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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Line Editing Is Your Friend

Yesterday I talked generally about the importance of line editing; today I'll show you how to put that philosophy into practice.

The following excerpt comes from 16-year-old Molly Ronan, who was cool enough to participate in a recent writing challenge of mine (the assignment was to generate a character description):

Running From Home.
By Molly Ronan

He kept his head down low. His eyes watched his feet covered in old sneakers move one at a time. When a car drove by he was able to the see the rips in them from the years of use. He knew that soon he would be able to see his toe peaking out. His face was hidden from any wandering eyes by the hood attached to his sweatshirt. Originally the sweatshirt had been a navy blue but now Jason wasn't sure what color to call it. He never took the sweatshirt off; that would risk not having it to put back on again. There were plenty of people who didn't care what color the sweatshirt was as long as it was on their back and kept them warm. Underneath his hood his blonde hair was knotted down his neck. If Jason ever took his hood off his uncut and uncombed platinum blonde hair would become like a neon sign to the cars on the road. Jason didn’t want to be seen, he didn’t want to be noticed.
Jason knew where he was going. The strangers in the cars driving by didn't. That was the way he wanted it to be. No one would even want to know where he was going because he didn't want to go there himself. He was going though, one step at a time on the side of the road he had walked down too many times before. The only thing that kept him going straight was the white line on the side of the road. As long as he kept walking on that line he would be fine until he had to cross the road. Somehow he knew when you crossed the road you were supposed to look both ways but no one had never told him that. No one had ever told him that he wasn't supposed to walk by himself in the middle of night either.
A car zoomed by and then the night air was quiet. Jason paused where he was. He had walked far enough. He raised his head just high enough to see the old run down shop across the street. He thought he could hear another car coming. He ran across the street anyways. He ran with the stride of someone who could become a track star with training, perseverance, and dedication. Jason didn't have any of that. Someone had taken all of that away from him. Funny how it was the same person who gave him life.
He reached the other side of the road just as a large silver SUV drove by. A teenage girl, around Jason's age, looked out the window from the passenger seat at the boy running across the street. She couldn't see his face, only the hood and the shape his clothes made over his body. Her mother kept driving and soon the boy was just a fleeting memory. If Jason could he would have jumped into the backseat of that car and he never would have came back to the old shop with cardboard for windows. The place he was heading towards. The place where his dad was waiting for him. The place he called home.

When I first read Molly's submission, I thought a couple of things: 1. That Molly was a talented writer, and adept at generating intriguing characters and circumstances, and 2. That due to some occasional repetition/redundancy, the suspense and intrigue was being somewhat obscured by certain stylistic choices. It was nothing that a few minor and edits couldn't remedy, however. Here's what I did to Molly's piece (I tried to show the editing marks but was not able to upload them to blogspot--you will just have to compare the two excerpts yourself!):

He kept his head down, and his eyes on his feet, and his beaten-up sneakers. Soon his toes would be peeking out from the leather.
His face was hidden by his hood. Originally his sweatshirt had been navy blue but now Jason wasn't sure what color to call it. Underneath the hood, his blonde hair was knotted down his neck. If Jason ever removed the hood, his uncut and uncombed platinum blonde hair would be a neon sign to the cars on the road. Jason didn’t want to be seen. He didn’t want to be noticed.
The only thing that kept Jason going straight was the white line on the side of the road; as long as he followed it, he would be fine.
A car zoomed by and then the night air was quiet. Jason paused. He had walked far enough. He raised his head. Across the street was his destination: an old, seemingly abandoned shop. He looked from left to right. Somehow he knew when you crossed the road you were supposed to look both ways, even though no one had never told him that. But no one had ever told him that he wasn't supposed to walk by himself in the middle of night, either.
He thought he could hear a car coming, but ran across the street anyways. He ran well, with the stride of someone who might have-with the right training, perseverance, and dedication—become a track star. But Jason didn't have any of those things. Someone had taken all of that away from him. Funny how it was the same person who had given him life.
He reached the other side of the road just as a large silver SUV drove by. If Jason could have, he would have jumped into the backseat of that car and he never would have come back to the old shop with cardboard for windows. The place where his dad was waiting for him. The place he called home.

The edits aren't major, though I've shaved about 200 words from what was originally a 500 + word intro. Please note that I've mostly addressed redundancies and phrases that are unnecessary ("Jason paused where he was" becomes "Jason paused"; "He kept his head down low" becomes "He kept his head down.") it is quicker, tighter, and smoother now; the story moves us forward so quickly there is simply no time to stop reading, to grow bored or wonder, do I want to turn the page? And ultimately, that is a tremendous goal of the writer: we must keep the reader moving forward, and turning the pages.

Thanks, Molly, for writing such a great piece, and also for letting me use you as a literary guinea pig!

Tomorrow I'll post some questions you might ask yourself as you edit, to help you identify phrases or words that might be trimmed.

3 comments:

wandering wraith said...

Awesome post. Keep 'em coming. I'm a thirsty sponge eager to soak up more tidbits of knowledge.

Dawn Kurtagich said...

Absolutely. Very enjoyable post, as always!

Jude said...

Great post. Thanks a lot.

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