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.