • Kat Zhang August 24, 2010 at 3:26 PM #

      Thank you, henya 🙂

  10. Armith-Greenleaf August 24, 2010 at 5:47 PM #

    What’s this about lyrical writing?

    This post came at the right moment, not only have I never read the Hunger Games (like Ella) and the hype around it caught me by surprise (in my defence, I don’t live in North America), but I also am about to start editing a short piece, and editing is something I’m not really good at. So, thanks for the tips! 😀

    • Kat Zhang August 24, 2010 at 6:04 PM #

      What do you mean with your question about lyrical writing?

      To be honest, the hype caught me by surprise a little, too, haha! And glad I could help 🙂

      • Armith-Greenleaf August 24, 2010 at 11:56 PM #

        I mean, what is lyrical writing? 🙂

        • Kat Zhang August 25, 2010 at 12:02 AM #

          Oh, lol. It just means really beautiful, almost poetic writing. Writing where it’s not just about the idea behind the words, but the words and the sentence structures themselves.

          • Armith-Greenleaf August 25, 2010 at 12:13 AM #

            Ahh, beautiful like a song with fabulous lyrics and gorgeous music. Gotcha haha. ;D

  11. Myra August 26, 2010 at 8:59 PM #

    I love how I preordered MOCKINGJAY and it only came in today, to be retrieved tomorrow. Sometimes, Chapters (Canada), you fail hard.

    But I digress.

    This is a really good article. There are some writing tips that I read a million times before they finally, mercifully reach me and I understand. I’m nowhere even near line edits, but I’m always panicking about wordcount being too low… it’s probably better lower than higher and less muddled. I hope I’ll fully grasp this concept by the time I get to line edits, haha. Sometimes the only way of learning is doing, I guess. (I’m about the least concise person everrr, hah.)

    • Kat Zhang August 26, 2010 at 9:10 PM #

      Get on that reading, then 😛

      Glad this article was of help!

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