My Supervillain Name Is Unnecessary Preposition Fiend

I got peace and quiet today! 🥳 I didn’t produce many new words because I spent all day whipping a sample submission into shape, but that is now winging through the ether to its destination, so tomorrow, bandit fight!

I don’t ordinarily do a nitpicky revise-as-I-go. My first drafts are usually half the length of my final drafts because I use just enough words to give me an idea how well the structure holds up. I can always add descriptions, emotional nuance, and fully formed sentences (look, there’s no point making the lines pretty while the whole chapter might be destined for the trash), but it’s a waste of time up front if the story underneath is structurally unsound.

This whole story isn’t finished and ready for multiple rounds of revision. I nonetheless needed 20 pages in their best possible condition to submit a sample, which meant giving final-draft treatment to work still in progress.

One thing I’ve learned from automated grammar checkers (not that one) is that I use an overabundance of prepositions.

Prepositions are useful. They exist for a reason. If you cram multiple prepositional phrases into one sentence, it may be grammatically correct and also a sprawling, clunky mess.

I always do a revision pass dedicated to policing my prepositions. Thus, “failing to offer a sufficient bribe to the gods to bring the rains” is tweaked to “failing to offer the gods a sufficient bribe to bring the rains.” It’s a difference of one “to,” but it feels more direct. I also have a subconscious grudge of unknown origin against simple possessives, so I change a lot of things like “the fangs of the dragon” to “the dragon’s fangs.” These may not look like much in isolation, but I do it enough that modifications noticeably change the cadence of my writing.

Nitpicky copyediting issues were the easy part of my day. When submitting a sample to be judged (agent, editor, contest, grant application, whatever), it’s advisable to end the submission at a good stopping point rather than cutting off midparagraph at the length limit. If the rules say “up to 20 pages” and you have a fantastic scene ending on page 18, send 18 pages and leave the reader dazzled and wanting more. (If the rules specify an exact number of pages, don’t send less, but consider taking steps to make that fantastic scene ending land on the last page.)

This submission had a 20-page limit, and I had scene breaks on page 8 (not nearly enough) and page 23 (oops). Format anarchy (fiddling with margins, line spacing, font size) is fine for personal use but disqualifying when everybody’s been given rules to abide by. When you can’t make the page fit the text, you have to make the text fit the page.

The first step is copying the text and pasting into a new document because I won’t want these make-it-fit changes in the final story. Next step is looking for paragraphs with one word on the last line and working to shrink those paragraphs by one word to get rid of the dangler.

That brings us to… 22 pages. 😫

This is where the knives come out and the pain begins. There are things crucial to the story that aren’t crucial to these 20 pages. So we slice away long-range worldbuilding and far-future foreshadowing. I die a little inside because I know these things are establishing information that will be relevant later, but the person reading these 20 pages has no idea. If they were reading the entire story, they would eventually get to a point where this would be missing information, but they’re reading only 20 pages. Anything that doesn’t directly support this particular parcel of text can be sacrificed (within this particular parcel of text—the whole story still needs this stuff, which is why I dumped the sample into a separate document before breaking out the knives).

I did eventually pare down the sample to the next-to-last line on page 20. 🎉 I see the holes where those two pages of missing information belong, but the reader won’t, and the reader’s experience with the words in front of them is ultimately the only thing that matters.

(Personal satisfaction is great, but it’s singular. The moment you share what you’ve written, it’s no longer all about you. The sooner you integrate forethought about the reader’s experience into your writing process, the easier it will be to separate your raw, quivering ego from the product you’re sending out into the world.)

This post was written and scheduled before my adventures with Word (the only file format they would accept), which added three more pages thanks to its craptastic format coding, at which point my attitude regarding chopping for length took a shouty, expletive-laden turn. Needless to say, there weren’t three more pages of “unnecessary” text to cut, so the sample now ends somewhere less optimal than the end of the scene, though still at a better stopping point than the middle of a paragraph. We try, we fail, we go to bed dejected at 5 p.m., we soldier on.

Insert comments below. By submitting a comment, you consent to have your personally identifiable information collected and used in accordance with this site's privacy policy, as stated on the Info page. All links go to moderation; non-spammy ones will be approved.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.