Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What Corporate America Taught Me About Writing & Editing Novels

Some of you know that in my "past life" I worked for fourteen years in corporate America; thirteen of those years were spent with a Fortune 500 company (technically it's on the 25 and under list, so I'll just call it a Big Ass Company) and one year was spent in civil services. While working at said Big Ass Company, I had a variety of roles and worked on many teams; mostly in the communications, writing, editing, and training design & development areas.

Most people think of corporate writing as non-fiction and therefore not relatable to fiction novel writing. But this couldn't be further from the truth. No matter what you are writing, or editing, there are some fundamental truths we can all learn from that cross over. Every day in my "new job" as a fiction editor, and writer, I find lessons I learned from corporate America bleeding over into my work. So I wanted to share just five of them with you today.

1) Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) - Doesn't sound very nice, but the point is clear. Believe it or not, at said Big Ass Company, we aimed our writing to a 10th grade reading level. You might be scratching your heads thinking, why in hell would you do that? To keep it simple. It wasn't always achievable (especially when throwing around technical jargon), but the point was to make it easy for the reader to absorb and apply. Why use a convoluted word when a simple one will do? 

The same goes in fiction. Sometimes, (I'm just sayin') writers try too hard. While there is a time and place to pull out a thesaurus and break out the big kid words, if it's over done, it will come off as contrived and awkward instead of having the impact you wanted. Some writers complain when they hear this and say they don't want to write to the lowest common denominator, they want to sound "smart" in their writing, and they are tired of using simple, clichéd words. All of which are valid concerns. But you don't want to lose your readers, or your message, by making them have to stop reading and pull out a dictionary all the time either.

I'm pretty well versed in language and words, but every once in a while one of my authors will use a word I've never heard of, which is why I share them with you. But most people aren't as word nerdy as I am; not even avid readers. Keep them in your story. After all, isn't that what we aim for? Readers who just get lost in our books and can't put them down? This doesn't mean you can't ever use "big words." That's not what this is about. But if there's an easier, more direct way to say something, then say it so that the reader will understand. You want to be relatable and not come off as too academic and snobby in general/mainstream fiction--unless you're a highbrow author and that's your audience/readership. But if you are a clever and strong enough writer, your novel will still sound smart anyway. Big words or not. 
         
2) Passive vs. Active - When you use a passive voice, the action happens to someone as if they have no control over it. It also sounds softer and weaker and can be unclear who is performing the action being placed upon the character.

When you use an active voice, it is very clear who is doing what in the sentence, because the subject (or character) is performing the action. It is a more direct, simpler, and cleaner sentence that leaves less confusion.

As an editor, I actually don't correct every passive sentence if it's unnecessary. Because like with most grammar/style rules, there's a time and a place for everything. But when you can, and where it makes sense, active is most often preferred by both editors and readers because it tightens up the writing and is more clear about who is doing what.

{Check out the Grammar Girl's blog post for a much more in-depth look at Active vs. Passive Voice, including examples.}

3) Breaking the Law - As writers and editors we all rely on some sort of "rule" book to help guide us. It helps both the writer and the reader better understand each other and our intentions. In Big Ass Company, I created our Style Book for my team (whenever I joined a new team), so that everyone was working from the same set of guidelines. There's a reason for this, and it's called: consistency. For most novelists and editors, the "style book" of choice is the Chicago Manual of Style. It is our Holy Grail, our Bible. Among other things, it tells us where to put periods, how to use Em dashes, how to avoid comma splices, and whether to use their, there, or they're. 

You knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you? 

But...

Rules are meant to be broken. Yes, I'm an editor. And, yes, I really did just say that. Hear me out.

About 95% of the time, I follow CMS's editing "rules," as should most authors. However, my fundamental belief in any writing is to have it make sense to the reader first. The reader is more important than "following the rules."

Let me say it again: The reader is more important than following the rules.

