I’ve left shaping, the most ruthless writing lesson, for last.
In essence, it’s simple. Shaping means ensuring that every detail of the text contributes to the experience I want the reader to have. Whatever fails to meet that test—be it a word, a comma, a bit of content, a phrase, a sentence, a structural device, or an organizational strategy—has to be fixed or has to be cut.
When I shape, I take myself by the nape of the neck and methodically excise the excesses lingering on the page. That includes those unnecessary flourishes I performed purely to announce my talent and the prettiness I can create. Instead of showing the reader that I can bend words to my will, while shaping I bend my will to what the writing demands.
To shape is to peel away the writer’s ego, leaving only that which executes my intention.
Sound difficult? It is. It would hurt when an editor told me that a word didn’t work or a sentence sounded jarring in the paragraph or my beautiful turn of phrase contributed nothing to my overall story. Not infrequently, I felt a sense of loss deleting the metaphor I had labored over but still sounded clunky. So why suffer through what can be a bruising process? Because, to paraphrase a saying, good writing reads better than mediocre writing looks.
The ruthlessness of shaping gives me the freedom to play and the courage to draft. It is my safety net. I can make a complete ass of myself in the draft—take all sorts of risks, allow myself wild tangents that lead to dead ends, indulge in verbosity and obscurity and all manner of useless showing off—because I know that when I shape I will surrender my ego to the specific demands of the writing, to the experience for the reader that I’ve committed myself to create.
To that end, and as the discussion here explains so well, shaping goes beyond proofreading or copyediting, correcting mistakes or cleaning up problems, important as those activities are. It clears the clutter so that a more powerful and coherent voice can emerge from the text. When I identify what doesn’t belong, I can accentuate what does belong; when I eliminate what impedes my reader’s experience, I can develop the elements that will enhance that experience. Shaping externally makes manifest the internal animating spirit of a given piece of writing.
Journalism taught me that shaping, like the other lessons I learned, happens best as part of a conversation. I can have that conversation with myself by setting my writing aside for a time, then returning to it later with a fresher, more detached perspective. But ideally, that conversation includes others: an agent, an editor, a mentor, writing friends. I’ve come to see the pervasive myth of the isolated, genius author is just that: a myth. We borrow our language from our culture, internalize it, develop it with the help of colleagues, then send it back out into the world for readers to experience. At every step, the work of writing connects to others, and that may be the most important writing lesson of all.