On Editing Lessons: Pruning, Voice, And Style In Writing


As I was editing a piece of writing I discovered a number of words that kept popping up and watering down the work. So I took note of the words–words that had become habitual and distracting ticks, and unnecessary connective tissue–and pruned them out. Here’s some notes on what I found:

“just, but/yet, almost, so, most, really, pretty, quite, certainly, actually, of course, you/your/you’re (instead of I), in fact, since/because, using a dash (—), is becoming, stating things in the negative instead of the positive… ”

First prize goes to the word “just.”
Just sayin’.


I also noticed something else–something more subtle and knowable maybe only to me and so potentially more pernicious. Sometimes I used words or short phrases that I had read somewhere before (often quite some time ago) but weren’t appropriate to the new context in which I was using them. Reading them, the words or phrases didn’t ring true as something I would actually say here and now. Maybe the problem is that I simply haven’t used them enough yet or finally forgotten where I first encountered them. Whatever the case, they draw attention to themselves. My writing could proceed without this associative baggage only once I had found another way to say the same thing, this time in what felt more like my own voice.


Which brings me to voice and style in writing. Is our voice a sounding out using the language with which we feel most comfortable, the language that feels most authentically us? And can voice be altered? Refined? Can we convincingly bypass our voice and channel the voices of others? (A question I have explored through my Ventrilo-Dialogues.) Or is our voice preset, a way of sounding deeply ingrained in us, a physical thing? And from voice it’s but a short distance to style. As I pruned unnecessary words and flagged bits that didn’t sound like me, I thought: style must be what can’t be dodged, what remains when the work has been reduced down to its essentials.

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