Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Editing: The importance of choosing the right word

I'm in the middle of edits to the followup to Chasing Filthy Lucre. I've had a couple of people look at the story. They both like it, but also both have suggested fixes, so that's what I'm doing now. I'm working in the stuff I agree with. Turning my nose up at the stuff I don't. I'm kidding. There's very little I disagree with.

But in this process I'm also looking hard at each sentence. Can that one be tighter? Is that one too tight? I'm also considering word choice. Dropping cliches. Tweaking certain phrases to add the right amount of power, to convey the exact message I want them to.

A lot of people have a similar philosophy about first drafts that I do. Get it out quick. Recognize it will be dirty. You can clean it later. Well, for me, now is later. All those spots where I just left some filler sentence, phrase, or word have to be cleaned up now.

This has me thinking a lot about the power of the right word, and how it's easy to find a word that's really close but still not be just the word you need. I've got an example of this. It comes from church. We sing Chris Tomlin's Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone) on a somewhat regular basis, at least we did. But when we sing it we change one word. For reference, here's the song.

The line we change goes like this:
 "My chains are gone. I've been set free. My God, my savior, has ransomed me."

We change it to this:
"My chains are gone. I've been set free. My God, my savior, has rescued me."

Seems like a minor change. The basic meaning of the line is there. God did something for you that you couldn't do for yourself. Except the original line is saying so much more than that. It's not talking about being rescued. It's talking about being ransomed. It's talking about someone, God in this case, paying a price that you couldn't pay to pull you out of spot that you couldn't get out of on your own, in this case an eternity spent separated from Him. Ransomed is rescued on steroids. Ransomed is sacrifice. Ransomed, if you're a Christian, is what the faith is all about. It's so much more than rescued.

That's what I'm keeping in mind as I'm hip deep in edits. Every word is powerful. Using one instead of the other can change a meaning dramatically. I know that as a reader it can be easy to just pass over words when you're sucked into a good story. But if you can remember to do it next time you've got a book in your hand, look at the words the author chose. They aren't all going to be ransomed vs. rescued. Sometimes they are just words. But if you find a passage that you really like, one that feels powerful to you, consider the words the author is using. There's a better than zero chance that there was some serious consideration into what made it to the final page. And if you're a writer searching for the right words, happy hunting.


  1. "Ransomed is rescued on steroids."

    Terrific example of how a simple word change can make a huge difference in meaning. Love that song.

    Happy editing :-)

  2. I'm not one of those writers who likes editing. I'm impatient, I think. Once the first draft is done I want to move on to other things. I've got too many story ideas. Editing can feel a bit like wasted time. I'm covering the same ground over and over.

    Feels a little different this time. I'm seeing the odd bits of narrative fall away. The story is getting tighter, more focused. It's becoming more precise, and I like it a lot more now than I did. And a lot of that is because of tweaks in word choice.