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YMMV: Edit for Aesthetic Third (Line Editing, Part 3)

💄 Your Purple Prose Just Gives You Away...

This is the final installment in my trilogy on line-editing. If you want to see these ideas in action, you can check out a demonstration I did several years ago for Flights of Foundry in which I apply these principles to the opening paragraph of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Edit For Aesthetic Third

It's tempting to think, since aesthetic is third on my list of things to edit for, that it's not all that important. So let me clear the air right up front. Aesthetic is extremely important. In fact, you might say that it's more important than everything but clarity and word-economy. This is because the word aesthetic is covering a lot of ground here. Style and tone? Aesthetic. Format? Aesthetic. Genre conventions? Also (often) aesthetic. It's a broad umbrella, but all of these have one thing in common: a key part of your story is the way you tell it.

This extends to the aesthetic of your writing because the way you write your sentences imparts meaning beyond what is simply in the text. Sorry, this is an important point, so let me streamline that, linger on it, and put it in under-talics.

Form carries meaning.

How you choose to deliver your story is as important as what your story is. And that idea is really the crux of what it means to edit for aesthetic. It's not just what you say, but how you say it, even at the level of individual words or sentences. So when you're editing, you want to be thinking about how sentence structure and word choice are affecting the way your story comes across.

Rhetorical devices are a great way to illustrate this point. Consider the iconic line from President Kennedy's inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." This is a device called antimetabole, in which a phrase is repeated with elements transposed. This device uses repetition to emphasize the contrast between the ideas. It shows you them in parallel with an unexpected twist. This serves to elevate the second half of the phrase, positioning it as a corrected version of the first, in a way. The rhythm also makes the sentence sticky. There's a reason this pull quote from Kennedy is the most enduring of his entire political career. It's highly memorable--in fact, it's a sentence that is designed to draw a lot of attention to itself. The speechwriters knew that this quotation would be the one that made it into the newspapers. And all of this is created entirely from word order and juxtaposition.

There are tons of these devices. In addition to antimetabole there's anadiplosis: "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. Or there's anaphora: "I came, I saw, I conquered." It's worth familiarizing yourself with a list of them, not because you want to use them, necessarily, but just to understand how they work. A lot of the formal ones have fancy Greek names that start with "an" (see above) that you needn't bother memorizing, but even things like parallelism or the "Rule of 3s" count. They are attention-grabby, so be judicious, but they're good things to have in your bag of tricks.

That said, a lot of your aesthetic-editing is going to be at a much more granular level. These will be small things that don't make a big difference on their own, but do a lot in aggregate to shape your writing. These will be things that contribute to the overall tone. Let's have an example, shall we? Fill in the blank!

Martha came to an abrupt halt in front of Liam's Sweetshop. Sitting on a display stand in the front window was the most beautiful raspberry torte she had ever seen. She could practically taste it: richly layered and festooned with dollops of cream and fruit and chocolate drizzle. It was gorgeous. It was also well outside of her budget. Still, she couldn't help ______ it before continuing on the realtor's office.

Made your decision? Here are my top contenders: "leering at" and "ogling." They're practically identical in both their connotative and denotative meanings, but they have very different mouthfeel. "Leering" is the kind of word that you can't help but elongate when you say it. When you form the word, your tongue rolls from the front of your mouth to the back and then to the roof. So that might be a way to emphasize the length of the look or--not to get too graphic here--the way that her longing involves her tongue.

"Ogling," by contrast, has that big O at the front and the hard G in the middle that makes you want to stick your tongue out when you pronounce the L. It's the kind of word that stumbles out of your mouth. It's visually awkward as well; any time I see it I have to reverse-engineer the base verb "ogle" to remind myself what it means. Both visually and aurally it's similar to the word "ogre," which gives it a specific kind of connotative heft. Altogether, it's a clumsy, brutish word, which in the context of a pastry is pretty comical. So the word choice really comes down to what you want to leave your reader with: the depth of Martha's longing, or the comedy of the situation.

