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Editorial Expertise: How to Clarify Your Writing

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PUBLISHED MARCH/APRIL 2020

by Liz Franklin, MizLizOnBiz.com —


Liz Franlin

The old-school method still works the best. First, tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then, tell them. Finally, tell them what you told them.

If you want your book, piece, blog, or article to make money, write it so the reader buys what you’re saying. You’ll sell more when you lead readers with clarity, eschew mixed messages, and nix negatives. Write cleanly and they’ll tell their friends, tweet your piece, or blog about your book.


What’s Your Goal?

Start with a purpose and carry it all the way through. If you are telling a story, what do you want readers to feel? See? Smell? If you are blogging, do you want to entertain? Educate? Gain followers? If you are writing
an article, what action do you want readers to take? Where can your readers learn more?

Use requests and resources to further your goal.

EXAMPLES:
  • “Who do you know that wants to spend less time cooking?” (Ask readers to forward your mailing list link to “all your cooking friends with tight schedules.”)
  • “Sure, you’re registered to vote, but are your neighbors?” (Offer statistics, quote laws, and give links where readers can get involved. Put in a hashtag and your Twitter handle, too.)
  • “The Internet of Things: Is the Privacy Risk Too High?” (Give them facts, conclusions, and actions they can take to protect themselves. Include links to websites and social media.)

What’s Your Message?

The old-school method still works the best. First, tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then, tell them. Finally, tell them what you told them.

FOR EXAMPLE, IN A ROMANTIC NOVEL:

“Gabriella mourned for her lost lover, taken by the sea.”

(Insert 25 years of loss, romance, and renewal.)

“In the end, Gabriella had loved well, loved and lost, but lived to love again.”

IN A TECHNICAL PIECE:

“ABC Company is ready to release Version 3.1415, which will support psychic telemetry on all known planets.”

(Insert facts, statistics, links to resources and websites.)

“By the time 2100 rolls around, you’ll be able to talk to Uranus with just your mind, thanks to ABC Company.”

FOR A NONPROFIT:

“XYZ Animals needs you to help them lick their wounds through the summer solstice.”

(Insert heartfelt stories, pleas for cash, and heartbreaking photos.)

“Doctor Katzunddogs can’t do it alone. Your help is needed, so donate today to Wound Lickers International by clicking on our GoFundMe page. Thank you for helping save our fur babies!”


What’s Important to Your Story?

Which parts of your content advance your story? Which are irrelevant?

EXAMPLE #1:
  • How does the fact that Adverb Jones was born in Gerundistan affect his biography? Why should the reader care?
  • How about the fact that he became a world-class pencil sharpener in Nevada at the age of 12? Would taking that out hurt anything?
  • Does it advance the piece if you say (or leave out) that he loved pineapples, drove a DeLorean, or wore animal-print support hose?
EXAMPLE #2:
  • I read an article about a woman who boarded a plane and flew over an old forest fire to view the damage. It starts with, “from her cramped seat in the middle of the six-seater plane …” The story covers the burned area in detail but never mentions the plane or the seating arrangement again. Why is it important that her seat was cramped, that she sat in the middle, or what type of plane it was?
    If it’s not important to the story, take it out.

What’s Your Tone?

The tone of your piece is the voice you use to connect with readers. It’s your sound.

I once worked on a book about four guys going fishing, falling overboard, and drinking lots of beer. We focus tested it and got lots of laughs.

After it was all done, the author’s wife took a copy to her best friend and together they marked up every single page in red ink. Then they sent it to me so I could “make just a few changes before it gets printed.”

They had changed the story so significantly that it destroyed not only the tone, but also the characters, the marketing plan, and even the cover.

Is your tone breezy and chatty? Brainy and zany? Old and veiny? Whatever it is, make it intentional, and don’t mix in a handful of haphazard metaphors.


What’s Your Theme?

Your theme is the flavor of your work. Sticking to one theme makes for a polished—and profitable—piece.

In a fantasy novel about superpowers, make sure every chapter shows heroics. For a medical thriller about future life-saving procedures, offer concepts we’ve never heard of, and make them world changing. In an academic tome about the extinction of the Boogaloo Bug, document how it is integral to bagel production.


What’s Your Rhythm?

Rhythm is all about pacing and timing. It can gallop, sway sweetly in a summer breeze, explode with tension, or plod.

Rhythm is demonstrated by the length or brevity of your sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. For a detective novel, when you want to show that someone is hyperactive, create a fast pace by using short words and short sentences. For a technical manual, use simplicity, clarity, and explanation/education by using numbered items that walk people through the instructions step by step. For a book on jazz, you can vary long and short words, switch from quotes to narration, and weave ballad lyrics with graphics of sheet music.


What’s Your Style?

Does your theme call for the use of urban slang, formal academic language, or football statistics? Choose one theme that supports your work and use it throughout the piece. When I edited a gritty book about neighborhood crime, the author and I agreed to use colloquial rather than formal language; we couldn’t imagine a gangster saying “whom.”


What Could Be Simplified?

Don’t be afraid to use the word, “said.” It disappears into the background and lets your story shine. You don’t need your character to expostulate, clarify, or ponder. Overdoing it can make you sound amateurish.
Likewise, your character need not “stride” unless they are tall, angry, or on a purposeful mission. Just let them walk. The hero need not “measure his length on the deck” more than once in a story.

Your interviewee doesn’t have to “elaborate” on her point unless elaboration supports the story.

Avoid using words of four times as many syllables as necessary. Tell us no more than the necessary facts; let us fill in the emotional spaces. That makes your writing our own and precious to us.


What Could Be More Positive?

Tell readers what your characters did, not what they didn’t do. Focus on what happened, not what didn’t happen. It’s okay to say what your characters missed doing, should have done, mourned, and so on, but telling us what they didn’t do is weirdly disconcerting, like jerking us backwards through the story line.

EXAMPLES:
  • “She didn’t dance like a tired person, because she wasn’t that tired, really.” Instead: “She danced until she was too tired to go on.”
  • “He wasn’t really that tall when measured against the stable door frame; but he was as tall as he needed to be to feed the horses.” Instead: “He was as tall as a feed bag, plus a stirrup or two.”

Liz Franklin specializes in editing and book development that increases your sales. Call 800-447-3488 or visit MizLizOnBiz.com.

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