bookmark_borderTo help you edit, reverse your sentence order

Here’s how to make your computer help you find grammar and line editing problems. Awkward phrases, missing words, repeated words in close proximity, and repeated sentence length will be much more obvious and easier to identify to fix.

It requires Word, WordPad and Excel. Plus a bit of computer skills, or, just follow the instructions closely and trust my advice.  🙂

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In late drafts we need to focus on line editing and on finding oddball errors like extra words or missing words. Reading aloud can help, but when I read aloud I insert words that aren’t there because I know what I meant to say and I know the context and make corrections as I read without noticing. Reading to someone else can help but only if they notice the changes you make, and they may not have your eye for phrase structure or voice or sentence pattern.

Some writers read their prose backward to break the stream and the context. This is very useful for finding line edit issues, but doing so from a regular draft is strenuous, so here is a method to have the computer separate each sentence and to reverse the order for you.

I’ll use square brackets in the instructions to surround specific characters for you to type. Normally I would use quotation marks but that won’t work since we need to replace some quotation marks.

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  1. Copy your entire document and paste into Wordpad (shortcuts: Ctrl + A to select all, Ctrl + C to copy, Ctrl + V to paste). Or, you can use Word instead of WordPad but you must turn off all AutoCorrect options. Autocorrect will mess with what we’re going to do. I find it easier to copy into Wordpad than to turn all the Word Autocorrect off and then back on.

  2. Replace all [. ] (that’s a period followed by a space) with [.~] (period with a tilde) The “Find and Replace” shortcut is Ctrl + H.

  3. Replace all [? ] (question mark and a space) with [?~]

  4. Replace all [.” ] (period, end quote, and a space) with [.”~] (You may need to copy [.”] from somewhere in your Word document because WordPad doesn’t use Word’s smart quotes.)

  5. Do the same with ! if you used them.

  6. Done in WordPad. We’ve now replaced the space after each sentence with ~ to make it easy to identify. Now, copy all from WordPad and paste into a new Word document.

  7. In Word, replace all [~] with [^p].  ^p is a special character that tells Word to break for a paragraph. You can also do this in WordPad but it’s more difficult because you have to use the code for special characters to identify the paragraph break.

Now each sentence is its own paragraph. Easier to read backward.

To reverse the order, I use Excel. You could also use tables within Word, I think, but I prefer Excel.

  1. Format one entire column as text (otherwise Excel will autoformat the text in Excel-ese). To do so, select the column and right click, select “Format Cells”, in the “Number” tab choose “Text”. Or, select the column, from the menu choose “Home”, then “Cells”, “Format”, “Format Cells”, “Text”

  2. Copy and paste from the broken up Word document into a cell in that column you just formatted in Excel.

  3. In an adjacent column, fill the column with sequential numbers. One way to do this is to type [1] in the highest cell, then [2] in the next, then drag the bottom corner as far down the sheet as your pasted text goes. I do it differently, but I work with Excel a lot and am faster using keystrokes.

  4. Select the two columns that have your text and the numbers

  5. Sort, high to low, on your sequential column. Now your sentences are in reverse order.

From here you can read in Excel format, if that helps you see things new. Or, copy just the text column back into Word.

Now, read from top to bottom. It won’t make a lot of sense (which is part of the point) but each sentence will stand alone.

I edit in the new Word document. Corrections I type in red, text to delete I change to strikeout font, and I highlight both types of changes so they are easy to find. Then save this new document and go back and fix your original.

In theory, it may be possible to write a macro that will use tables and do this entire process within Word, but I’m more of an Excel expert than a Word expert. If someone knows how to do this, please leave a comment below.

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One thing that limits any writer is what they don’t know or can’t see. Reading in reverse order is like shining light from a different direction to find the spots you missed when you were dusting, a way to help you to see some of those pesky little things that you’ve become blind to.

bookmark_borderWhy is Writing Well so Difficult?

Why is writing well so difficult?

It seems easy. When we talk, we don’t have difficulty communicating.

On the other hand, our appraisal of our chatter is not strict, not until we have to make a speech or a presentation. And when we speak face to face we receive feedback—discussion, questions, body language—to check how well our message is coming across.

Good writers make written communication seem natural, easy, almost invisible from a technical perspective. I find my writing (increasingly) cumbersome, clumsy, disorganized. Why does it require so much editing to get it right, or at least, better?

Maybe it’s useful to look at things that are a problem, figure out why they are a problem, and try to guess how they come about. Then, if we’re lucky, we can figure out a way of making it easier, and better earlier.

