Language 1: Triage

I’m a great proponent of the triage method of revising:  Take care of the big problems first and gradually work your way down to the details of language.  In the abstract, this is a great philosophy.  If there’s such a thing as a time-saver, prioritizing like this is it.  And generally writers DO pay more attention to word choice, sentence structure, rhythm and sound the closer they get to publication.

But the truth of the matter is that writers, to varying degrees, can’t help but pay attention to language from the very first draft.  On one extreme are writers who must perfect each sentence before continuing to the next.  While this method works for some, I wouldn’t recommend it, as it poses far too many opportunities for a newer writer to get stuck.  Most of us get attached to sentences we’ve polished, and this attachment interferes with our ability to remain flexible and open-minded about our work.  It’s awfully hard to lop off a chapter that took you six months to write or to fundamentally restructure an entire book when all the sentences are beautiful.

On the other extreme are sloppy drafters who spew out text, trusting that revision will tighten and clean up their prose.  I know writers who, when unable to conjure up the right word, insert asterisks instead.  Preserving the flow of ideas is too important; the right word can always come later.  When we’re not attached to particular words, it’s much easier to play with the larger elements that form a work—structure, character, themes, plot, voice…

Most writers fall between these two extremes.  We try to stay loose but can’t help but consider our word choices.  Luckily, language is quirky.  Just as a strong working title can give direction to a draft, the right word can unlock material rather than the other way around.  An accurate description can reveal a character’s nature to the writer.  Precision in word choice can expose new concepts worth exploring. There are benefits to occasionally slowing or even stopping one’s “flow” to deliberate over language.

The trick is to discern which words or sentences are worthy of careful construction early on and which are distractions from the hard work of composing.  There’s no easy answer.  Generally, though, if we stay alert to our motives we can tell which is which.  Is a particular quest for accurate language motivated by genuine questions about the content?  If so, your work with language helps reveal the heartbeat and is worth pursuing early on.  Is your struggle with language about presenting your material to the reader?  If so, consider tackling this work later.  Better find the core of your story first and then polish the surface.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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