Sunday, March 26, 2017

Editing 101: You Found It Where?

At times, editing can be a bit like a jigsaw puzzle - if the puzzle pieces were scattered around the room like Easter eggs.

Although I work with a lot of first-time authors, I don't think that this is a problem specific to them. After all, if you think about Faulkner or Dickens or Joyce, you know that a lot of famous, established authors were known for convoluted sentences and paragraphs that refer back to things that you didn't think were important before.

So instead of scolding any of my authors or marking their manuscripts up with great big red markers and sending them back, I do my best to search out the through line of the text and put it into an order that will make sense to readers.

Oddly enough, this doesn't seem to be as big a problem with fiction, possibly because people writing fiction often have the "Point A to Point B" in mind when they start. But with non-fiction and memoir... well... that can get more interesting.

I think that's because people writing in those genres are more likely to be writing conversationally - they're putting the stories down on the paper the way they would tell them to other people. Which is great - mostly - because in a lot of non-fiction and memoir what really sets books apart is the "voice" of the author. A conversational tone brings the reader in in the case of memoir. A formal, academic tone (in the case of non-fiction business books, for instance) can add an air of authority.

But, in either case, the author still needs to make sure the puzzle pieces are able to be quickly found and easily placed in the right order by the reader. (Again, this might be different for a piece of fiction with an unreliable narrator, or one where suspense is being built up.)

This past week, I encountered a sentence that left me a bit boggled. It's in a memoir and is describing a crime scene and a witness. Though it might be a bit difficult to tell which is which:

"Lying on the ground, next to his deceased brother's body, he stated that he found a gun."

Anyone want to hazard a guess as to why the speaker was lying on the ground next to his dead brother when he told the officer that he found the weapon?

Or did the author simply mean to say that the speaker had found the gun, which had been on the ground next to the dead brother?

Based on the context of the paragraph (the speaker had been interviewed at the police station, not at the crime scene), I assumed that the gun was lying on the floor - but that the speaker was not. So I reworked the sentence accordingly:

"He stated that he had found the gun where it had been lying on the ground next to his deceased brother's body."

Mystery solved. (At least until the next paragraph.)


Susan said...

What a perfect example of the dangers of misplaced modifying phrases! Love it! Your writers are lucky you take such care to untangle their meaning.

Robert said...

Thanks, Susan! It certainly keeps things from getting boring. :-)