This week I’m reviewing Bridget McKenna’s The Little Book of Self-Editing for Writers. An experienced editor of over twenty-five years, McKenna explains how edits to sentence-level issues such as weak verbs, too many adverbs, redundancy, and fish heads, strengthen a draft and create an immersive story. McKenna shows us how to write so that readers don’t notice the writing. THAT’S a difficult to trick to master, but following her expert advice gets you closer to that goal. You may have noticed that The Little Book is a departure from the books I’ve reviewed in the past weeks. It focuses on the mechanics of writing, not the development of the story. Because of this, I initially thought I wouldn’t include it in this series, but decided to for two reasons:
- Her chapter on redundancy is a MUST READ
- I believe that refining on a sentence level helps refine the story
#1: What You Didn’t Know About Redundancy that You Need to Know NOWSERIOUSLY, GUYS. Seriously. I consider myself well-versed in the art of writing, but this chapter schooled me. Admittedly, redundancy is one of my weaknesses. My Very Valuable Writing Group Members (Yes, they deserve capitalization and probably lots of cookies, too) point it out in every chapter I share with them. I’m always grateful for their insight because, in my own writing, I can’t identify redundancy issues with the same clarity I do in others’ work. However, just a quick read through of McKenna’s redundancy chapter left me feeling more enlightened, more capable of recognizing my own issues and fixing them. I can’t wait to try it out. McKenna will leave you feeling similarly enlightened on issues of verbs, adverbs, dangling modifiers, and pesky fish heads. She clearly explains
- what the problems are
- why they are problems
- and how to fix them.
#2: Refine Sentence Level Issues, Refine the StoryMcKenna tells her readers right away that there’s a difference between a manuscript and a story:
“The manuscript is not the story. The manuscript is where we put down the words we’re using to tell the story; it is not the story itself.”This is an important distinction for writers to make, especially if they intend to improve their drafts by either self-editing or sending their work to a professional editor. Changing HOW you tell the story doesn’t mean you change the story itself. BUT changes to the manuscript can help development the story or clarify your articulation of it. When I was training writing center tutors for the University of Tennessee, our curriculum included an article about how improving the grammar of any sentence ALSO improved the meaning of that sentence. I was writing my dissertation at the time, and this really resonated with me because when my dissertation committee members asked me to clarify vague sentences, I found that it forced me to really think about what I was trying to say, what my argument was. My meaning wasn’t clear on the sentence level because it wasn’t clear on a bigger, content level. I didn’t know what I was trying to argue overall, and this created sentences that were similarly vague. I’d known in a sort of hazy way that I was lost, wandering around my dissertation with a flashlight quickly losing batteries, but it wasn’t until I taught this article to my tutors that it clicked. Confronting vague or weak language, mechanics, and grammar—sentence-level issues—leads to greater insight into big-picture story issues. For example, replacing weak verbs with strong ones illuminates the things your characters DO, which in turn illuminates them, improving your characterization. This is why I’ve included McKenna’s book in this series on developmental editing guides. Her excellent explanations will certainly improve the nuts and bolts of your sentences, improve your overall writing, and in the long run, improve your story.
Want help self-editing your work NOW? My checklist for quick editing helps you clean up you prose without reading an entire book (though you should do that too!).