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Sometimes the issue is a function of sentence or paragraph structure. Grouping and ordering the bits of information in the best sequence doesn’t always come the first time, especially if you rearrange sections and add material. In a critique I commented on a sentence which gave the time of day, the temperature, and the characters appearing on the scene, but the author said afternoon first, then told us riders on horseback, then mentioned the sweltering heat, then something else about the situation. I suggested putting the temperature and time together since they’re related, and keep the information about the characters with the situation, rather than time, riders, heat, situation, and the sentence could flow much better.

But you don’t always see those things as you write. You start with bits of information and add to it and don’t see how it might work better.

Another writer wrote about Mary sitting in her car waiting for it to heat up, rubbing her hands to warm them against the cold (using descriptive language and many more words in two compound sentences). If she’s in the car she’s probably sitting and if she’s rubbing her hands to warm them the car is probably not in motion and it’s probably cold inside and out. Could it be important that the car is running and not moving (carbon monoxide poisoning)? Maybe, but not to the author as the rest of the paragraph went into backstory. What I imagine here is the writer visualized the situation, devised bits of information, then put them together in sentences. Yes, give us details to make the scene real, but new information that adds something useful to our understanding, not repeated or obvious information (unless you’re writing a self-help book and repetition helps get your point across).

So maybe it is the process of revising, of changing to try to improve and adding to fill out and to build that leads us to dump in additional bits and bytes of information, and then it requires editing to find the new best structure.

What this implies to me is a willingness to be free with the structure as you insert, rework, and edit. You’ve got a nice couple of paragraphs but you realize you need more setting or more reaction from the character? Great, but be willing to toss all the pieces, new and old, into a pile. Look for duplicates and overlap. Look for bits that are obvious from other bits or that don’t add anything useful. Find the best order for presentation. Then, rewrite or re-weld from scratch. Remember the old days of doing research or analysis essays in college? Same plan. Don’t just think, Yes, I’ll add that bit of detail by stuffing a new sentence in.

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What about the opposite; missing things? Not basics, like missing end quotation marks at the end of dialogue, but missing detail for realism, missing background for understanding character or situations, or larger scale items such as missing tension, or insufficient reason for the existence of a paragraph, scene, character, or chapter?

I tend to write concisely. There’s an aphorism that you write your first draft and cut out two thirds of what you’ve written in the second, but that doesn’t apply to my writing. Sure, there are phrases and words that don’t add anything, like in the story of Mary above, but generally the percentage that needs to be cut is small. On the other hand when a reviewer tells me “this needs to be twice as long,” sometimes I reword that to mean “give me more background, I don’t get enough story so that it works for me”. Now maybe it’s true; they really would like it to be twice as long, but sometimes it works better (imho) if I insert a description here, a sentence or paragraph of backstory there, a reaction to an existing situation that tells more about a character elsewhere. Tiny additions sprinkled throughout that define a character much clearer than before. Or on a larger scale a few moments of backstory or reflection or descriptive reaction, as opposed to another chapter.

Why were these not present earlier?

Maybe:

  • I was comfortable with the character being vague.
  • I didn’t see how much more powerful or understandable the story could be with a more clearly defined character.
  • I didn’t understand the character or the situation well asI was writing.
  • I still haven’t defined the character sharply enough in my mind, so when I read I don’t see what’s lacking.
  • I was reading things into the story that I haven’t written.
  • I’m not as good a reader as my reviewer.

Some of these things don’t come until review, or at least after first draft. Still, it doesn’t hurt to work toward being capable of seeing them earlier, to keep them in consideration in my own reading and early revising.

I guess the potential downside is losing some speed and flow in the first draft process. On the other hand, the improvements I’ve made over the years to my editing and sentence writing ability have not hampered my first draft writing, at least not that I’m aware of, but it has enabled me to write better sentences the first time, with fewer repeated words, fewer adverbs, better rhythm. (And I know that my expectations and hopes for the quality of my writing is higher, hence my ongoing failure in spite of my improvement.)

Sometimes some of the lack of detail and background is a natural difficulty of writing fiction. Like the liar, the fiction writer wasn’t actually there and so details, sensory information, emotional reactions and developments are imagined, faked. Lies. So the descriptions will easily be lacking key elements of a ‘truthful statement’.

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Okay, what about plot and storyline?

Sometimes I enjoy the writing, the exploration, the creation of sentences and paragraphs, and end up with little or no plot. Why should a reader find what I have to say interesting? If I have no arc, if the character doesn’t evolve, if the action is random or not investigated, what’s the point?

