"You're just wordsmithing me!" A common lament when receiving critiques of a work. But it's a dangerous rebuttal to hide behind.
Why? Do readers really notice the minor changes a writer makes, whether at the behest of a talented editor or her own inner demons? With the blurt-and-go habits that social media has wrought, does anyone really care about fine editing anymore?
Turns out, more than I suspected.
My example comes from a humongous software company, (not my employer) who has me under a non-disclosure agreement, so I can't share all the details. But here's the gist:
Imagine a website where people share memories. Joe, for example, can post his favorite shot of Jill. But that favorite shot is of Jill doing tequila shots in her bikini.
Jill is trying to get hired by a financial services firm. All the partners do tequila shots, but not when cameras are clicking.
When Jill discovers Joe's photo of her, she can press a button on the site and ask the administrator to take down the picture. But there aren't any rules against sharing photos of non-naked tequila shot consumption. Now imagine there are millions of Joes and Jills out there, every day. And imagine how mad Jill gets at her friend and at the site. Big problem!
The site adapts by giving Jill the option of directly asking her friend to remove the photo. Without special wordsmithing, the message has potential to damage Joe and Jill's friendship. The site needs these people to get along, and wants them to remain friends and associate their site with good times, not conflict.
What's a software company to do?
They provide sample text, which most customers do not alter, for Jill to send to Joe directly: "Would you mind removing this photo of me?"
Sounds polite, right? Well, it turns out far less than 100% of customers receiving such a message accept it. But would you believe nearly 100% of customers DO respond by removing the photo in question when the sample text is changed to "Would you please remove this photo of me?" And further, a vast majority of surveyed users report being pleased with the process and each other?
That's right. Simply changing two words in the sentence bumped it up a notch on the politeness scale, and changed the behavior of millions of people.
Think about that for a moment. Two words changed the behavior of millions of people.
Where emotions are concerned, the power of even a single word is immense.
It does matter to readers whether or not you make sixteen editing passes to remove your favorite cliches and go-to words. Every word matters, no matter if it is user interface text in a social media website, or the words of fiction that gather a reader up and take her on the journey of a lifetime.
Ask your favorite writer about his or her list. That list of things they go plowing through their own manuscript for, to remove, before sending it out to their agent or book editor. Each of us has a slightly different list, and I've never heard of one that was short.
For example, I can't stop myself from writing an extra sentence at the end of many paragraphs. But I can cut them out with the precision and speed of a surgeon before anyone else sees them.
As you read, you can sense the "rules" by which your favorite author works: Hammett's terseness, Burke's lush descriptions, Lippman's focus on emotion and everyday language, Littlefield's humor, Blackwell's warmth and artistic detail, Parker's constant questioning of manliness, power, and justice. What words pull you in to an author's world? And how much does a mistake in the 'wordsmithing' distract you?