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Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

When to use “very”

Monday, February 28th, 2011

While editing, one of the words I remove most often is “very”.  In most cases, it’s unnecessary.

Even worse, it has the effect of lessening the importance of something you intended to emphasize.

For example, instead of saying something was “very important”, say it was “of the utmost importance.”  Instead of saying a meal was “very good,” say it was a “delight”.

Why is “very” ineffective?  When used like I have above, the word “very” doesn’t give any extra information, except for a vague understanding of degree.  As readers, people understand that “very handsome” means “more handsome than most,” but your readers don’t understand how he looks.  There’s a big difference in connotation between: “his smile dazzled me” and “his rock-hard abs sent my heart aflutter”.

Think about what you’re really trying to say.  What is it about the detail that you’re trying to describe that makes it “very” <something>?  Say that instead.

However, there are a couple of cases where “very” is correct and useful:

  • When you’re talking about a particular item: “There it was, the very item we’d been searching for: the golden medallion.”
  • When you’re talking about the mere mention of something:  “The very thought of going to the dance with him made me shudder.”

For the most part, it’s safe to simply remove the word “very” from your sentences.  That will ensure your words have the very impact you intend.

What do you think?  Is it better to never use “very” at all?  Or are there other cases I missed where it’s okay?

Editing with a Mean Pen

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Earlier this week, I met with some local writers in a monthly event that I organize.  While we were talking, the topic of editing work came out, as well as the need for every writer to have someone with a “mean pen”.

A mean pen simply means that the person critiquing your work takes a no-holds-barred approach to finding problems in your work.  This will sometimes involve challenging the content (*GASP*, could there be a problem with an argument I’m using?).  Other times this will mean identifying areas that made the reader pause, reread, or question the writer’s meaning (or sanity).

In the conversation above, we were talking about why there remains a negative connotation with self-published works.  We decided the biggest problem with most self-pubbed pieces simply haven’t experienced a mean enough pen yet.  If more people had their work professionally edited, then self-publishing would become a much greater power in the world today.

As a freelance editor, I take a mean pen to every piece that crosses my desk.  I cross out anything I feel is unnecessary, often cutting out hundreds or thousands of words. I’ll point out ill-conceived and unconvincing arguments, or mistakes that a writer seems to make consistently (such as “then” and “than” confusion).

Other times, I’ll find that there are some gaps in the work.  Often this is because the writer assumed the reader had some knowledge.  It’s often a simple matter for the writer to fill the hole.  However, without someone with a mean pen that can identify these leaps, the writer may be embarrassed by a barrage of criticism after releasing work to the world before it was ready.

My goal as an editor is not only to improve a work, but to improve the writer as well.  It gets boring to correct the same old mistakes–I’d rather a writer was always making new ones!

Editing with a mean pen cannot guarantee that you’ll find every error.  The author ultimately has to choose whether he or she is going to act on the criticism.  There’s also no guarantee that someone editing with a mean pen will find every error.

What editing with a mean pen can do, however, uncover some of the larger problems within a work, and give the writer a hint of what needs more work.  That’s how a writer grows.

What do you think?  How do you find problems in your work?  What can writers do to help themselves develop a “mean pen”?

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