For some, editing might seem like literary witchcraft. Someone seems to wave a wand and it all sounds better, even if one cannot say why. I recently drafted a social medium post, looked at it, scowled, edited it, then realized that it offered two clear examples of common mistakes that most people don’t catch. I walked through the process, and this is what came out.
Take the comment:
“I’m picturing Tony Suprano waddling out there to get his paper in his robe, feet turned out so far he could be in ballet, telling them to GTFO of there.”
I misspelled Tony’s last name. For most people, that’s where the review would stop, because that corrects the obvious mistake. But there are two hiccups, weaknesses that harm the clarity. Do you see them?
The first is phrase order. Think about the way I wrote the first part, specifically the prepositional phrases. My phrase order makes it sound as though Tony expends special effort just to make sure he is wearing his robe (as opposed to some other clothing, or none at all) when he goes out to get the Newark Daily Wiseguy. That’s not the main point, which is that he’s going out and happens to see someone who needs telling off. If there is a descriptor we can toss, it’s the one about the robe–but it’s not a bad descriptor. It does help paint the scene and suggest timing. There’s no reason to regret it, but we could move it around:
“I’m picturing Tony Soprano waddling out there in his robe to get his paper, feet turned out so far he could be in ballet, telling them to GTFO of there.”
One could consider instead saying “a robed Tony Soprano,” but that creates some issues of its own. It over-elevates the robe’s importance, making it sound like he’s going out in judicial or ceremonial robes or somesuch, rather than in the normally assumed bathrobe. Thus, the phrase shift above. While that reads better by placing the robe phrase in a better spot, a couple of questions remain. One is murkier.
Since I said he was waddling, is it really necessary to talk about how James Gandolfini was able to turn his feet at angles well past 45°? No, but the actor’s gait was amazing to watch, especially going down his steep driveway in some hilly Newark burb. That one’s 51/49, perhaps, good arguments made for inclusion and omission.
Less acceptable are the two instances of “there.” Even with different prepositions, this is an example of the sort of overuse we see with misbegotten expressions like “off of” (please never say this). We haven’t been told the target of Tony’s vulgar admonishment, nor what they are rooting around in (let’s say it’s his recycling). Yet the choice is straightforward. If we remove the first “there” and just leave “out,” we do no harm to the meaning while improving the word count and concision. Without the second instance, in “of there,” we would lose meaning. While I don’t have Tony say what it is out of which they are to GTF, “of there” at least implies it’s something other than just standing on his property without his assent. They could be in a bush, looking in his mailbox, or indeed going through his recycling. One “there” statement must go, and it can only be the first. We get:
“I’m picturing Tony Soprano waddling out in his robe to get his paper, feet turned out so far he could be in ballet, telling them to GTFO of there.”
This is how we do this. We look at what is said and implied, toss spurious words, rearrange phrases. For me, the phrase order is the more pernicious writing issue, because my thoughts don’t always come out in the right order when writing. It’s easy to see why it happens to most people.