I might be aiming for an investigation into a situation or a moment, a dramatic presentation of an event. But wouldn’t it be stronger and have more meaning with more context? If we understood more about the characters and why they act or react, more about the circumstances that drove this combination of elements to collide, would the reader not get more?

A vignette is a moment with valid artistic value, but a vignette has to evoke more than what is presented. It needs to encourage the reader to experience a mood, an emotion, or to reflect and consider the implications of the words beyond what is there on the page. Placed within a larger piece, a vignette might give the reader a deeper sense of one of the characters. It adds to our understanding of who this person is, and is the point of the writing.

But as a stand alone short piece, a vignette lacks the context that one within a novel will have, and needs to be more universal, both in its experience and in its application, thereby requiring less setting. Or, so powerful, so poetic or poignant in its expression that they have touched something through the words, and it was a worthwhile experience.

Or so I think, anyway.

This is something that I’m struggling with. In theory a lot of my short writing experiments could be considered vignettes because I’m trying to capture a moment in time, a slice of someone’s life, but they may not be poignant enough to be worth reading, unless you’re going to stand there and admire my writing, like I do.

In a larger piece, conflict, physical description, beats, anything outside dialogue or internal narrative can be lacking. When I feel my way through a chapter often there is one element that drives the writing. In a dramatic or conflict situation that driver could be dialogue. In a chapter build around a series of events it could be getting the characters from one setting or situation to the next. In a problem solving situation it could be all about the problem; setting it up, experiencing the blockage, finding the solution.

Anything that is not the driver could be left behind. In a dramatic situation the tension will be there, but I might miss opportunities to heighten conflict with smaller tensions, and I will definitely miss physical activity. In a series of events the movement will be key and I will miss description, conflict, and dialogue.

bookmark_borderEditing Review: Stranger in a Strange Land

I’m reading Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, but not for the first time.

Many, many years ago it was my ‘bible’; the good book that I read from before going to sleep. As an agnostic faux-intellectual college student I latched on to Heinlein’s unconvinced, usually cynical attitudes toward politics, government, society, and found solace in the advice of Jubal Harshaw and in the commune of the Nest.

My paperback has long since split in two and the back cover is no longer attached. These days almost everything I read is in ebook form, and the ebook version of Stranger I got is the unedited version. It opens with a forward by Heinlein’s wife Virginia explaining how some years after Heinlein’s death she found the original, thought it was better, submitted it for consideration, and how the new editors agreed with her and published it. (Or, ‘Hey, fresh revenue, guaranteed return, no risk; sure we love it.’)

Years ago I saw a web site with examples from each publication. The objective was to show how the original was more authentic, more Heinlein, and better, but I decided that I preferred the edited version so I never bothered to look for the original. Now that I’m reading the original, I still feel the same. I’m almost half way through and looking for chunks that were removed (this version is 220,000 words and the edited version clocks in at 160,000), but mostly I’ve noticed unnecessary phrases and sentences (including dialogue) and repetitive or muddy descriptions that aren’t familiar to me. The version I remember is cleaner, clearer and spends fewer words in fuzzy Heinlein-esque pirouettes. He was a great writer; full of cool ideas and philosophies and technologies and situations, but better with those elements than with the craft of perfecting sentences and paragraphs. Or maybe he just spent more of his focus on those parts.

 

Heinlein is a better read when filtered through an editor, even if that editor, apparently, was the author himself, pressured by the publisher to cut the length.

 

This brings up a number of points. One is that even the work of an experienced author like mid-career Heinlein can be improved—at least, imo—which brings up another thought; perhaps there are readers—and perhaps they outnumber readers like me—readers who actually prefer the unedited Heinlein (and not just for revenue generation reasons).

The edited version has more sharply defined characters, snappier dialogue and is missing extraneous repetition or near repetition. I don’t think those changes can be lamented too convincingly. But some of the self-indulgent meandering, occurring both in dialogue and in narration, is also trimmed or cut. Maybe some readers like those parts. They are common in Heinlein’s writing and, when he rambles well,  it’s one of his strengths as a writer/thinker, though the ones that have been removed are, imo, weak, unnecessary wanderings. And sometimes there is a soft, passive kind of interaction description style that I criticize when I’m presented with it in reviews.

 

Here are some examples. Not the best ones, scoured from the entire novel, but just a few from where I’m reading right now. I’m selecting these by comparing what I read against what I remember, then searching in my paperback to see how my memory compares with the actual and how that compares with the ebook.

