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On Writing - Editing To Excess

     Spacing Started This Some Time Ago
A few years back, the book reviewer with The Palm Beach Post, Scott Eyman, graciously agreed to judge some short stories I had a workshop group of mine prepare as the capstone to one of my creative writing series. So Scott would have drafts with the same formatting, I provided guidelines, which included double-spacing after periods.

During an early evaluation session of mine, one workshop participant presented me with a draft that contained a single space after each period. Not a major event by any means, but I asked why she had done this and was informed that an editor she knew told her that two spaces after a period was "old school."

All I could do was laugh, as what "old school" was she referring to? There is no rule. Never was one. The idea behind two spaces was to provide editors, in years gone by, with more room to manually make annotations. And it's the reason I prefer two spaces, as it enables me more area to draw symbols and lines and make notes, etc. There is a forest in the trees, and it has nothing to do with when the seeds were planted.

Dialogue Tag Placement

A respected writer wrote a piece a while back, and others copied it, which said that interior monologue should always be placed after the run of dialogue. Quite often this is a great idea, but it's far from absolute.

The pitch of the dialogue exchange should always be the deciding factor, and this far outweighs someone's self-righteous idea of perfect structure. I've made the mistake in my own writing of leaving too much exposition between exchanges. Most often writers do this because they've moved text around and never caught the problem during rereads.
Editors are paid to correct this, and they should. But if we read inarguably some of the greatest dialogue writers of all time such as Forster and Steinbeck, or more contemporary dialogue geniuses likes DeMille and Leonard, notice how often "tags" are placed in front of dialogue. It's all about pitch.

Attribute Placement

While I'm on dialogue, I'm no different from any other editor in that I have a preference for where I like to see attributes located. In short runs of moderate-length sentences, for example, I like to see them after the final sentence. I am just in the past year becoming more comfortable with breaking up the opening spit of dialogue with an attribute. Regardless of any bias, the "urgency" of speaker identification should always be the determining factor for influencing attribute placement.

To take this one step further, a wonderful writer of Westerns, Elmer Kelton, who I'm sad to say passed away, had more than 50 titles published during his illustrious career. Mr. Kelton precedes almost all of his dialogue with an attribute (whenever he deemed one necessary, of course). The style would be eschewed by many editors, but it works beautifully in that no reader has to pause for even a millisecond to consider who is speaking. Pick up one of his books and see how well this technique works. And as a byproduct of this exercise, you'll also enjoy a dandy story.

Telling Instead of Showing

A good friend of mine gave me READING LIKE A WRITER by the enormously gifted writer and educator Francine Prose. Of the many sound comments she made, the one that resonated the most with me was her remark that it isn't always better to show and not tell a scene, and to paraphrase her, way too much is made out of "showing" everything.
Nothing makes Ms. Prose's credentials any more valuable than those of any other fine author/academic, but this does illustrate that even "showing versus telling" is not without an occasional detractor who possesses an outstanding reputation.

Passive Versus Active Voice

I had a book I'd written eons ago reviewed by an editor friend of mine, and I was criticized for writing a line in passive voice. Well, if I wrote it a thousand times within the context of the run I'd designed, it would remain in passive voice. Should writers try to write in active voice? Certainly. All the time? Hardly. As with interior monologue and attribute placement, pitch-and hence readability-should always dictate what is written.

In Closing

In the realm of prose writing, claiming something as absolute in my opinion is like what was referred to in the 70s as the Dianetics mentality. Someone would refer to someone no one had ever heard of as an expert. Another person would agree with that person's assessment, and all of a sudden this first "who is this person" was an authority in the field.

In writing, there is no such thing as absolute authority. Yes, there are rules, and some are as inviolable as a brick wall, but even the sturdiest of structures can be breached. My position is that the most important element any writer should pay attention to is what I wrote toward the head of this article, and this is readability. If a writer will concentrate on providing material that's easy on the eye, a lot of ills can be cured. The brilliant student of grammar William Zinsser has heralded that message for longer than I am old, and I'm 63.

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Posted on 2013-08-07, By: *

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