Some hints on tightening up your manuscript

Editing your manuscript
Fading graffiti near Neuchatel

I am currently re-editing the first two books of the Boy & Girl Saga with a view to publishing the third book. When I mention editing, I am not talking about ensuring grammatical accuracy or correct spelling. That is important, but it is not the focus here. I refer rather to efforts to increase the impact of a novel while maintaining a high degree of precision in communicating what the author has in mind. To some extent there is a tension between making sure the reader understands and having a greater impact. 

There are many facets to editing. These include, the music of the words, cadence, rhythm, word order, impact, the treatment of time, questions of point of view, distance or lack of it,  style. Not to mention aspects linked to the audience addressed. After years of practice, editing my own novels but also articles of clients, there are many things I instinctively sense as ‘out of tune’, but they can be hard to explain. The musical metaphor is appropriate, as much of editing has to do with the ear and the rise and fall of words. Training your ear involves a great deal of listening, reading and writing.

If your prose is leisurely and you have all the time in the world, then much of what I say may not concern you. Some people’s writing is full to overflowing with words. That’s their style. It can work, especially if wordiness is a trait of a main character or the narrator, although it can be risky. But much modern writing, especially for a younger audience, needs to move forward rapidly using tight, impactful prose. Impact invariably has to do with the twists and turns of the plot, but it also depends heavily on the tightness of the writing. Although the challenges are different in academic texts, the need for a wider reach for research work also calls for attention to concision and impact. It is improving the impact of writing by tightening up the prose that is the subject of this article.

The facets of editing treated here are possibly the easiest to describe and the most common as well as being accessible without having to venture into the details of a wider context. I do not pretend to exhaustivity. The few examples given are meant to hint at some of what to look for when editing a manuscript.

Unnecessary words

One common problem is unnecessary words that bloat the text and diminish the impact. Consider the words ‘the idea of’. In the following sentence, The idea of being punished by Fi sounded fun… The first three words might be construed as stressing that it is the idea and not being punished that is fun. However this clarification is hardly necessary as it is implied in the word ‘sounded’, Being punished by Fi sounded fun.

A second fill-in is ‘of them‘. Consider this extract: “Don’t ask men. Most of them are pretty hopeless at dealing with adoration…” It would suffice to say, “Don’t ask men. Most are pretty hopeless at dealing with adoration… It would also be tempting to omit the word ‘pretty’, but it says something useful about the character of the speaker.

A further habit is adding ‘feeling of‘ before stating the feeling being referred to. Here’s an example, …added to his feeling of confusion. Those couple of unnecessary words lessen the impact of what is being said. Just write, …added to his confusion.

One final example. The use of ‘they were in‘ ostensibly to underscore the fact that they are talking about the place they are in. Here’s an example, Peter was about to warn her to respect the holy place they were in…We know from the story they are in a chapel so the extra words are not necessary.

Trying to add nuance can be counterproductive

As hinted above, one of the challenges of writing is to communicate the author’s nuances to the reader. While precision is extremely important, especially as expressed in the choice of words, communicating many nuances may not be essential to the story and can hinder the flow and impact. One way we seek to nail down nuance is by tacking on additional words. Academics are particularly fond of doing so as they strive to avoid ambiguity. As a result, academic texts can be unnecessarily repetitive if not laborious. But novel writers can also be over cautious and verbose in wanting to dictate, or at least channel, what the reader understands.

Take the verb to manage. If we write, Despite the broken lock, he managed to open the door, the verb expresses his ability to overcome a difficulty and its use is justified. But what about the following sentence, We managed to clear the room out earlier with the help of the new girls. The suggestion is that clearing out was not easy or that there was little time to do it. But if the difficulty was not the key point, insisting on such a nuance only wedges words between us and what we are trying to say, diminishing the impact. Better to say, We cleared the room… 

This example above gives us another frequent use of unnecessary words. The sentence says, the help of. This is not necessary. It is understood from the context. In a similar case, “Fine,” Sandra said, striding up at that moment, the words at that moment are unnecessary. When else can it be?

We often include words that double up for ideas expressed elsewhere in the sentence. Take, …she let her emotions of disgust and shame flow with her words… We don’t need to say emotions. Write rather: …she let her disgust and shame flow with her words. 

Consider the words at the expression in this extract. “Who’s your friend?” Kate groaned at the expression. The words seek to make sure we know it wasn’t for some other reason she groaned. But depending on the context that precision may be superfluous.

Here’s another example where being over precise may be counterproductive. “As a leader, it’s your job to figure out how to deal with it.” The words to figure out how seem to add additional precision pointing to a need to struggle to understand. But is stressing the nuance worth the weakening of the impact? How about: “As a leader, it’s your job to deal with it.”

The risk of tacking a second idea on to a sentence

Another common trait is tacking on additional ideas to the end of a sentence. Some adepts string together numerous ideas that leave the reader whirling and breathless. In the following extract the phrase causing them to gasp tagged on to the end of the sentence dilutes the first part which, as an idea in itself, has much more impact on its own. The action of gasping can be usefully shifted to the second sentence, replacing wonder, a word that refers back to the gasping and in so doing diminishes its impact.