There's no right answer, of course. Both words work equally well. It all comes down to what you want to communicate for the story and what are your personal idiosyncrasies. For example, I have a personal vendetta against the word "strode." Authors use it all the time as an alternate word for "walked," because it turns out characters need to move about and saying "walked" over and over is annoying. And I hate it, because that's not what striding is. It is a very specific type of walking that has implications of purpose and bearing and mindset. They are not synonyms. I will go out of my way to avoid it unless that character is genuinely striding. But I also realize that this is just "one of those very specific things that annoys Kurt." And that's fine.

Because it turns out a lot of aesthetic purely subjective. There are no right answers. The good news here is that it means that you have a lot of freedom to experiment and put your personal spin on things, but the bad news is that it's very hard to learn. If you consume a lot of content about writing craft (which I assume you do because... I mean... you're here) then you've probably heard that an author's "voice" is of vital importance, and it's something that every writer needs to work to develop. Also it is impossible to be taught, you just have to pick it up. And, alas, that is more or less true. But! There are some tricks.

The first is to just build up your vocabulary. It's a lot easier to pick the right word if you know lots of them. Stockpile words that you enjoy. I have a particular fondness for the word "indefatigable." There aren't a lot of opportunities for me to use it, but I've got it handy just in case I need a word that means "unable to be made exhausted" and is fun to say. You can also make up words. I've done it in this very post. I'm probably not the first person to coin "under-talics" but I did make it up, because there's no equivalent that matches the playful tone I wanted. Some friends and I got into a discussion of how to pluralize "colossus" the other day. The official words are "colossi" or "colossuses," which we hated, so I proposed "colosses" (pronounced koloss-ease) and at least one of those friends was won over by it.

There's a whole culture around "verbing" nouns right now, and it's the exact same principle. Do what you want, there are no rules.

Another good way to pick up tricks is to critically read lots of genres of fiction, especially genres that are style-forward. Read a horror story, even if you never have any intention of writing one. At some point you're going to want to include a horrific element in something, and you can't do that if you don't know how to write it. Oh, and Stephen King doesn't count. He's too huge and has too much of a self-defined style. Read Joe Hill's NOS4A2 and see how he uses texture to make the reader feel uncomfortable. Read the short Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers by Alyssa Wong and see how she under-explains the physicality of the protagonist, so you can never quite get a mental hold on her.

Short stories are great, actually, because if you can find a pro-rate themed magazine or anthology, that's basically a beer flight of genre stories. And as you read, take note of how you're reacting and try to figure out what's causing that. Pay attention to sentence length and complexity. Look at word choice and word shapes. Does it have lots of hard consonants, or is it a word that you have to roll around in your mouth while you say it?

Read thrillers (not Tom Clancy, not Dan Brown, maybe James Patterson but you can probably do better). Read memoirs. Read cozies. Avoid classics--Tolkein was a genius but you're not going to learn anything about writing contemporary fantasy from him. Read romance. Read romance! Especially if you're a guy who is low-key afraid to ever read a romance novel. Just man up and do it! They're short and fun, and you might just figure out why your romantic subplots suck.

Read literary fiction, which purports to be genre-less but in reality is simply a catch-all category for books whose sense of style outweighs their adherence to genre plot conventions. But hey, style is important, so even though I tend to avoid books whose title ends with Colon: A Novel, I still learned a helluva lot about creating narrative tension when nothing is happening from Ian McEwan's Saturday.

If you're feeling particularly ambitious, try to write in these genres as well.

And if you want to take it to the absolute next level, read poetry. Poetry is all about vibes and the deliberate use of very specific words to achieve whatever feel the author is going for. Especially free-verse poetry. This is an entire class of writing where the shape of the words in a sentence is intended to be more impactful than the meanings. Poetry is inventive, it is challenging, and it is downright playful with its use of language.

Learn to be playful. Because language is a joy. The act of reading should be not just engaging, it should be pleasurable. You have so much freedom to tell your story. Go to town with it.

Just as long as you don't sacrifice clarity, or use too many words showing off how well you can write.

Next time, why you need to stop bashing [insert target-of-the-zeitgeist here]...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.