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Mental Frameworks: Drafting and Editing

This is a simple list and explanation of some mental models I keep in mind when writing. Think of these as the flight controls. Each lies on a spectrum, and you can adjust these levers based on what you want your writing to do. When editing, I'll consider each lever sequentially. Perhaps I'll give one read-over focused on sensory language. When that is done, I may do another where I concentrate on sentence length. This list is not exhaustive. These are just a few of the frameworks I use most often.

Sensory v. Descriptive (Show v. Tell): Descriptive language is detailed and impersonal. It tells the reader what is happening instead of forcing them to experience it. This is better for conveying facts and succinct/precise recounting of events.

Sensory language is a mechanism to "show" the reader. You can make them feel the experience by focusing on the five senses. Sensory information can evoke a connection and intense emotional response in the reader. This can help with a call to action or make them feel closer to the characters in your writing.

Active and passive voice: Common grammatical structures different from tone. Active voice is the structure in which the sentence's main subject executes the main verb. In passive voice, the main noun of the action becomes the direct object and is acted upon by something else. Active voice can be more precise, concise, and often easier to follow. It can increase reading speed (and, by extension, the speed at which the reader perceives your story.) Passive voice literally objectifies your subject. It can emphasize the powerlessness of the subject or divert attention to another subject. It is common in professional language (though we all pretend it isn't) when you want to divert attention from a single entity.

Formal v. Informal seems self-explanatory, but often it goes unconsidered. Thinking in terms of formality forces you to consider your audience and your relationship to them. Formality can project authority, but when dialed up too high, it can be pretentious and appear that you are trying to hide your ignorance by obfuscating. Informal language can build closeness, aid in clarity, or project confidence. But if taken too far, it can come off as amateurish and ignorant.

Personal v. Impersonal. Am I a character in my story? Should the reader hear my voice? Do I want to use personal pronouns to create a human interaction with you as you read? Or is this information best portrayed without the interference of personality. An elevated perspective provides a sense of objectivity and situational awareness.

Speed, Slow v. Fast. Some tools can accelerate or decelerate the pace at which the story flows. Larger words and complex grammar make the reader slow down or become confused. Common vocabulary, repetitive sentence structure, and simple ideas allow the reader to speed up. Suppose you're writing an academic piece for an expert audience. In that case, the former may be more appropriate since the reader is already invested. However, in fiction faster structures are the way to go if you are trying to build suspense or a sense of urgency.

Final Note:

These tools are not laws. Nothing in art, and therefore nothing in writing, is absolute. Rules and conventions only exist so that some maverick can come to break them and be called a genius. If I can offer a final advice, it would be: just write. Start using these frameworks in the editing process only. Worrying too much about them when drafting will prevent you from getting anything done at all. I am a firm believer in the shitty first draft.

If you have similar or different tools and frameworks, let us know!


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