Welcome back to All the King’s Editors, our regular feature — more or less twice a month — in which one of Writer Unboxed’s stable of editors line-edits a few pages that one of you has submitted. This gives you a chance to see editing advice applied in its natural habitat.
If you’d like to contribute a sample to be edited, click HERE for instructions. Remember, editing is as much art as science, and your take on the passage may differ from mine. If so, feel free to join in the discussion at the end.
I hate sirens
. E, especially at night. , Whenever I hear one, slicing through the silence like , sharp as a scalpel . Whenever I hear the screech of an ambulance, I make the sign of the cross. My mother taught me that. “It’s a silent prayer,” she my mother always said. I can’t help but always wonder what awful event the ambulance is rushing toward, triggered a frantic call to 911 and if my prayer made a difference. But, I’m shaking too much at the moment to make the sign of the cross. Because tonight, I’m the event and right now, the gesture feels pathetic, inadequate.  I look down at the red stream of blood. It’s life itself. My heart might explode with fear, with regret, with grief. The EMT speaks urgently over the radio. “BP eighty over sixty 80/60 ; pulse one-twenty 120.” The EMT speaking so urgently into the radio is wearing a His nametag. I can’t make out what it says, even though I’m close enough to clearly see the letters. They just don’t come together into words. That can’t be good. reads “Aiden Strauss.”
The other EMT, the one working to stop the blood flowing from the wound in my belly,  is older, I think. B
, but maybe it’s just the shaved head. I watch his every move as he inserts a needle for an IV, connects a bag, and thumps the line to make sure the clear liquid is flowing. My teeth chatter uncontrollably.
“This should help,” he says, his expression flat, serious. I think he‘s trying
says it as much to assure himself as much that he’s doing his job well as to comfort me. It’s not working. He’s really not doing either. Aiden again announces over the radio “Seventy over fifty, 70/50.” the younger guy says. I want to tell him that can’t be right; it’s too low, but my tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. Tthe words refuse to form.
The bald one stands, then lurches as the ambulance makes a sharp left.
; h He’s too tall for this tiny box careening down the street. The ambulance makes a sharp left turn and he lurches forward. Righting himself, he pulls a zippered bag from the crowded shelves, tears it quickly open s it,  and grabs something. He’s on autopilot, working from muscle memory. But this is my first time.
I expect him to pull out an ampule of something, anything to stop the hemorrhaging, but he’s ripping open packages of gauze sponges.
—tTo soak up the blood that won’t stop flowing, dripping on the floor , a gruesome marker of the crucial window of time that’s closing. Jesus! No! I wish I could make the sign of the cross. I’m not ready for this. I’ll never be ready.
Tell me wWhat . . . you ’re doing.” I’ve found my voice, but it’s so weak ., I don’t recognize it as my own. I’m helpless, at the mercy of their medical knowledge and good judgment. 
The two of them exchange a look that makes my throat constrict
and my silent tears turn into convulsive sobs. Aiden The young guy opens the Plexiglas partition and shouts, to the driver. “ETA?” I had forgotten n’t even thought about the person behind the wheel, who ’ was just as responsible for our wellbeing. A woman’s voice comes across loud and clear,
“Less than ten.” A woman’s voice.
Aiden Young guy places his hand on mine. “We’ll be there soon.” Bald guy is still sopping up blood. I feel faint. I take a desperate, shaky breath and try to distract myself by focusing on my surroundings. It smells like a hospital—antiseptic—a preview of what’s to come.
I mumble a fervent prayer that I make it
won’t be robbed of this precious life before we get to St David’s. My fingers are icy cold, my breathing shallow. A black mist that I can’t stop seeps into my brain. and sSeconds before my eyes close, Aidenyoung guy’s voice cuts through the mist. “ 65/45Sixty-five over forty-five.”
Most of the changes I’ve made have been to control the pace so that it focuses readers more intently on your two key moments – the discovery that the narrator is bleeding out in an ambulance, and the moment he or she passes out. So I’ve compressed the first paragraph a bit to get to the revelation more quickly, then tightened things up a bit through the middle, after the revelation is out, when you want to keep things moving forward.
I also wanted to adjust the way the narrator’s state of mind develops. For most of the piece, you create an effective contrast between the focus on mundane details – the EMT’s baldness, the smell of antisceptic — and the seriousness of the situation. But the sudden explosive prayer mid-scene seemed out of keeping with this contrast. It might work if the panic kept increasing after the prayer, but the narrator seems to settle back into a less panicked state of mind, paying attention to the driver’s gender. Besides, I think you can make a greater impact if you keep your writing understated. This is a case where less is more.
One final note: I took this piece because I had a chance to bring some unique personal experience to the editing. Ten years ago next September, I had a heart attack that literally stopped my heart halfway across the front yard, while they were wheeling me to the ambulance. The paramedics got me restarted twice on the way to the hospital, so I know what it feels like to be at that point where your brain isn’t getting quite enough oxygen. That’s where the failure to read the nametag came from.
- You want to make the transition from the setup to the payoff suddenly, catching your readers by surprise. Don’t linger on the sign of the cross.
- And once you’ve made the reveal, get straight to what’s happening in the ambulance — the blood pressure reading is nicely dramatic. Also, given that you later start a sentence with a BP reading, it seemed less complicated to write the numbers out from the beginning.
- Once you’re past the reveal, you can give the blood more impact by tucking it into a subordinate clause.
- Right now, you want strong verbs rather than weak verbs propped up by adverbs.
- No need to embellish the blood. It’s shocking enough as it is.
- Given the narrator’s inability to talk earlier, this seemed a bit too articulate. Also, we can see that he or she is helpless.
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