I have heard about editors having knock-down-drag-out fights over CMS usage and whether a certain point of punctuation is right or not. Really?!* 

Some of the best authors in our history broke free from the restraints of grammar tradition (think e.e. cummings, for one). The point of any writing is: readability and impact. Instead of getting too hung up in the minutia, consider:
  • HOW does it make your reader FEEL? 
  • WHAT do you want your audience's reading pace to be (fast, slow, jilted, lyrical, trotting)?
  • WHAT will happen if I don't follow the rule? (God won't strike you down with lightening, but yes, you may get a few trolls vomiting on your reviews--but they would do that anyway, because they're trolls.)
Don't mistake my intention here. I'm an editor, and I will tell you what the "rule" is. But I will also offer suggestions on when it's better for the reader to break it. I will probably get hate mail from some editing purists on this one. But my focus isn't on them. I'm not trying to make THEM happy. I'm trying to make readers everywhere happy. I want them to stay in the story. I basically want punctuation to disappear (unless you WANT IT IN THEIR FACE!) so that the reader can focus on the story and keep rolling the wave of your beautifully written prose.

You don't want something to be so jarring that it pulls the reader out of the world you've created for them. And sometimes, following grammar and punctuation to a T can do that and come across as overly stiff and unlike true dialogue. Break the rules judiciously. But don't be afraid to, as long as you are consistent throughout your book (and have consulted with an editor about whether it's one worth breaking or not!).   

4) No Twins Allowed - Have you ever found yourself unable to express a thought without using the same word over and over again?

It happens to the best of us, and is often unconscious. For most, it is hard for us to spot when we use duplicative (or redundant, or to KISS: "the same") words within mere paragraphs from each other. (That's why we use beta readers, critique partners, ARC reviewers, and editors!)

In Big Ass Company, it was especially hard to communicate technological changes without repeatedly using the name of a system or the name of the change. In fiction, most readers will notice if you repeatedly use the same word too much; this is especially true the more uncommon the word is. As writers, we all have what I call "word crutches." Mine is "just." I'm sure I've used it at least five times in just this one blog post.

So what can you do? If you notice a pattern during an edit, especially in close proximity, change one of the words. Find a new and refreshing way to say the same thing. {Check out Word Hippo for fun alternatives, but remember to KISS.} Consider if there is a way to reduce or combine a sentence.

I've read works in progress with the same word being used on average more than once per page for the entire book! Wouldn't you notice if you saw the word jack-rabbit (for example) 350 times in one book? Yeah, me too. So, do a Find and Replace before you send your baby out into the world (an editor helps, too!). It's not that we don't like twins (and, sometimes, repetition can be beautiful, impactful, and lyrical in writing) but, again, use it judiciously for impact; and when you can't, kill off the other baby. 


5) Elevator Pitch - In Big Ass Company, we needed to sum up a complex change that we were implementing that may be costing millions of dollars, and impacting thousands and thousands of employees...all in one teeny, tiny paragraph. If you can't simplify your over-arching "story" in just a few sentences, you're over complicating things. This doesn't mean it's easy. It's not. It just means you need to work on it. Consider it your pitch line (to an agent or publisher), consider it your book blurb for the jacket or Amazon, or consider it your elevator pitch for when friends and family ask, "What's your story about?" But you need to be able to concisely summarize your plot at some point.

Hope some of my time and experience in corporate America has been of help today. I look forward to hearing from you about what you've learned from your job and how it's helped your writing! Please leave stories in the comments below!

* Exception to rule: As a general rule of thumb, I will fist fight to protect the Oxford Comma. Read some pros and cons from The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars. And, with that, I'll leave you on this note:

3 comments:

  1. Loved this! Informative and to the point. Corporate America taught me this: I don't want to go back . . . what does it have to do with writing? I don't want to go back to Corporate America to work 12 hours a day and not have time to write. lol

    By the way, I do try to always keep KISS in mind, I stay away from them humongous words, and I can- on occasions- be a law breaker. :D

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    1. Yeah, I think you've mastered these skills in Kinetic! =) So much of my identity was tied into my "corporate" identity, and I was terrified to leave. It took me two years to feel okay with my new role as stay at home mom. Now, I would never go back, ever, to any Big Ass Company. I hated the politics and constant fear and fast pace. I love my creative life that's about ME and on my timeframe and not forced on me by a corporation. I love the freedom to be with my kids. I don't miss it at all! That said, I'm forever grateful to my husband who works for a large corporate company. It gives me the freedom to be with the kids and fulfill my dreams if writing and editing. Not to mention our home, vacations, benefits, etc. Some of my best years were spent with my company, and it's where I met my husband, so I'm forever grateful for that. =)

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