“I said, ‘No!’ Can’t you understand plain English?  But you are to deliver this letter to Mr. Douglas at once and to him personally, and fetch back his receipt to me.”

A little over the top with anger, at least compared with the first published version:

“I said, ‘No!’ You are to deliver this letter to Mr. Douglas at once, and fetch his receipt to me.”

I don’t think the over-the-top anger is needed given the situation or the characters. A terse statement carries more authority, more impatience, and doesn’t make Jubal sound as petty as the first version does.

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Here’s a simple one:

“Yes, but – Doctor, you speak Arabic, do you not?”

Not bad, but again, unnecessary words, compared with the edited version:

“Yes, but – Doctor, you speak Arabic?”

I couldn’t argue with either, partly because there isn’t much difference. The extra three words might better represent the character, but without them it reads a little faster.

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This one I found disconcerting.

“I’ll get it,” said Dorcas, and jumped up.

It sounds so, beginnerish. Dorcas should be moving to collect the glass to refill as she speaks, her action concurrent with the dialogue and not that awful phrase “and jumped up.” Heinlein chose to prune it to:

“I’ll get it,” said Dorcas.

In this case I wouldn’t have minded a little something to indicate Dorcas’ enthusiasm because it helps set up her nature as the most sexually focused and seductive of the females, a characteristic that plays a part later in a small mistake by another character. On the other hand there are other indications, and it is a very small mistake/joke.

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This one is awkward in more than one way:

“Anne, you have just interrupted a profound thought.  You hail from Porlock.”

Who is going to say “You have just interrupted a profound thought”? “Just interrupted”? “Profound thought”? Doesn’t sound like Jubal, and there must be better ways of saying this. How about “Anne, you’ve derailed an impending statement of brilliance.” And after saying this, why would he shift to the declamatory statement “You hail from Porlock”, using it like a fancy alternative to “You idiot.” To clarify this reference to “Kubla Khan” it seems more reasonable to say “You must hail from Porlock.” One extra word, but it fits the situation better, even if  you lose some of the the metaphorical element of his statement.

I admit that it took me years to figure out the reference from the edited version:

“Anne, you hail from Porlock.”

The edited version is so obtuse that, even one knows the reference, you probably have to read the line twice to figure it out. For me, it was many years later that I read Coleridge (I first read “Stranger” when I was 15 or so, didn’t read Coleridge until college) and was finally able to make the connection. But it fits the characters much better, and without the odd lead in/clarification sentence, it works by itself. As a bonus, Anne’s next sentence and Jubal’s response to it are short single sentences, creating a brief sense of hanging on the edge of something before Jubal hurries off to take the call that Anne announced.

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The next is an example of redundant writing, otherwise known as “reader gets it”:

Jubal nodded agreement. “Quite true.  That’s why I’ve kept up my reading of it, a little.”

It’s not necessary to nod “agreement”. Nodding is agreement. And to say “Quite true” is a third statement of the same thing only in dialogue. Don’t need all three. Normally don’t need more than one.

And at the end of the example there’s no need to qualify the quantity of his Arabic reading because Jubal said those exact words a couple paragraphs earlier. When people talk they often repeat themselves but in fiction, unless it serves a purpose, characters should not be repeating themselves. If well written, the reader will pick it up the first time, and useless repetition makes the reading slow and sticky.

Jubal nodded. “That’s why I’ve kept up my reading of it.”

Just as clear that he agrees, and a better reading experience.

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The next one is an example of confusing writing. It begins with a sentence that is awkward because Heinlein tries to transition between two scenes but creates a sentence that is unbalanced and runs too long in the second part, stuffed with too many things: returned, find, Nelson, Mike, bedrooms, checking.

The second sentence is one of those sentences we’ve all written, where our feet are in the way and over them we trip:

They said good-by and Jubal returned to find that Dr. Nelson had taken Mike into one of the bedrooms and was checking him over.  He joined them to offer Nelson the use of his kit since Nelson had not had with him his professional bag. Jubal found Mike stripped down and the ship’s surgeon looking baffled.

The whole thing is re-written into something much clearer:

They said good-bye. Jubal found that Dr. Nelson had taken Mike into a bedroom to examine him. The surgeon was looking baffled.

 

After completing the first part of this post I did some internet research and found people who claim there are two groups;

  1. people who like the first published version of “Stranger” and dislike the rest of his writing, and
  2. those who like everything else he wrote but wondered why they didn’t like “Stranger” as much.

