What Your Favorite Song Can Teach You about Editing
I’m not only a music lover and a writer, I’m also an editor. And I’ve been doing a ton of it lately. As I work, I listen to music, of course, because if I’m awake, generally there’s a soundtrack. And I’ve noticed something happening in all the manuscripts. All of them. Yes. Really.
I don’t mean that chapter you dearly love but doesn’t really forward the plot and needs to go. I know you don’t have the heart to cut it. That’s what your editor is for.
I don’t mean the really descriptive way you describe each new room we come into in your book. (I’m guilty of this, too!) Nope, those aren’t the words either.
I’m talking about these – just, that, was beginning to <action verb>, once again, even, a bit, a little bit, a lot, at him, at her, to them.
See where I’m going?
When you write, it’s a conscious, at least semi-conscious, stream of thought and those words pop up in there, but these are the things you need to strike as you revise. It tightens the story, ups the pace, and if you’ve set your stakes up properly, heightens them.
I have two pieces of advice for you to aid in this endeavor. I know, two pieces of advice! I’m a giver.
1) Read aloud. No, not that Dr. Seuss book again, but your book. Go on. Read it. Pick any sentence. How was it? Tough to swallow or a boost to your ego? Either way, I promise, it will change your book – for the better.
2) Listen to your favorite song. (Psst, you snarky, clever friends who are about to tell me your favorite song is instrumental, pick one with lyrics and let’s move on, shall we?)
You know what you don’t hear? Extra words. There’s absolutely no room for them in a song and half the song usually repeats words already used in the chorus. Can you tell a story in three minutes with so few words? Can you afford to use just, once again, or that in place of words that really matter? Can you only get us ready for the action or execute it?
Here’s an example of a song everyone knows: (I’m using it because it uses JUST correctly, because yes, everything has a place sometimes. There are no absolutes.)
Just a small town girl, livin’ in a lonely world. She took the midnight train going anywhere.
Just a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit. He took the midnight train going anywhere.
Don’t stop believin’. Hold on to that feeling!
You get a very clear picture here of what is happening, who they are, where they came from, where they’re going, and what bonds them together. Your writing should do the same. But often, here’s what we write.
She’s a girl from a small town. She seems to feel lonely. She just decided to take a train that leaves at midnight and she doesn’t care where she’ll go.
There’s a lot happening here. Every sentence starts with She, tense shift, we hear about the action before the action takes place which slows pace, and the sentences are short and choppy which mess with cadence.
He’s a city boy who was born in Detroit, but the southern part. He also took a late train after deciding he wanted to go anywhere.
Cleaner, but still has issues. Writers love commas. We have trouble saying south Detroit when it could be broken into the sentence above. It’s the little literary person in us all, but all it does it steer us from the plot and pacing. The second half again mentions action before action happens instead of doing the action. Action verbs are the writers best friend. I know, that seems simple and obvious, but it’s the most common mistake I see.
You should start believin’. You should hold on to that feeling.
This one is big. Don’t stop instead of you should start brings a huge shift in dynamics to your piece. Don’t stop suggests you’re in already. You’re absorbed, you’re the people in the song, or in turn, the audience is the character in your book. It’s a simple change of wording, but it makes all the difference. This could’ve been just another song, but it’s an anthem. Don’t stop believin’!!! The second sentence just shows that extras words can take away from the meaning and the feeling. Less is more. Hold on to that feeling!!
So next time you sit down with your revision, thinks about succinct songwriting for a second and see if it can help you.
There you go. Angi’s unconventional editing lesson of the day. What’s that? You’ll be singing Don’t Stop Believin’ all day?