Some people may be wondering how I manage to keep my columns to their required lengths. My California Riding column can be anywhere from 500 to 1000 words, but my newspaper column must stay within a 650-word radius.
Well, now that I've been writing the newspaper column for almost 4 years, I've gotten pretty good at knowing "how much to write" and can usually come to the point around word 590, leaving me 60 words for the summation and punchline. But after the initial write, there's the rewrite...
Editing is a difficult part of a writer's job, but it is one of the most essential pieces. I learned to edit by attending Jean Jenkins' workshop at the Southern California Writers Conference (http://www.writersconference.com/). She taught a lot about the things you don't want in your work (use of passive voice, nobody "walks" anywhere, too many exclamation points!!!, etc.) but she emphasized two important steps to editing:
1. Do not go back and edit what you have just written. Let your work alone for awhile (she suggested a minimum of 6 weeks), then re-read it with fresh eyes.
2. Read your work aloud.
I can't let my columns lie about for 6 weeks; they have deadlines that must be met. But I do walk away from them and let them sit overnight. I have discovered that, in the light of morning, I suddenly have a clearer idea of how to tie my ideas together.
Reading my work aloud has enhanced the quality of my writing, oh, I don't know, by a bazillion percent. Don't get me wrong, I know how to write. I can pair nouns and verbs, spell correctly, and put a clever tale together. But until I read my stuff aloud, I wasn't aware of words I overused, sentence structures that might confuse the reader, and ideas I didn't follow through with.
I'm going to give an example, by showing you a snippet of next week's column, which is all about sending kids back to school. Here's my first pass at the first two paragraphs:
" By the time you read this, school will have started and our houses will all be settling in to this year’s schedule. Even if your children are in the same school as last year, the schedule is always slightly different.
Maybe school is going to start earlier this year, or later. Or maybe it’s the before and after activities that are different. Soccer is on Mondays instead of Thursdays, or your kids have decided that cafeteria food will kill them and they want you to get up an hour early to fix them haute cuisine in a paper bag. After all, the more things stay the same, the more they change."
It's not bad, but it could be better. For example, in the first sentence, "houses" seems less personal and inviting than "families." And as I read aloud, I read the word "schedule" twice within a dozen or so words. In the second paragraph, I had already used the word school twice in the previous paragraph, and I'm talking about it starting in the future, instead of now. The last sentence is a punchline. It is one of those common phrases that I've turned upside down for fun.
Here's my edited version:
" By the time you read this, school will have started and our families will all be settling in to this year’s schedule. Even if your children are in the same school as last year, the timetable is always slightly different.
Maybe classes start earlier this year, or later. Or maybe it’s the before and after activities that are different. Soccer is on Mondays instead of Thursdays, or your kids have decided that cafeteria food will kill them and they want you to get up an hour early to fix them haute cuisine in a paper bag."
I made the punchline the last sentence in the column and gave it its own paragraph to call attention to it. And I tightened the rest down, made it less repetitive, and shaved off 3 words.
All because I read it aloud.