How to edit if you are an "underwriter"

Your creative writing prose goes too fast. Unlike many writers, who pour out words of senseless generosity, your style is terse. You’re an underwriter. But why?

Actually, this hook is a lie. I’m going to talk about edits that apply to both verbose and sparse writing. Time to put on the literature doctor hat.

On perfectionism #

If you’re worried about being a perfectionist, I would stop doing that. The idea that to be a “real” writer, you need to conform to some 100k+ wordcount is laughable.

Unless you have a medically diagnosed mental disorder like OCD, perfectionism is simply a sign.

Yes, it can hold you back, or you can take my tarot card advice and embrace it. Chances are that if you are rewording sentences, you’re playing. You see the value in editing, in reiterating, in improvement. It’s fun.

Anyone who first starts piano lessons will have difficulty playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” They have to hover over each key, press it at the right time, for the proper duration, and coordinate all aspects into a song. Is the beginner not a “real piano player?” Well, they’re a beginner pianist. That’s okay.

Learn to write slow, then you can write fast.

Symptoms of bad writing #

Commonly touted advice:

  • Check for -ing (sign of modifiers and progressive tense)
  • Get rid of was and is. Serves as the double whammy, two-birds-in-one-stone advice.
    • to be + ing (progressive tense)
    • there + to be + noun (telling instead of showing)
  • Get rid of -ly (adverbs)

As a basic guideline… overuse of progressive indicates overuse of modifiers, which indicates sentences with too many tangents, asides, and lack of logical order.

I-Am-Walking-Down-The-Street-When— Syndrome
We get it, life is full of interruptions by random events. It was fine the first few times, but do you really have to begin all your scenes like this? Do you feel surprised 😱 at every single interruption that happens? If not, stop it.

Telling too much
“We entered the perfectly normal building.”
🅰️ There is a receptionist playing on his phone. 🤮
🅱️ A receptionist plays on his phone. 👍

Using There + to be invokes, “I spy with my little eye 👀 a receptionist playing on his phone.”

Kids play “I spy” because they need to train their speech, voicing what they see, before they can express meta opinions. Grown adults have evolved beyond the “I spy” game. When adults see something, it’s either important enough to have an opinion of it, or not.

Unless the character is a creepy stalker looking for things to latch onto, or engaging in erotica where every booty is a sizzling filet mignon, in which case, go ahead and use there + to be all you want.

Even if you’re writing middle-grade fiction, kids want to learn the means of how to express complex and abstract topics, appropriately sprinkled in context, not read about patooey mundane stuff.

If a detail is truly important: “There’s a bulge on the ceiling. Why is there a bulge on the ceiling? Oh my god, it’s leaking.”

The stated bullet points are diagnostic tools to find symptoms of the real cause: unclear, bland, and overly stuffed language.

What! An underwriter has overly stuffed language? Yes. Let’s take a look.

Example sentence

Racing to the kitchen, the chef dragged a chair laboriously to the door.

Already, this sentence tries to convey:

  • transition (Racing to the kitchen)
  • conjunction to another clause without any connective indicators besides (,)
  • main action (the chef dragged a chair)
  • character state (laboriously)
  • a direct object’s change in position (to the door)

Way too much! Focus, focus, focus.

The reader is responsible for conjuring their own scenes. As a writer, you can only cue what happens in slightly more detail, in the right order. The more detail there is, the more tricks you have to use to not come off boring or confusing.

In English, word order is rather strict because meaning is derived from order. Take the word laboriously placed after a direct object (chair). As a result of this order, the scene is difficult to envision. I understand the chef is laboring, but it seems like the chair is laboring, too. It has an effect of personifying the chair. If that’s your goal, there are better ways to do so.

Personification
Piling against the door, the chairs leaned like unwanted orphans of a garage sale.

Anyway, let’s start with the problematic adverb. First, we’ll change the adverb position and see what happens.

