Here is the most common question I am asked as a copy editor: what do you do when the writing is just really bad?
I want to say there is no such thing as bad writing, but I’m certain in doing so I would lose all credibility.
A lot of what makes writing “good” or “bad” is subjective. Some people love poetic language, while others find it cloying. Some people just want a book to mindlessly entertain, while others want to be intellectually challenged. As a copy editor, whether I like the story is irrelevant. My role is to prevent the mechanics—the skeleton, the bones, the letters that organize into words and then into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, et cetera—from distracting from the story. How can we appreciate the great American novel if it is riddled with typos, misplaced punctuation, superfluous adjectives, mis-conjugated verbs, and an array of other linguistic blunders?
Well, we can’t. We can’t even get into the more esoteric discussion of whether a piece is “good” or “bad” if it’s simply unreadable on the most basic level.
The good news is that “bad writing” on a mechanical level is easy to fix. Just call on your friendly copy editor and let her have at it with her bold red pen. Once you get past the initial shock and rage at the bleeding word carcass she returns to you, I’m certain you’ll find that the bones of your work are solid, strong, and supportive.
The rest is up to you.
This article originally appeared on WritersWin.com.
First: Close your eyes. (You can trust me. I’m not creepy.)
Second: Imagine what your favorite fictional character of all time is doing right now.
I know it’s a strange question, but it probably wasn’t difficult to picture him or her out there dealing with the world. That’s because the best characters live off the page. They are written with such zest that they get up, throw on some clothes, and live their lives even though their creator thinks she’s put them to bed.
I’m an editor in Charleston and work with a lot of writers who struggle with characterization, who create characters as boring and one-dimensional as a former co-worker of mine who seemingly talked only about the time he ordered a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger that came with no cheese or bacon—“Now you tell me how that’s a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger,” he’d demand with a mix of woe and aggression. (Larry, if you’re reading this, I still don’t have an explanation.)
To help my writers fill their characters with life and get them off the page, I ask them to do just that. Well, not exactly that. I ask them to invite their characters to step off the pages they hope to publish and onto the private pages of their journals. The characters should comply because at this point they haven’t achieved autonomy.
And once they are in that journal, and out of the scene, I want my writers to have real get-to-know-yous with their creations, to turn that journal session into a long car ride where you can’t help but learn everything about your fellow passenger. The truth is, to truly know anyone, including someone you’ve invented, it helps to know the boring stuff.
Go for a walk in the park with your characters, I tell my writers; let them look up and ponder the sky, see if they remember all the cloud types.
This is an especially useful tool for writers who are struggling with character reaction during critical scenes. Perhaps their main character is about to fall in love, find a lump, get devoured by a shark, but the scene just isn’t flowing.
This is the perfect time for writers to sit with their characters before the moment of consequence. Have breakfast with them, I tell my writers, imagine what they are dealing with. Think about what you’re dealing with. You’re real. Make them real, too. Let them experience the mundane, the quotidian tasks we all spend so much of our private lives messing with. Let them have an upset stomach, a zit on the jawline they can’t stop fiddling with, a grueling grocery store conversation with a former high school teacher. Allow your character to be as real as possible. And then send them off into the action, into the shark’s mouth or the oncoming bus; let them scratch the last number off that lotto ticket that changes everything. Give them flesh and then send them into the fray.
And maybe when they are back on the page, you’ll know them a little bit better, and they’ll dictate their behavior during the bank robbery or when they get fired. Maybe they’ll become so real your readers will be able to imagine what it would be like to sit down to lunch with them.
Thanksgiving nears and I’m reminded of my all-time favorite malapropism. It was perhaps 10 years ago, and my dad was hosting dinner. My brother—I won’t say which so as to avoid shaming him; I will offer a clue and say he isn’t the oldest of my two brothers—looked at the decoration in the middle of the table and said, “Father, that’s a lovely concubine.”
He, of course, meant “cornucopia.”
For the last month or so, I’ve been working closely with a talented writer on his first completed novel. It’s been a pleasure to work on, as I see legitimate writing talent and a novel with as much potential as any I’ve been blessed to edit. But with any piece of writing, a good editor can come in quite handy, as I say ad nauseam. I wanted to show the before and after treatment to the opening of his seventh chapter. I think you’ll see what a little tweaking and streamlining—we cut a mere 16 words—can do.
We’ve taken an already good paragraph and enhanced the flow, which gives me endless pleasure. Few things satisfy me as much as getting into a good piece of writing, cutting the clutter and bringing its essence to the fore.
Before – 127 Words
The man pulled the door open and started up the stairs. He noticed the smell of old carpet, mold, mildew, vomit, and urine. Above the creak of the boards he could hear a window air conditioning unit somewhere thumping and banging, trying to keep up with the oppressive heat and humidity from outside that also permeated the stairwell. Climbing the steps with a cane, the man used the railing for extra support, making a face at the greasy feel of the metal railing. The floor, with constant squeaks and moans, kept track of his upward progress. Sweat quickly started soaking through his shirt, already stained with the signs of travel. He could feel rivulets of sweat running down his sides and down the middle of his back.
After – 111 Words
The man pulled the door open and started up the stairs. He could smell old carpet, mold, vomit, and urine. Above the creak of the boards, he could hear a window air conditioning unit thumping and banging, trying to keep up with the oppressive heat and humidity that also permeated the stairwell. A cane in his left hand, the man clutched the railing with his right, making a face at the greasy feel of the metal. The stairs, with constant squeaks and moans, kept track of his progress. Sweat began soaking through his shirt, already stained with signs of travel. Rivulets ran down his sides and the middle of his back.
What do you think? Trimming those hedges—a little proofreading here, a little copy editing there—can really do wonders, no?