I did NOT see these edits coming…

If you’re reading the series documenting my journey though Stunk and White’s Elements of Style, you’ll know I was recently made aware of a handy piece of editing to be undertaken on my manuscript: talking in the positive form and my use of the word not.

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 08.46.05As writers, we all know redundant words such as that and very can (and should be) cut during the editing process. Until I read S&W’s book, however, I had no idea how also removing the word not can tighten up one’s prose. Writing in a more positive tone has a wonderful effect on the whole feel of a book… unless of course the mood you’re going for is one of darkness, hesitation and negativity; in that case let words like not, would, could, should, may or might come raining down. If not, dump them.

So, after reading this rule I used the ‘find’ tool and plodded though my manuscript looking for instances where I could replace negative phrases with more positive ones. I found 277 uses of the word not… that’s right, 277.

Here are just a few examples of the changes I made:

he replied, “That is not sufficient.”

he replied, “That is insufficient.”

he was going to be bollocked for not informing his superiors that he planned to play merry-go-round with their twenty-five-thousand-tonne warship.

he was going to be bollocked for neglecting to inform his superiors that he planned to play merry-go-round with their twenty-five-thousand-tonne warship.

“What makes me say that, you ask?” continued Blaythwaite, apparently not noticing Horatio’s distinct change of tone.

“What makes me say that, you ask?” continued Blaythwaite, apparently oblivious to Horatio’s distinct change of tone.

Of course, he’s not aware we’re watching his sister

Of course, he’s unaware we’re watching his sister

“You know, it was once said that a glorious death is to be envied…I’m not convinced of that at this moment.”

“You know, it was once said that a glorious death is to be envied…I’m unconvinced of that at this moment.”

See? much better, I’m sure you’ll agree.

And there were plenty of other negative words to remove as well…

but he now began to worry there might be a chance he’d missed something

but he now began to worry there was a chance he’d missed something

This part of his report signified she may be powering up her drives.

This part of his report signified she was powering up her drives.

“But if the truth were revealed — the truth that was written in your ship’s log all along — then Riggs would be exposed as a coward. You, meanwhile, would rise to become the distinguished hero.”

“But if the truth were revealed — the truth written in your ship’s log — then Riggs is exposed as a coward. You, meanwhile, rise to become the distinguished hero.”

By the time I’d finished this exercise, there were 211 uses of the word not remaining. That’s 66 nots replaced with more positive phases, which is a giant leap towards making the novel tighter and more positive. I also replaced 60-plus uses of the word may. Not bad for a day’s work, eh?

Thanks for reading.

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5 comments on “I did NOT see these edits coming…

  1. Nicely done, especially replacing “might be” and “may.” It does make the writing more lively. However, I think that the “would be”s in the final example should remain, because of the subjunctive mood (see “If the truth *were* revealed”).

  2. Once again, a great read. I’m about 27K into a WIP and I’ve been studying style as I write. I have already caught myself writing “not”, but because of this blog, I consciously stop and consider if there’s a better way to phrase it. I feel things shaping up. I’m a firm believer in editing after completion, but the structure gives me confidence. It’s a little thing, but it helps.

    • gpeynon says:

      Oh yes, I’m a firm believer in editing after completion. In fact, when I embark on my next major project, I’m sure I’ll be breaking every single one of these ‘rules’. I will, however, be far better equipped to go on an editing spree… I hope.

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