Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In Praise of Crisp Sentences and Strong Verbs

For me, about the only thing harder than writing is writing about writing. I'm taking a stab at it today, however. Not because I'm actually doing more writing these days, but because I'm editing other writers.

I've got this freelance gig editing a series of nonfiction chapter books. Most of them are true stories about animals, really fun stuff, and they're aimed at readers aged six to nine. That's a little younger than the audience I normally aim for in my own books. When I write, I usually keep a ten-year-old in mind, a lively and curious fifth-grader. As I edit the manuscripts for this animal series, I try to picture a lively and curious third-grader instead.

But just keeping that third-grader in mind isn't enough. One of my bounden duties in this gig is to make these books conform to a specific reading level, namely 3.0 to 3.5 on something called the Flesch-Kinkaid scale. It's the first time ever I've tackled such a task, and it's been a revelation to me. Did you know you can set the grammar and spelling tool on Microsoft Word to show readability statistics? On the Flesch-Kinkaid scale, no less!

So far, all the manuscripts for this series have exceeded the target reading level. My job is to bring them down. Geez, that sounds dreadful, doesn't it? Only it's not really. It's actually kind of fun, like a puzzle. And to my surprise, when I revised and rewrote the pieces to lower the reading level, it didn't weaken them. It strengthened them.

So what did I do? I broke up long, winding sentences into two or more shorter, crisper sentences. I divided long paragraphs. I mercilessly eliminated the passive tense and unnecessary use of the past continuous. For "The people were cheering and clapping and stamping their feet," I substituted, "The people cheered and clapped. They stamped their feet." Stronger, right? More muscular. And 2 levels "lower" on the F-K scale. I love strong verbs and the simple past tense. They really move a story along.

Of course I'm making all this sound far simpler than it is. But my point is that good writing is good writing, regardless of "reading level." Young readers deserve no less.


Myra Zarnowski said...

I definitely agree that strong verbs and present tense makes reading easier. What I worry about is simplifying too much. Studies have shown that taking out "hedges"--words like "probably" or "maybe" actually make writing harder. Shortening sentences may make writing harder too, especially when connections between ideas (i.e., because, since) are removed. Whether writing is easy or hard depends on the background we bring to the topic.

In any case, keep those strong, descriptive words coming.

Myra Zarnowski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sue Macy said...

Yes, but...I have a visceral reaction to anything having to do with readability tests. Early on, as an editor at Scholastic, we had to "level" all the articles that went into our magazines. As you say, it was a puzzle or game, but one that I think often removed the writer's style and individuality. Good writers write with a rhythm that's difficult to maintain when you're chopping up sentences and simplifying words to adhere to a formula. It may well be that I developed my own intuitive understanding of how to write for kids by learning about leveling early on, but that doesn't make me appreciate the process or the result.

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

I suspected I was opening up a can of worms I didn't really understand! You can probably tell I am coming to this subject as a total neophyte.

Myra, I agree that it can be harder to write without the hedge words, and I'm not cutting them out. I also leave in connecting words. In fact, I tend to add connections, to help the reader. So I hope what I'm doing makes these stories easier to read.

And Sue, as I work on these pieces I definitely try to respect and retain the author's style. Unfortunately, sometimes there's no avoiding changing the rhythm. I will say that the authors accepted this assignment knowing that the books had to conform to a specific level.

I regret that I seemed so cavalier about all this in my post. It was written in haste. As a writer myself, I know what it's like to turn over your baby to an editor. I approach each manuscript with great respect. And when I "operate" on one--which is how I'm starting to think about this "leveling"--I strive to be as delicate as possible.

Deborah Heiligman said...

My very first acceptance was for a college paper I wrote. An academic journal editor wrote and said he wanted to publish it, but the sentences were too simple and short. (Probably also not enough jargon.) The editor said if I wrote it more in the style of his academic journal (hoo hah) he would accept it. So I went through it, and all I did was change many periods to semi-colons. Article accepted!

Soon after that acceptance I went to work for Scholastic and editing the classroom magazines, where, yes, we did readability tests and etc. But those were never necessary, really, because we FELT in our bones what was right. The tests almost always confirmed that we were on the right level.
And if good, simple writing is what it takes, so be it.
I prefer writing for children any day!