In speaking, we use voice tone to emphasize words, but in writing you don’t have control of how a reader subvocalizes the words. While there are italics, overuse of italics is dictative and distracting.

Word order is used instead.

Neutral: place adverbs before a verb #

Racing to the kitchen, the chef ++laboriously++ dragged a chair laboriously to the door.

In this case, laboriously links the chef to dragged and enhances the verb. The adverb prepares the reader. ✋ “Take note, the upcoming verb is super important.” This is a common English stucture.

Split Infinitive Example
“She needs to instantly quit.”

She’s not just quitting, but her action must be instant in quality. Instant ramen? Instant quitting.

Throwing the emphasis forward: place adverbs after a verb #

Racing to the kitchen, the chef dragged laboriously a chair to the door.

The adverb coming after the verb puts emphasis on the aftermath: becoming tired. In this sentence, the order is a bit awkward due to the existence of the Direct Object, so you’d have to be careful.

However, it has a softer and poetic quality.

Infinitive Example
“She needs to quit instantly [so she can get her life back on track].”

Change or cull the adverb #

Overall, the sentence is still weak. The word laboriously is vague and repetitive, since it means “work hard.” The verb to drag already implies that the chef is not lifting the chair, either because it’s too heavy or he doesn’t want to. We can imply that a chair is hard to move in other ways:

…the chef dragged a stubborn chair to the door.

Otherwise, if you want to keep an adverb, it should serve as clarification or as a literary device.

i.e. show the chef is a burly gentleman:

…the chef pulled dragged gently a chair out for the guest.

Device: Juxtapose a rough action with gentility.

Fixing the pacing #

Original sentence
Racing to the kitchen, the chef dragged a chair laboriously to the door.

If we rearrange the modifier…

The chef, racing to the kitchen, dragged a chair laboriously to the door.

…we see it’s wrong, because it’s a transition conflated as a modifier.

However, modifiers are not transitions.

Transitions indicate a passage of time and location.Modifiers are extra details.
“While racing to the kitchen, the chef noticed a shadow and thought nothing of it.”“Racing to the kitchen, each chef felt determined to grab the highest quality ingredients first.”

“Racing to the kitchen” grammatically serves as a modifier, yet authorial intent is transition. Unless the chef has superhuman strength, he cannot race while dragging a chair. Immediately going into the next action makes poor sense. Is he dragging a chair while running? Entered the room and blocked the door with a chair?

Readers know more is supposed to be happening, but the writer fails to convey info properly. Now the reader is annoyed because they have to mentally fix the sentence. Writers are supposed to make reading enjoyable, not tiresome!

Possible Solutions #

  1. Get rid of improperly used modifiers and use plain.
  2. Switch the continous verb to a more logical one.

1. Use Plain #

The chef raced to the kitchen and dragged a chair to the door.

The plain form of a verb automatically takes care of timing, since it can covey both continuous or completed action. It’s plain and doesn’t make assumptions.

2. Verb Choice #

Sweating in the kitchen, the chef dragged a chair to the door.

In this case, you don’t need to indicate when sweating ends. Sweating is pretty much uncontrollable, and it’s not a transition. It’s not crucial to understanding the sentence. It’s a support, a detail that enhances the subject. The modifier can be rearranged, too.

The chef, swearing, dragged a chair to the door.

Focus of the sentence #

With the way the original sentence is written, you would think that racing is important. However, it’s not. Rather, it’s the chef’s desperation to reach the kitchen.

Diction #

Diction is what defines connotation and emotionality.

The chef raced barged into the kitchen, then dragged a chair to the door.

I decided to add , then to pace the sentence. The act of barging is disruptive and requires a pause, after all.

Rearrange Syntax #

We can make it more zesty. Instead of focusing on the chef, what happens if we prioritize his method of entry?

With a leap, the chef barged into the kitchen, then dragged a chair to the door.

Now we know how he enters the kitchen: fast enough to fly through the air.