I guess it’s comforting for them that their world is black and white. Myself, I like a lot of Heinlein—my favorite being “Farnham’s Freehold”— but “Stranger” is in a different category; something exceptional. I fail to see why the unedited version has any significant advantages over the edited one. It has some long paragraphs of muddied writing, some unnecessarily repeated statements and concepts, some unclear phrasing, and occasionally what I interpret as dialogue that does not fit the character. It is possible that his other works are more similar in looseness to the unedited version, but I have not spent anywhere near the number of hours reading any other of his novels, and don’t have any interest in doing so. As I said, “Stranger” is exceptional and I don’t think any other even tries to be as great an accomplishment as “Stranger” manages to be. They’re just novels.

There are times in the edited version where its succinctness makes understanding it more challenging, like the Porlock example I cited above, but like any good book, you get more out of it each time you read. I don’t need everything spoon fed to me the first time, and I don’t need elements (situations, emotions, descriptions, words, phrases) repeated multiple times unless each adds an additional shading or helps to generate an appropriate sense of urgency or of blockage.

Much of the confusing wording, the awkward phrasing, the unnecessary phrases, the repetitious writing, and the occasional actions uncoordinated with the dialogue in the original version are common in early drafts of writing. As  you’re typing you write “a little”, and when your character speaks again you think, I want him to qualify the amount that he reads, so you type “a little”, and it isn’t until many re-reads later, or sometimes not until someone else points it out, that you see you’ve repeated yourself.

It’s this last point makes me a little embarrassed to be reading a version that went unpublished during Heinlein’s lifetime. I feel as if I’ve arrived uninvited and caught him in his underwear (though, being a nudist, he might not have been wearing any). As a writer, though, it’s cool to be able to read and to compare the two versions.

bookmark_borderPost-NaNoWriMo 2011, or, Begining the second version of the 3DayNovel

So I didn’t make the 20,000 words in eleven days to total 50,000 for my manufactured NaNoWriMo for this year, but I did manage to come up with close to 15,000, and have kept at it since then, though at a much slower pace.

But after spending two weeks since then trying to add scenes to my original 23,000 word 3DayNovel I became aware that most of the new material added new characters, something that I had a slight inclination to try to avoid at first because I felt that I had enough characters for the length of the story. I tried to add scenes using the existing characters but found that difficult to do because I was also trying to avoid writing the scenes that I had already identified as missing and needed; I was trying to focus on fresh material only and it was difficult to do so without adding characters.

Is there any point in having the MC have dinner with his friend again? If they go somewhere, do something, does that add anything to the story? These are some of the things that I tried, but came up with dead ends in most of the time.

Then I looked at pushing one of the secondary characters, taking the POV and seeing some of his story. The next two most important characters have to remain mysteries so any POV done from their perspective would have to be deliberately obtuse, and that might be difficult given their secrets; they have huge secrets that they’re hiding with almost everything they say or do. (But then there’s great conflict hiding there! ) And given that it’s a short novel, shifting of POV can’t be treated casually. It’s not ‘War and Peace’ where it makes total sense to spend some time seeing the world from Pierre’s eyes, from Natasha’s eyes, even from Petra’s eyes.

So I may do some POV shifting to tell more sidestory or backstory. But the important thing that I realized is that:

  • My MC is boring when he’s not doing something that he’s good at

He’s also not awful at anything, so I can’t show him screwing things up, which also might be entertaining. But trying to generate more scenes with him by adding scenes that do not have anything to do with the mystery that he will solve is really difficult, which is why I added characters as I tried to spin out more material. Imagine Jack Reacher going for a walk to kill time and not meeting thugs or Kinsey Milhone sitting in a movie theater for no plot reason. I did manage to show more about his history, his personality, and a lot about other perspectives and attitudes about the story that he’s researching so these additional characters add something to the story.

But this is where it ties back to the second charater’s POV for this particular story that I’m working on. There is a huge chunk of material that’s key to solving the mystery that the second character digs up and dumps on the lap of the MC. On one hand this is like material supplied by Garcia to the rest of the BAU in ‘Criminal Minds’ and you don’t want to sit there and watch her trying to hack into systems and then querying databases and then cross referencing her materials, but that’s where the a large part of the information to solve the mystery comes from. The result is that there’s a lot ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, or in this case ‘discovering’ this material, which is a fundamental fiction writer’s error.

How do you write about research and turn it into an activity? Especially when it’s all done from a wheelchair?