Thursday, May 5, 2011

One Simple Truth of Writing (or should I say editing?)

I suppose I should start this post with a disclaimer. I am a big believer in editing. I spent lots – and I mean LOTS – of time editing my book, and I spend lots of time editing each and every magazine article I submit. However, I do not believe in editing my blog posts. Why not? The main reason is simple: I don’t have time. I really don’t have time to blog. But if I’m going to blog, I really don’t have time to edit. Is that terrible? Maybe so. I think of blogging as a much more casual, conversational kind of writing. When I give a lecture, I prepare my remarks carefully, but of course when I’m just talking to someone about genealogy, I just talk – I don’t prepare ahead of time. I think of my blog as a conversation with others about genealogy while an article is a prepared lecture.

Okay, enough of philosophy. Really that is just all an excuse because I want to “talk” about editing here, yet I don’t want anyone to hold my blog entries up as examples of how to edit. They would be very bad examples because they are NOT edited.

The editor I worked with on my book (and by the way, her name is Kristine Thornley and she’s great if you are looking for an editor) has George Orwell’s Six Rules of Writing on her webpage. Actually, I think of them as editing rules. To me, writing is just the stage where the information spews forth. To shape the writing together into something meaningful and enjoyable to read – that takes editing. Anyway, I have taken the rules to heart. They are:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Aren’t those great? I love them because they remind me of a simple truth about writing. When I first started writing, I wanted to somehow sound smart – or at least fancy – when I wrote. I wanted to use impressive words arranged into poetically abstract sentences. The simple truth I was missing was this: Really good writing is clear, succinct writing.

This sounds simpler than it is. We usually don’t speak succinctly, and, without concentration, most of us don’t write succinctly either. So, to have this clear, concise writing, we have to edit. And edit. And edit. We have to read through our writing and look for these extraneous words, these unnecessary long or complex words. We have to read and reread to focus our language and thoughts more effectively.

In my lecture on “Writing a Page-Turning (But True) Family History,” I describe how after I “finished” my book, I had to do many revisions. In one of these revisions, I cut 50,000 words or about one-third of the manuscript. This always makes people gasp. They are concerned about this deleted material. Afterwards, people ask me what I did with those words. They want to make sure I saved them somewhere. (Some of the words came from deleting entire sections and chapters, but many also came individually out of the middle of sentences.) Well, don’t’ worry. I did save them. I save everything (of substance – not individual words obviously) I delete from a manuscript and paste it into its own little file – in case I ever decide I want it back. But guess what? I never have. Not once have I re-pasted the deleted material into my document. With my book, I had found a way to say the same thing with many fewer words by tightening and weeding out unnecessary material.

With that little pep talk for myself, it’s off to some more editing for me.


  1. Thank you for posting the six rules of editing (writing). It was just what I needed to hear at the present time. I love researching and being creative, but writing, I'm finding, can be a lot of hard work. I've just got to discipline myself to write so many words a day I guess. I am starting to find that I'm really spending much of my time editing and editing and editing.

  2. I certainly agree with 2 through 5... Not sure I understand 6... certainly want to avoid "anything outright barbarous"
    I come from business writing, to the point, not from literary, so, my challenges seem to be different. Thanks for sharing your SIX. Really appreciate that you took the time to BLOG today! ;-)

  3. If I could edit all day I would...I love it! But I can see your point. I look at my blog posts almost as diary entries. You certainly don't edit those (unless you are like me and can't help yourself).