Let’s include a hint to his emotional state.

In a drunken leap, the chef barged into the kitchen, then dragged a chair to the door.

His entry is ungraceful. The chef might be intoxicated; with adrenaline or fear or alcohol. Who knows, it doesn’t matter that much.

If we switch the preposition to “in,” it indicates a state of being. Now we’ve unconventionally combined the expressions…

crossed in a single leap + he was in a drunken statein a drunken leap

… which makes it colorful and interesting.

In this case, with and in are interchangable, because we can wield parts of our body as a tool (the chef’s legs).

However, we have an issue of repetitive sounds, In... into...

In a drunken leap, the chef barged into the kitchen, then dragged a chair to the door.

I personally don’t like it. Repeating the same steps as before, we can find a different way to convey the same information:

In a drunken leap, the chef barged through the kitchen door, then dragged a chair against it.

Conclusion #

We went from:

Racing to the kitchen, the chef dragged a chair laboriously to the door.

to:

In a drunken leap, the chef barged through the kitchen door, then dragged a chair against it.

From 13 words to 17, and gaining several times more lucidity. However!

The original sentence still has an important aspect: transition. The “racing” movement of the chef to the kitchen.

In reality, we need the sum of parts.

Transition, location, action, and motivation. Spread out info in a logical manner as the reader’s attention demands.

What does it mean to drag a chair against the door? This needs context too.

Defending himself to keep a monster out:

He raced back to the kitchen. In a drunken leap, the chef barged through the door and shut it, then dragged a chair up against the handle.

Keeping the door open by using a chair as a stopper:

He raced back to the kitchen. In a drunken leap, the chef barged through the door, then dragged a chair against it. A draft fluttered through the receipts hanging off steel hoods.

Alternative Syntax: Stream-of-consciousness, run-on, “dizzying” presentation:

The chef raced back to the kitchen and in a drunken leap barged through the door and dragged a chair against it, ushering a draft that fluttered through the receipts, crinkly scraps which hung off steel hoods.

Why does the alternative, stream-of-consciousness syntax work here? What’s going on?

  • Use connective words for new modifiers and clauses: that and which.
  • Reinforce and engage other senses (onomatopoeia, smell, touch, etc.).
  • Order of presentation

If I said something like:

…ushering a draft that fluttered through the receipts, steel hoods dripping with charms.

Confusing. Receipts made of steel? Is this a new technology I haven’t heard of?

Cull the words that and which? #

You may hear advice to get rid of that/which. Again, very simplistic advice which doesn’t explain the reason.

The same reason as with all my previous claims: too many that/which’s is another symptom of too many clauses, in a sentence trying to achieve too much, without focus. If you have a run-on or a longer style, then there should be a narrative purpose other than “it sounds impressive.”

The that/which problem is rife in academic writing, due to pressure and competition for grants, publication, approvals, and the difficulty of explaining complex abstract topics, where the main goal really is to sound impressive.

That/which is related to intimacy and distance. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of distance, but it can be used to your advantage. The question you must answer: Why is the narrator distant? Why do we follow certain conventions?

Case 1
“Here laid the rose that didn’t have thorns of stem, but instead which traded its swords for feet.”

Now, this example uses eulogistic, memorial language. If introduced at the beginning, it symbolizes a groundbreaking, fantastical incident.

Compare:

Case 2
“The rose didn’t have thorns of stem, but instead traded its swords for feet.”

The second example is direct and down-to-earth. Another mutant rose? Meh, mundane shit that happens every day.

English is a mutt language that relies on verbs to make a point. Anglo cultural attitude ingrains active participation, so verb emphasis and active voice are incredibly important tenets. Finally, in recent decades, the style of colloquial, casual, parasocial writing reigns supreme.

A compromise?
Here laid the rose which didn’t surround itself with thorns of stem, but instead traded its swords for peace.

Further Thoughts #