Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor

Book Review:

Getting the Words Right
By Theodore A. Rees Cheney

By Teri Sandstedt
2007, Teri Sandstedt

Getting the Words Right: How to Rewrite, Edit & Revise

By Theodore A. Rees Cheney


A multitude of writing books cover all aspects of writing from plot to publication.  But while most mention the importance of editing, few offer much advice on the mechanics.  A new writer advised to edit may still have no clear idea how to begin.

Getting the Words Right fills this gap with aplomb.  It makes no pretence about trying to teach how to write or sell your work.  Nowhere does Mr. Cheney touch on creating characters or marketing.  Instead he begins with the written word of a finished draft.

His obvious love affair with words begins in the introduction with a paragraph full of synonyms in search of one that summarises the editing process.  He finally settles on revision.  "The idea of re(vision) is clearly there," he writes, "a writer must periodically re(look) at what he or she is writing."

This view permeates Getting the Words Right.  For Mr. Cheney, revision is not a chore to rush through, but a process of re-experiencing the thrill of writing, of finding "the more and the better," and of creating--in every sense of the world--a piece of writing that comes closer to conveying the vision in the writer's mind.  His reader-centric philosophy is as applicable to the writer who wants to touch the soul of the reader as it is to one writing instructions to help readers fix their kitchen sinks.  Communication is always in the forefront of Mr Cheney's advice.

Though he acknowledges that an experienced writer will undergo all aspects of revision more or less simultaneously, Mr Cheney encourages the writer new to editing to look at the process in three stages.  And the book, weighing in at 210 pages, has only three chapters.

The first, and shortest, section is titled REVISION BY REDUCTION.  Here he encourages searching for "opportunities" to get rid of words.  He quotes the Victorian writer Walter Pater: "All art doth but consist in the removal of surplusage," and then proceeds to help his reader understand what that surplus might be.  He writes of Greater Reductions of whole chapters and paragraphs, of Lesser Reductions of a sentence here and there, and of Micro Reductions of using a shorter word in place of a longer.  And he emphasises the impact of blunt Anglo-Saxon words over the longer, possibly more precise, ornate Latin counterpart.

Touching on subjects such as redundancy, tangents, modifiers, and idle words, he uses concrete examples from his own and his students' writings to illustrate each point.

This is the only section which may jar with some writers' perceptions.  His opinion is that professional writers write long first drafts.  Remarks like "Seventy-five percent of all revision is eliminating words already written" and that professional writers "tend (in fact intend) to let it all hang out" may rub raw against writers who produce short first drafts.

However, this book still contains useful advice.  Writers with a short first draft may simply chose to wait until the work is the required length before opening Mr. Cheney's book.  And they will probably find far fewer Greater Reductions than those of us who let it all out.  Alternatively, they may use the chapter on reduction as a reminder of things not to include when beefing up the manuscript.

The second chapter, RETHINK AND REARRANGE, focuses on 'Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis'.  The examples continue as he describes various levels of unity.  Page 48, the beginning of the section on 'Unity of Sentence and Paragraph', is permanently bookmarked in my copy.  I refer to it constantly to re-read his advice on making each sentence flow inexorably into the next.  Another aspect of that topic (on page 71) is the transitions between sentences, covered under the subheading 'Coherence'.

Emphasis, he next describes, is a matter of chemistry.  "[Words] actually change the chemistry of our reader's brain.  Those changes are filed away as bits of memory."  Whether you believe him or not, it gives rise to thought and opens discussion of an otherwise unmentioned punctuation mark: white space.  The last word in a section or sentence stands out.

This chapter flows through the logics of order, repetition, alliteration, and length, and ends with sections on typography and de-emphasisers: tools that should emphasise but don't, either through overuse or abstraction.

The final chapter, REVISE BY REWORDING, touches on style and is the most abstract chapter of the book.  Here Mr. Cheney covers diction: the verbs, nouns, and adjectives that have survived so far.  He appeals to the senses, to rhythm, and to sound, scrutinising each word until it fits most pleasingly with its fellows.  He covers figurative writing, allusion, and personification.  And warns of the dangers of overextended metaphors.  Here also, he discusses cliches and jargon, and ends Getting the Words Right with a selection of common misspellings and commonly misused words.

Once you've read Mr. Cheney's paragraph on Nauseous/Nauseated you'll never say you are nauseous again.


Getting the Words Right:

How to Rewrite, Edit & Revise

By Theodore A. Rees Cheney

Writer's Digest books

ISBN 0-89879-420-X

Author's note:  This article on editing was edited with Mr Cheney's book on my lap and using his advice to the fullest.   Changes include, but are not limited to:

1) cutting the entire last paragraph, following his advice that "you may be surprised and delighted to find the perfect ending (or the makings of one) hiding there, somewhere near the end, but not where you first wrote the ending." (sic)

2) inserting the title at two strategic locations (at the end of a sentence and the end of the review) to emphasize the subject and to fix the title in the chemical memory of the reader.

3) cutting words that don't change the meaning by their omission.  (This reduced the review by about 80 words.)