Or, What Working in Magazines Has Taught Me About Storytelling Part 1: Your Sentences Are Trash.
Someone asked me the other day if it was difficult for me to take editorial notes on my manuscript. I’d labored over it for so long in private. Was it weird to accept input from other people? Was it hard to let go of complete creative control?
I hadn’t really thought about it until they asked, but once I did I realized that while it was a strange transition, I don’t find being edited difficult. At all.
This is probably because I work in magazines, which basically means I get spend all day every day watching my writing be ripped to shreds. Thinking about my friend’s question got me thinking about all the other ways working in the magazine world has impacted* my writing.
I realized that being a capital E Editor has transformed the way I approach writing. Not only am I very comfortable being red penned—spending eight hours a day having your writing destroyed will do that to you—I write differently. I thought it would be fun* to share some secrets of the trade here in the hope that others can benefit.
Secret 1: Structure is more important than sentences.
Growing up, I thought being a good writer meant writing pretty sentences. I was all about alliteration, adjectives, and big words. Purple prose was my friend. Structure, scenes, pacing—these were not ideas I associated with writing. I thought writing was about being an adept juggler of words.
Working in magazines has taught me that writing is really about being a master of story.
In my first month working for a women’s magazine I learned that sentences don’t matter. Why? Because every sentence I labored over was deleted or edited into an entirely different thing. No one cared about my word juggling abilities. No one wanted adjectives or adverbs or prose anywhere close to the color purpole.
When Editors gave me notes, they didn’t ask about specific word choices or draw hearts around my vivid descriptions. Instead they asked things like:
How does this serve the reader?
How can we structure this piece to keep the reader engaged?
What is the best place to enter this story?
What are the scenes?
Being an Editor requires analyzing a piece of writing as a whole. Writing for magazines has taught me that sentences are important, yes, but they’re the last step, the least important component, of storytelling. Why?
Sentences can always be rewritten. There are an infinite number of pretty words available to fill a line. But there’s only one right way to tell a story.
And in order for those pretty sentences to work, the structure has to be strong. Structure is what matters.
^^^ Boromir talking about the Ring of Power, but also probably about pretty sentences.
Working in magazines has trained me not to focus on sentence level writing until the final draft of a piece. Instead, I focus on the structure. What is the architecture of an article, an essay, or a book? How is the piece put together? What are the hinge points? Key scenes? Where is the arc going?
I think of it this way: structure is the foundation of story. Scenes are the scaffolding and walls. Sentences are the decorations.
I don’t know about you, but I would much rather decorate a house than build one. But if the house isn’t built, there’s no walls to paint, no pictures to hang, no furniture to arrange. And if the house is built poorly, it won’t matter how well decorated the place is, when a storm comes, it will collapse.
This was a heartbreaking revelation for me at first. I wasn’t good at structure. I was good at sentences. Who was I, as a writer, if my pretty sentences didn’t matter? If I slaved over a piece, filling it with elaborate metaphors (see the house references above) and vivid descriptions, and then my Editor told me to cut it all and start over, how was I possibly going to come up with that many more beautiful words?
It grounded a truth within me that has become fundamental to my writing:
I have an infinite number of pretty sentences within me.
Someone can cut my story and tell me to start from scratch and that is fine. I can come up with a million new interesting sentences. The well will not run dry.
And guess what? You have an infinite number of pretty sentences within you, too.
So don’t worry about them. Worry about the structure. You have a million chances in a story to wow the reader with your beautiful wordsmithing. You have one chance to get the structure right. That’s what you need to focus.
In conclusion: start with structure. Build scenes. Then work on sentences.
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*Yes impacted. I have to google “affect v effect” every time I want to use it in a sentence. Yes I’m an Editor. No I am don’t “get” grammar.
*I have a weird definition of fun.
Yes! This! *Looks at pile of paper filled with sentences and realizes she just decorated a house without walls 🙂 *