Being Accessible

Many nonfiction books are written by professionals in their field. During their career they may spend a lot of time on planes, and to while away all those stale hours they tend to read books about their profession. That’s why business books are frequently slim volumes: as long as a round trip. For those seat dwellers who once had writing ambitions, perhaps as a college student, a downsizing or retirement offers the opportunity to share the wisdom gained from their job experience.

Although they are not scholars, they are accustomed to the jargon they read, and the cant is repeated during convention speeches and the like. The words and expressions they use are like a tribal code: you have to be in (whatever group) to understand what the heck they’re talking about. Such words have a badge of sorts denoting their obfuscation. One tip-off is the suffix -ment or -tion.

As a translator for the unwashed hoi polloi, I as an editor flag such usages, asking for a clearer word. In reply, a surprising number of times the author will say: “Well, my audience understands what it means.” I hear that and I have to scratch my head. I reply with something like “Don’t you want everyone to read your book?” or “Don’t you want the largest possible audience for your book?” The light goes on; the author responds, “You know, you’re right.”

Do your readers a favor. Assume they are eager to learn but might feel overwhelmed by all the knowledge you have. They are having a hard enough time following your basic argument without encountering technical terms that may wipe out all worth of the entire sentence. When they encounter enough of these word sinkholes, they may decide, “This author is too smart for me,” and put the book down.

To me, the craziest part is that the term is usually just a fancy way of saying a term that the author doesn’t want to use too often. Other times, the author uses it to mask the fact that the sentence is pedestrian if the common term was used, such as mortgage refinance. Business books are filled with such “elevated” terminology—to hide the fact that a lot of business activities are plain dull.

Don’t be like that. Be the author who truly has interesting observations, expressed in plain language that shows the reader how dead right you are. Your repetition of common words doesn’t matter because the reader is constantly being swept up by your new ideas.

Exercise: Comb the manuscript for all industry terms. You’ll find them easily, because they often have four or more syllables. Also make sure that compound words, usually two, are not hard to understand. You’ll find, in cases where you used them in an otherwise banal sentence, that rewriting the sentence will really accomplish your goal of being fresh.

“I've come to learn there is a virtuous cycle to transparency and a very vicious cycle of obfuscation.”
—Jeff Weiner

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Inadequate for the Job

Every novel has an element of autobiography, if only because authors invest personal emotions in their characters. The investment can be more pronounced with inexperienced novelists who heed the dictum to write from the heart. Depending on the role, a character can benefit from having emotions the writer knows well. There is a but, however. But how well does the character lead the plot?

That is where the heart goes only so far. Unless you have the chops to write a literary novel, in which the plot can be secondary to a character’s ruminations, you are faced with the difficulty of creating simultaneously with those deeply felt characters a story that will entertain readers. For your level of writing, a novel about, say, your aunt’s slow decline into dementia may mean wearying hours for the reader.

Most writers understand that. Where I, as an editor, see the problem the most is in genre-driven vehicles such as suspense. A crime is committed and the main character, however obliquely, ends up solving it. Such a character has no investigative training or fighting skills or other talents that are interesting in such a pursuit. That’s because the author doesn’t, either.

That reliance on your own experience can lead to a wide variety of scenes featuring activities you yourself like to do. Depending on the age, that may lead to a subplot featuring a teenager playing in a rock band, or a plucky old lady piloting a motorboat. Not bad ideas, at least in brief. Not worth 15 subplot scenes, though, at least not while the criminal is still at large.

Why is that? That’s because plot stakes become more of a determining factor when the prose style is common. Place the search for a murderer on one side of the balance scale, and put riding down the river on the other. Which one will pull the reader more? Put another way, how much time can you afford to spend on the lesser objective while the greater one lies unattended?

Being true to yourself has now come in conflict with considering the desires of your readers. Maybe you are writing only for yourself and the hell with them. That is an entirely worthy attitude—if you are willing to spend the long years of writing struggles that a literary author undergoes. I don’t find that fanatical dedication in most authors, however. So that places the novel in a quasi zone: well-intentioned but middling. You need to weigh what truly is the heart of the book you’ve written.

Exercise: Just as characters and plot are balanced, so can be your approach to editing. You can count how many scenes are devoted to which plot line. When you are done, you can adjust the numbers. If you have 15 band scenes, for instance, could you cut five of them? You’re not giving up on the idea; you’re making it fit better within the overall scheme.

“If you don't want anyone to know anything about you, don't write anything.”
―Pete Townshend

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


When Does Passive Construction Work?

I devote a portion of every line edit to eliminating sentences that start with either “There is” or “It is.” Most of the time their usage stems from lazy thinking or the desire to quickly get material down on the page. I don’t take out all of them, though, so the question arises: why not? Why is one bad and one okay?

My first consideration is when the clause introduces a new idea, place, person, etc. For example, “It is inherent” starts off a number of sentences containing ideas, providing the condition in which the idea should be considered. You can try to find another way to fit in “inherent,” but the sentence is likely to be awkward. Another approach, such as  “There is, beyond the rise,” might introduce a new place to a reader. This is especially useful when a reader has been immersed in another topic, and you want to break away to fresh material. The passive clause serves as a signal to jump-shift.

The second category includes idiomatic expressions. The way we speak can be lazy, or colloquial, and if you try to make the sentence active, it just sounds wrong to our mental ear. “There is a rumor going around” is an example. You can almost hear the delight of the gossip about to spill the juicy news. Sure, you can mess with the sentence, put “A rumor” first—the way you should invert most passive sentences—but it sounds forced. For this reason dialogue is an area where particular care should be taken before making the sentence active.

The third is rhythm. Let’s revisit “There is, beyond the rise” from this perspective. You may find, while writing, that a compact sentence needs more air, so to speak. The material is too tightly packed for the subject you’re writing about. So you throw in a passive clause to open it up. In addition, you may realize that the way an entire run of sentences has been going, you want a few extra words to make the sentence fit in. This process is loosely akin to a poet’s finding extra words to fit a meter.

This intangible need points out a larger issue in writing. Don’t be bound by rules promulgated by teachers, coaches, or colleagues. Every word and expression in the English language has a purpose, and you should grab what you want. Just don’t make the rest of us suffer because you’re so lazy.

Exercise: When you come upon “there is” or “it is” in your text, switch the sentence around, on paper or in your head. The subject of the sentence usually follows the passive clause. An active verb should also be obvious, even if it is presently a participle. Then study both sentences. Did you really make an improvement? Maybe you should chuck the sentence altogether and write a new one that’s better.

“There is such a thing as the poetry of a mistake, and when you say, "Mistakes were made," you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel.”
—Charles Baxter

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.