A favorite professor of mine provided a wealth of practical writing and editing advice to his graduate students about preparing papers to be submitted for consideration of publication years ago that I continue to use. It’s applicable to all kinds of works—fiction, non-fiction research, personal essays—and incredibly practical. The overarching thought is a final draft isn’t truly final until you run your piece of writing though several steps to make it stronger. A boiled down set of ideas and active voice sentences make for shorter, sturdier submissions.
Dr. John McKenna (who has been a friend of Fine Lines for years) is the source of what follows below, and he’s a man who knows what editors and readers are looking for. His writing career has stretched out over more than 40 years, and his poetry has been has been included in journals like Ariel IV, Chaminade Literary Review, The Cape Rock, The Climbing Art, English Quarterly, Eureka Literary Magazine, Hawaii Review, Ideals Magazine, Journal of Kentucky Studies, The Louisville Review, Midwest Quarterly, Nebraska Presence: The State of Poetry, and many, many more.
The short version of Dr. McKenna’s practical tips:
- Use Word’s spelling and grammar check. This is a basic, given point. The higher-level approach is that you can go into the program’s preferences and turn on grammar readability analytics, which provide great information on a document’s percent of passive voice sentences and reading grade level. It’s powerful stuff and free. Decreasing an article’s passive voice percentage to below 20 (below 15 or ten is better) and keeping to a reasonable grade level (like eight to 11) helps.
- Read your text out loud. If something sounds odd to your ear it’s worth looking at.
- If you have time, enlist a copy editor. Another set of eyes will spot problems more effectively than a writer working alone. My wife is a nitpicky English teacher, and that helps.
- Look for words like “very,” “really,” “almost always,” in your work and eliminate them. Sentences are stronger without these weasel words that sap the strength of statements.
- If you are writing for yourself, settle on style points you like and stick with them. I like the Oxford comma. I double space after periods. Times Roman is the best font for papers. For citations, it’s MLA all the way. No one can tell me different.
- If you are writing for a publication you want to be in, find out what that publication’s preferred submission standards are and follow them to the letter. Making a written work adhere to someone else’s preferences isn’t selling out how you do things. Instead, it’s showing respect in an attempt to get your ideas to a wider audience.
Finally, once you have a written piece where you want it, go back through and look for opportunities to shorten. People can and do overwrite, and editing out the fat of a paper makes the writing stronger and more memorable. Cutting copy is not a sign of weakness. It’s smart and a sign of writing confidence. Like Dr. McKenna said to a class I was in years ago, “(t)hat 15-page paper that is good is likely even better at 12. It might be excellent at ten.”
Writing takes thought and effort. Taking that written piece and building it for speed takes thought and effort . . . and a willingness to keep working a few steps further.
Guest Blogger Tim Kaldahl is student teaching during the fall semester of 2015. After a 20-year career in public relations, he hopes to become an English teacher. His nonfiction writing has included news articles, press releases, magazine features, and speech writing. He also has written several 10-minute one act plays and a full-length play.