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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Nine Cs of Effective Writing - POST AMENDED 2016.07.06

I'm a copy editor, which means I'm the spelling and grammar police.

But I am so much more. I've expanded my list of writing criteria to become The Nine Cs of Effective Writing, which are:

  1. Continuity
  2. Clarity
  3. Conciseness
  4. Communication
  5. Consistency
  6. Coherence
  7. Correctness
  8. Chronology
  9. Credibility

I'll address each herein.

First is continuity. It's the same thing in books as it is in TV or movies. If the guy has blue eyes, they should remain blue throughout (barring any disguises or affinity for wearing colored contact lenses). The best way to track this is to keep a book bible (for each book). Have a page for each character, main or minor. List their hair color, eye color, other defining characteristics. Of course a good copy editor will catch these errors too, but, as "they" say, two heads are better than one.

Second is clarity. That means making your sentences easy to read at the first pass by the reader. You never want to confuse your reader, as that pushes the reader out of your "book bubble." You've just disrupted the believability of your story. Not a good thing.

Third is conciseness. This helps to avoid a lot of evil (like manifold adjectives or useless adverbs). For instance, a "car" does not present the right visual image in your reader's mind as compared to your own vision. If you see a red Jaguar, then write "red Jaguar" at its first mention. The mind works in pictures. Using generic terms (man, house, job) doesn't cut it. You're an author. You're creative. Surely you can convey what's in your mind to your reader's mind better than "car" or "man" or "house" or "job." Instead write "red Jaguar," "a sexy movie star look-alike," "a Southern Colonial," "a Fortune 500 CEO."

Fourth is communication. Communication is key. True communication is Rule Number One. No matter how many grammar rules and correctly spelled words you may utilize, if your reader has no idea what you are trying to say, you have failed to communicate. This should be your ultimate goal, even if you have to break a few eggs to make that omelet. This works from the sentence level as well as at a whole-book level. This means, you never want your reader to be confused, having to reread one sentence to understand what you meant.

But you also don't want your reader wondering, after reading your book to the end, what the story was about. Think of each tale you tell as a term paper that is so much more fun to read. You have a point. You need to support that point, even if you have two characters, one acting out what otherwise would be his debate of the pros and the other acting out his debate of the cons. Even if you let the reader decide which is right for himself/herself (say about abortion), the reader at least knows your book was about the pros and cons of abortion. Don't let them be confused at any level, from individual words and sentences to the basic premise of the whole book.

If there is plot/premise confusion by any reader (whether a CP, a beta-reader, or a paying reader), I'd suggest the author go back to review his/her main character arc, the critical plot points, the overarching scene progression. The problem may be at the core of the story, not just how it's presented.

Fifth is consistency. This enlarges on the first element, continuity. This covers characters' names, geographic places, trademarks, etc. If you have a character in your book named Stephen (with a PH not a V), then make sure you haven't reverted to Steven at some point in the book. When I catch these errors, I usually default to the first usage, as I presume that was the author's intent. But, if I do a word search of each spelling and find 197 occurrences of "Stephen" as versus 433 of "Steven," then I'll go with the majority usage and inform the author of this.

Sixth is coherence. This relates to overall communication, item four above, but more as to the interaction of all levels of the story. It's about linking. If you write, "His eyes were blue. That made him a murderer in my estimation," then you better explain how you got from Point A (blue eyes) to Point B (he's a murderer). There must be a causal link within your books (usually presented beforehand). Even if this particular viewpoint is not shared by the readers, you at least must make it plausible. Remember my debate team remark from earlier in this post. Say you have one person who had a very unhappy childhood, who might spurn all familial relationships or even romantic ones, whereas someone else with an equally bad childhood might run to replace it with a good family relationship of his/her own making. Each reaction could easily come from the same bad event and yet both be totally believable, even while being polar opposites. So don't forget cause and effect. It's integral to effective storytelling.

Seventh is correctness. That's when you know whether to use there, their or they're. Or a host of other homonyms (too, to, two, for instance). But it's also knowing the innate difference between being electrocuted and being shocked. In the first event, you die. In the second, you live to tell the tale.

Eighth is chronology. Granted, the "Out of Gas" episode of Joss Whedon's superlative Firefly series is out of linear chronology, but he handles this well, so that the viewer is not confused or lost in the process. Most authors can't accomplish this to the level that Joss does. But that's a plot presentation example. I'm speaking more about chronology within one sentence. Like, don't put "after" clauses at the end of your sentences. Incorrect Example: I left, after we ate. It's jarring to the reader, because it is out of order and makes them reread the line a second time to get the true gist of things. The reader should only be reading each line once. So put the events in their proper order. Corrected Example: After we ate, I left.

Another type of mishmash I read is where three events are out of order, whether as one sentence or as three separate sentences. Incorrect Example: He hit my right cheek, after swinging hard, once he entered my apartment. What? Here's the corrected example: Once he entered my apartment, he swung hard and hit my right cheek. See the difference? This is the only way this could have happened within the laws of physics.

The last is credibility. If you have an unreliable narrator, your reader will not believe your story. An unbelievable tale is a recipe for disaster, with the reader stopping abruptly. While your story may call for a melodramatic character or two, do NOT make your whole story melodramatic. Avoid this at all costs.

And, for God's sake, spell-check your document before you hand it off to anyone.  This includes your CPs, your beta-readers, and especially anybody you pay to help make your work even better. You are in the big leagues now, a professional. Act like it! You are no longer an amateur, a greenhorn hobbyist, who only plays baseball at the company's annual picnic.

Yes, I can tell if you spell-checked your doc or not. Even though Microsoft Word does not always follow the preferred spellings of Web11, spell-checking will reduce the overall misspellings. So if spell-check takes more than two minutes, I will know you haven't spell-checked it yourself.

If you can accomplish all this, you are one extraordinary author, and I would love to work with you. You are the dream author us copy editors lust for, getting not only a first glimpse of truly awesome writing and great storytelling but also making our job truly enjoyable on all levels.

Best wishes to all on your writing endeavors. And, if we don't communicate again before the holidays, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


"If your vocation isn’t a vacation, then quit, leap, change careers."

Denise Barker, Author, Blogger, Copy Editor
Books that Build Character(s)

What lies behind you and what lies in front of you pales in comparison to what lies inside of you. Ralph Waldo Emerson
When you give someone a book, you don’t give him just paper, ink, and glue.  You give him the possibility of a whole new life. Christopher Morley
The best inheritance you can leave your kids is an example of how to live a full and meaningful life. Dan Zadra

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