Here are the two sentences: A couple of shooting stars darted across the star-studded heavens causing them to gasp. Their wonder was the only sound in the silence that inhabited the snow-shroud landscape. Edited this, it would become: A couple of shooting stars darted across the star-studded heavens. Their gasp was the only sound in the silence that inhabited the snow-shroud landscape.

Jean-Luc Godard remade

Version française plus bas.

Don’t let an assistant enthusiastically tell everybody how you work, especially if you are a well-known artist like Jean-Luc Godard, who has a reputation for forging new and difficult paths. It might unwittingly give an impression you don’t want given.

A revealing chat about a great man

Yesterday evening, having seen a screening of Godard’s Livre d’image organised by the ABC Cultural Centre at the Temple Allemand in a rainy Chaux-de-Fonds, I attended a conference organised by the Club 44 at which Jean-Luc Godard was to discuss his work with long-time assistant, Fabrice Aragno. Not unexpectedly, Godard was unable to attend leaving the floor free for Aragno to take us through Godard’s creative process in making his latest work. This relaxed, illustrated chat gave us a glimpse into the world of Godard that initially seduced. “So that’s why and how he did it!” It made many of the aesthetic choices comprehensible and as such was reassuring, especially for someone, like myself that had been inspired by Godard’s previous work but was perplexed if not disappointed by this latest collage.

The advantage of constraints

In a creative process, the unforeseen and the unintended can open up new avenues that can prove fruitful. What’s more, initial constraints like limits fixed by the scenario, by the process or even the equipment used, can force the creator to excel and discover new paths and move artistic expression forward. But in terms of creativity, limits are only productive if they lead to an artist breaking new ground rather than being hobbled by them.

From handicap to scratch videos

Severely limited by the technology he had available, Godard had to resort to hit and miss methods that resembled editing procedures from the early days of video art before technology made outcomes more predictable and intentions easier to comply with. Those pioneer times came to be known for their ‘scratch’ videos. The question that emerges concerning the Livre d’image is whether the resulting collage of texts read by the author and short sequences from films with abrupt changes, over-saturated images and blank holes is the work of a genius or not. Are we being subjected to a remake of the Emperor’s new clothes, or is this brilliant and moving as the woman sitting next to me at the screening insisted?

Downward money slope

Seen over a longer period, is it not possible this decline in the technological means available is due to a dilemma in money management? To finance his next film Godard sells off all the rights to his previous film, trading hypothetic on-going income for an immediately available lump sum. He also auctions his filming and editing equipment. This approach might drum up immediate funds but, given the nature of his work – the experimental approach of which limits popular appeal and consequently income – resources, including technical material, are likely to follow a longterm downward curve. Of course, poverty of means may be an artistic choice, but, given the complexity and necessary precision of Godard’s discourse, the inevitable stutters and splutters of the editing end up taking centre stage and get in the way of the work and its message. My hypothesis is that, beyond a certain point, a valiant and defiant artistic discourse cannot conceal the fact that insufficient means have a detrimental effect on the artistic quality no mater how much of a genius the artist is.

The Emperor is not without clothes but he suffers from neglect

This film raised a personal question. Could I be sure of my assessment and had I the courage to call out the Emperor in front of his court of admirers? Or would my fear of discovering I was the one without a fig leaf to my name cower me into silence? On careful reflection, however, the problem lies elsewhere. Here is a man who has devoted his life to breaking boundaries in cinema and video. His work has often been challenging but he has produced some most striking and beautiful creations. Yet he has been condemned to a slow decline as witnessed by the shrinking means he has at his disposition. I can imagine him shaking his head in denial. Some will blame him for his situation. Whereas, for all his apparent rough nature, I suspect he is victim of a larger neglect of art and artistic creation in our society. It is sad, if not enraging, to see someone of his stature obliged to jam his fingers on the play and record buttons to edit the films he desperately needs to make. Where are the Pierre Bingellis or the Jean-Pierre Beauvialas of this world to provide the necessary technical support? In other art forms funds exist to offer residencies to artist whose value is widely recognised but who otherwise could not make their art. Is it not time to recognise Jean-Luc Godard’s contribution and offer him, at least, the modern technical means necessary to continue making his films?

Jean-Luc Godard, un remake

Ne laissez pas un assistant raconter à tout le monde votre façon de travailler, surtout si vous êtes un artiste connu comme Jean-Luc Godard, qui a la réputation de forger des chemins nouveaux et difficiles. Cela peut donner involontairement une impression que vous ne voulez pas donner.

