Writers Workshop: Rules for Editing to Improve Your Drafts

Len WilsonBooks, Writing2 Comments

Gutenson-edits
Y esterday patheos.com posted a nice commentary on Franklin Graham’s recent comments about Obama’s faith: And a Father Shall Be Divided Against His Son. It was written by one of my authors, Chuck Gutenson, who with Mike Slaughter wrote Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide (Abingdon, 2012).

Prior to sending the blog post to Patheos, Chuck sent it to me for editing help. My fixes led to a nice discussion about why I made the edits I did. I offer parts of our discussion here to help writers improve their craft.

First, he led with a setup, like you might say in a classroom:

And a Father Shall be Divided Against His Son

In an interview in Parade magazine in 1981, Reverend Billy Graham made the following statement: “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political Right. The hard Right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

 

He was prescient, wasn’t he, in seeing where the fateful coupling of partisan politics and religious fundamentalism would lead?  When we listen to political strategists talk…

I deleted the setup line, and started on action, like this:

And a Father Shall be Divided Against His Son

I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political Right. The hard Right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.

                      – Billy Graham, Parade Magazine, 1981

Billy Graham prophetically saw the fateful coupling of partisan politics and religious fundamentalism. When political strategists talk…

As I explained my decision to Chuck, I dropped the introductory setup sentence and led with the quote to increase immediacy. It’s similar to film editing – when I edit film, I try to edit on the action rather than before the action, such as cutting as the man swings the bat rather than before, while he’s standing at the plate, waiting on the ball.

Speaking of different mediums, often times an editor helps an author convert from orality to literality. First drafts often contain dictated spoken word language. The words read like they’d be spoken. Sometimes this works as a stylistic choice. Other times it’s a writing disaster. We often don’t realize it but when we speak, our words are full of problems: we mix tenses and point of view, we drop key subject words, we create subject-verb confusion, we run-on our sentences, and so on. Even with experienced and oft-published writers, most raw manuscripts I receive need help with the literary transition. As we say in house, everyone needs an editor. (Shoot, this blog post needs an editor.)

The first sentence after the Graham quote reads like this in the original:

He was prescient, wasn’t he, in seeing where the fateful coupling of partisan politics and religious fundamentalism would lead?

I changed it to this:

Graham prophetically saw the fateful coupling of partisan politics and religious fundamentalism.

I unfortunately had to lose Chuck’s nice use of the word “prescient,” but in this case, it was extraneous and decreased clarity.

Here is a basic set of rules I apply to the editing process:

  • Make verb tenses as present-tense as possible.
  • Create consistency with point of view.
  • Turn any passive language to active language.
  • When it accomplishes the same end goal, reduce the number of words it takes to say something.
  • Improve clarity and avoid potential reader confusion about the things to which you refer.

Most edits aren’t for length. In fact the final blog post is 621 words, while the original was 606 words.

As for an official guidebook, I use the Chicago Manual of Style to resolve stylistic choices, such as using “and so on” instead of “et cetera.” We also have an in-house manual, as most presses do, for further style choices related to our field of religion. For example, our in-house guide specifies we use either “scripture” or “the Scriptures” when referring to the Bible, but not “Scripture” as a singular word.

Consider another of Chuck’s paragraphs, which originally said:

Now, fast forward a generation and consider the words of Graham’s son, Franklin, when recently asked to weigh in on Presidential politics.  His comments were, sadly, both predictable and rather different than the words spoken by his father.  They were predictably consistent with his father’s observation about manipulation since those who were judged by the younger Graham to be the “real thing” just happily coincided with his political views.  There was no question, according to Graham, that presidential candidate Rick Santorum is the “real thing.”  As to Newt Gingrich, he is a Christian who has confessed his sins and, apparently, all up to snuff.  On the President, he observed that Obama claimed to be a Christian and, so, he would take him at his word.  Except….his church going habits were suspect and there were reasons to be skeptical about the President’s Christian faith.

I made a few changes, mostly to help an oral phrases become literary phrases. In particular, the third sentence was a bit convoluted and needed rewriting to increase its clarity.

Now, fast forward a generation and consider the words of Graham’s son, Franklin, when recently asked to weigh in on presidential politics.  His comments were both sadly predictable and rather different than the words spoken by his father.  As his father prophetically observed, those who were judged by the younger Graham to be the “real thing” happily coincided with his political views.  There is no question, according to Graham, that presidential candidate Rick Santorum is the “real thing.”  As to Newt Gingrich, he is a Christian who has confessed his sins and is, apparently, up to snuff.  On the President, he observed that Obama claimed to be a Christian and, so, he would take him at his word.  Except … his churchgoing habits were suspect and there were reasons to be skeptical about the President’s Christian faith.

Other choices later in the paragraph, such as “As to Newt Gringrich…” are stylistically not a choice I would make, but I left them in place because it is a stylistic choice Chuck made. And these are simply questions of personal preference. His is not bad, because it is clear. When possible, I try to let the writer’s voice come through. Striking a balance between improving clarity and permitting a distinct voice to speak is a key to good editing.

 

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Len Wilson

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Writer. Story lover. Believer. Branding philosopher. Breakfast chef. Tickle monster. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Creative Director. Occasional public speaker.

Len WilsonWriters Workshop: Rules for Editing to Improve Your Drafts
  • http://www.varsityfaith.com Trevor

    This is excellent! I appreciate how you explained the rationale behind the editing process, because it’s usually between the drafts — from first to final — that the “magic” happens. I’m saving this page as a bookmark so I can come back for a refresher course along the way!

    • http://lenwilson.us Len Wilson

      Thanks Trevor!