Sunday, November 22, 2009

Minor editing thing

I just came across this in revising, and thought it was a good example of avoiding a problem. Here it is:

She handed him the snowcone and left him to return to the ballgame.

Minor, minor, minor! But who returned to the ballgame? Did she leave him (allow him, let go of him so he could go to the ballgame), or did she LEAVE him behind (go back to the ballgame herself)?

It's just one of those constructions that confuses, and shouldn't. So I just edited out the "him" which caused the confusion, and voila! It works, and it's clear that she's the one who went back to the ballgame:
She handed him the snowcone and left to return to the ballgame.

This is the sort of dangerous decision editors have to make. I mean, it's not all fun and games, doing a line edit.

But there is a teachable point here (there always is). Writers should be conscious of the misconceptions caused by sentence construction. Stay in contact with your own meaning there, and make sure that the sentence says that and only that. (Ambiguity is great, but not about which character went back to the ballgame. Be ambiguous about emotion, about theme, about values... but not about character motion.:)

I'm wondering if-- this is such a trivial sentence. But I'm wondering if we make the action slightly different...
She grabbed the snowcone from him and left him to return to the ballgame.

Hmm. No, it's still not clear who went back to the ballgame.

Read consciously, and revise to refine meaning. And it's ALL important. Every sentence. Well, really, it is. Every unintentionally ambiguous sentence detracts from the deliberate ambiguity of more important sentences. Your reader needs to trust you-- needs to believe that THIS ambiguity means something and isn't just an accident.


Anonymous said...

"...needs to believe that THIS ambiguity means something and isn't just an accident."

I like this a lot--especially since it seems to be my natural mode of writing. Ambiguity with purpose. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

She grabbed the snowcone from him and quit him to return to the ballgame. ???

Still muddy.

You've given me yet another reason to get my head back into my MS with fresh eyes. Thanks, Alicia!

Skeptic said...

I think I understand what you're saying - although I think too many unidentified he/she folks in any sentence is confusing (at least for me, or maybe a sign that I need sleep). Why does the sentence need "left" at all?

"She handed him the snowcone and returned to the ballgame." Doesn't "returned" make it clear that SHE is not at the ballgame when she handed him the snowcone?

Or do I need more than 2 hours of sleep ever 48 hours? ;)

em said...

I think it works either way.

Edittorrent said...

Skeptic, yeah, she can just return... doesn't have to "leave to return." Hmm.

Simplify, simplify, always a good idea.

Edittorrent said...

Leona, you have the best NANO record of anyone I know! (Don't ask about my own. :( It's been a hard month!)

Congrats and good work. I can't wait to hear how close you come to finishing the draft!!!


green_knight said...

She handed him the snowcone and returned to the ballgame.

The real problem is that the sentence is out of context. In order to return, you must have gone away first. Leaving a live ballgame - and finding yourself in a place that has snowcones - is highly unlikely; it gives, however, options to use the physical setting (return to the stadium/her seat). If the ballgame is watched on television, then you have a lot of options 'turned her attention back to' would probably be my favorite.

This sentence illustrates the difference between editing and copy editing. With my copy editor's hat on, I'd ensure I understand who is leaving and change it to my first sentence. As an editor (or a writer rewriting), I'd look at the context and try to find words that work harder.

Edittorrent said...

It's a magical ballgame, GK. :)

The only ballgames I've been to lately are at a minor league park, and I think they have snowcones. Well, maybe not. They have cotton candy, and brats, and cracker jacks.

Okay, notice that in my head, "ballgame" means baseball game. And I'm not a baseball fan! I like pro football and college basketball. But notice the power of cultural artefacts. "Ballgame" to me is baseball. Played outdoors. On real grass. During the day.


Leona said...

A lot of non professional ball games, ie adult leagues played by company people, little league, etc, serve snocones and the like in their concession stands.

The last pro baseball I went to was the Mariners at the Seattle Kingdome when I was 15, and that was more years ago than I care to remember. Although, if anyone knows when the Kingdome was imploded they will know the youngest I can be. LOL

As far as the particular sentence goes, I would probably end up rewriting the whole paragraph. I rarely rewrite a single sentence. Usually, if I fix one sentence, I have to restructure the ones around it to fix the flow.

green_knight said...

Alicia, what I was thinking was that a snowcone (I've since looked it up) sounded like something you'd get _at_ a game.

And witha writer's/editor's hat on, I fully agree - it's rare that any one sentence is the problem. As a copy editor, you don't have that option - I try to keep as much of the author's words as I can.

Edittorrent said...

GK, I was thinking that they're standing in the outer circle, where the concessions are, and so she goes back to her seat. It was all clear in my mind's eye, and if I just had a USB port there... okay, that's gross.