Un discours révélateur sur un grand homme

Hier soir, après avoir assisté à la projection du Livre d’image de Godard organisée par le Centre culturel ABC au Temple Allemand dans une Chaux-de-Fonds pluvieuse, j’ai assisté à une conférence organisée par le Club 44 au cours de laquelle Jean-Luc Godard devait discuter son travail avec son assistant de longue date, Fabrice Aragno. Comme on pouvait s’y attendre, Godard n’a pas pu assister à la conférence, laissant la parole libre à Aragno pour nous guider à travers le processus créatif de Godard dans la réalisation de son dernier ouvrage. Cette discussion illustrée et détendue nous a donné un aperçu du monde de Godard qui a tout d’abord séduit. “C’est donc pour ça qu’il l’a fait!” Cela a rendu compréhensible une grande partie des choix esthétiques et était donc rassurant, en particulier pour quelqu’un, comme moi, inspiré par le travail précédent de Godard mais troublé sinon déçu par ce dernier collage.

L’avantage des contraintes

Dans un processus créatif, l’imprévu peut ouvrir de nouvelles voies qui peuvent s’avérer fructueuses. De plus, les contraintes initiales, telles que les limites fixées par le scénario, le processus ou même l’équipement utilisé, peuvent obliger le créateur à exceller, à découvrir de nouvelles voies et à faire avancer l’expression artistique. Mais en termes de créativité, les limites ne sont productives que si elles conduisent l’artiste à innover plutôt qu’à entraver son travail.

De l’handicap à des vidéos ‘raturées’

Gravement limité par la technologie dont il disposait, Godard dut recourir à des méthodes aléatoires ressemblant aux procédures de montage des débuts de l’art vidéo, avant que la technologie ne rende les résultats plus prévisibles et les intentions plus faciles à respecter. Ces temps pionniers ont fini par être connus pour leurs vidéos ‘raturées’. La question qui se pose à propos du Livre d’image est de savoir si le collage résultant de textes lus par l’auteur et de courtes séquences de films aux changements brusques, aux images sursaturées et aux trous noirs est l’œuvre d’un génie ou non. Sommes-nous en train de refaire Les nouveaux vêtements du roi ou est-ce brillant et émouvant selon les dires de la femme assise à côté de moi lors de la projection?

Une pente descendante

Vu sur une période plus longue, n’est-il pas possible que ce déclin des moyens technologiques disponibles soit dû à un dilemme dans la gestion de l’argent? Pour financer son prochain film, Godard vend tous les droits du film précédent, en échangeant un revenu hypothétique à long terme contre une somme forfaitaire immédiatement disponible. Il met également aux enchères son matériel de tournage et de montage. Cette approche peut générer des fonds immédiats mais, étant donné la nature de son travail – l’approche expérimentale limitant l’attrait au public et, par conséquent, le revenu – les ressources, y compris le matériel technique, suivront probablement une courbe descendante à long terme. Bien sûr, la pauvreté des moyens peut être un choix artistique, mais compte tenu de la complexité et de la précision nécessaire du discours de Godard, les inévitables bégaiements du montage finissent par prendre le devant de la scène et entravent l’oeuvre et son message. Mon hypothèse est qu’au-delà d’un certain point, un discours artistique aussi vaillant et provocant soit-il ne peut dissimuler le fait que des moyens insuffisants ont un effet néfaste sur la qualité artistique, peu importe le génie de l’artiste.

Le roi n’est pas sans vêtements, mais il souffre de néglecte

Ce film a soulevé une question personnelle. Pourrais-je être sûr de mon évaluation et aurais-je le courage de mettre en cause le Roi devant sa cour d’admirateurs? Ou est-ce que ma peur de découvrir que je suis celui qui n’a pas de feuille de vigne allait me faire taire? Après mûre réflexion, le problème est ailleurs. Voici un homme qui a consacré sa vie à repousser les frontières du cinéma et de la vidéo. Son travail a souvent été difficile, mais il a réalisé des créations les plus frappantes et les plus belles. Pourtant, il a été condamné à un lent déclin, comme en témoigne la diminution des moyens dont il dispose. Je peux l’imaginer en train de secouer la tête en signe de déni. Certains vont le blâmer pour sa situation. Alors que, malgré son air inabordable, je le soupçonne d’être victime d’une négligence plus large de l’art et de la création artistique dans notre société. Il est triste, sinon enrageant, de voir quelqu’un de sa stature obligé de presser simultanément les boutons ‘play’ et ‘enregistrer’ pour éditer les films qu’il a désespérément besoin de faire. Où sont les Pierre Bingellis ou les Jean-Pierre Beauvialas de ce monde pour fournir le support technique nécessaire? Dans d’autres formes d’art, des fonds existent pour offrir des résidences à des artistes dont la valeur est largement reconnue mais qui, autrement, ne pourraient pas créer leur art. N’est-il pas temps de reconnaître la contribution de Jean-Luc Godard et de lui offrir, au moins, les moyens techniques modernes nécessaires pour continuer à faire ses films?

Editing, editing …


Editing, editing and more editing! I’m working in depth through Boy & Girl (that’s the name of my latest novel, folks!) reading it out loud, sentence by sentence, to hear if it sounds right. It’s an excellent method.