by Samuel Freedman
Read avidly and analytically. Don't just read the currently popular narrative writers such as Erik Larson or Susan Orlean; read the authors who created the tradition: Stephen Crane, John Hersey, Gay Talese, J. Anthony Lukas. Read plenty of fiction along with nonfiction. And whatever you read, as you read, consider the book a text in how to research and write book. What worked? What didn't? How was this organism assembled? How does it function?
Understand that reporting enables writing. Even the most stylish prose, absent research of the first order, is ultimately an empty vessel. The writer who has done the indefatigable and intellectually curious reporting can write an accomplished book without being a lyric poet, because he or she has a powerful, important story to tell.
Pay attention not only to the external dramas of your characters but the internal ones — the drama that takes place between the ears, the drama of motivation. There is not richer, more compelling material.
Never be afraid to sound ignorant or foolish. The only stupid question is the one you don't ask.
Take the time to outline before you write, whether you're writing a short feature story or a full-length book. For fiction, an advance plan is a death knell, a curb on the imagination. For nonfiction, it is a blueprint, a musical score, the structure that liberates you to enjoy the writing process because you are always aware of the overarching structure.
Forget about the market. Write only the book you burn to write. Choose a topic you love, because you'll be married to it for years. If you can develop a gripping enough proposal about a vital enough topic, if you can paint memorable characters, then you can get an agent and editor to put aside the conventional commercial wisdom.
Every work of narrative needs to have these elements: character, event, place, and theme.
A book needs to operate on both a temporal and an eternal axis. The temporal axis is what makes your subject newsworthy, for lack of a more artful term, right now. The eternal axis is what will make it enduringly relevant.
Think back to high school chemistry class and the chart of the Periodic Table of the Elements. That chart told you that every thing in the material world can ultimately be reduced to only those elements. As an author, your territory is the Periodic Table of Human Nature. It's all the basic elements of human experience: love, hate, yearning, ambition, disappointment, ecstasy, etc.
Never put too much faith in any list.
THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE OFFERS WRITERS A CORNUCOPIA OF OPTIONS
JAMES J. KILPATRICK, Universal Press Syndicate
The writing art is like every other form of art: Its essence lies in making choices. The painter worries about which color, the musician about which note, the bartender about which gin goes with which vermouth. These are difficult choices, especially for the martini, but someone has to make them.
For the writer, making choices is exceptionally difficult. So many words! So many shades of meaning! We constantly are faced with choices - between one word and its next-door neighbor, between an active verb and its passive cousin, between a noun that's fittin' and a noun that ain't.
These observations are prompted by a letter from Caroline in Seattle. She had successfully doubled a six-spade contract at her bridge club. In a moment of unladylike triumph, having put her opponents down by two, she had exalted their defeat: "You could wriggle out of it!" Driving home, she was struck by a mortifying thought: "Should I have said `wiggle out' instead of `wriggle out'?"
This is a question of formidable magnitude. It has arisen before in these precincts, though not for several years, and demands careful explication. When do we wiggle? Or wriggle? The sages of Merriam-Webster offer little assistance. They define "to wiggle" in part as "to wriggle," and vice versa, i.e., they also define to wriggle as to wiggle. Other dictionaries are equally definitive. The thesauri of Rodale and Roget offer several unsatisfactory options, e.g., to squirm, writhe, shimmy, twist, snake, slink, shake, bump and grind.
The choice lies, where it often lies, in a penumbra of connotation: Which verb more accurately described the fix in which South found herself? Her partner clearly had mixed up her spades and clubs. Defeat could not be avoided. Given these circumstances, it seems to me, she could not wriggle out of the approaching calamity. It's a close call, but to wriggle will always be a twist squirmier than merely to wiggle.
Writers are a blessed lot - English-speaking writers, that is. We are heirs to an unbelievable patrimony. In this regard, sportswriters have all the fun. As I write, the Super Bowl approaches. If the outcome is close, one team or the other will simply defeat, subdue, humble, master, dominate, overcome, outscore or vanquish its foe. If the score is more lopsided, the writer has a wider choice. Rodale offers alternatives that begin with "conquer," and move on through "overthrow" and "overwhelm." Soon we escalate: The winning team clobbers, crushes, smashes, thrashes and tramples upon. It mops up. It wipes out. It trims, trounces, skunks, whips, drubs and routs. It quells, quenches and quashes. It pulverizes the opposition.
Making close choices is a difficult task in any field. For the serious writer, it's a happy misery. We wouldn't have it any other way.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist and author of books on language. Write him at 2555 Pennsylvania Ave., Apt. 902, Washington, DC 20037 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I remember beginning a book one sunny morning when I was a girl. Sitting on the couch beneath a window that opened onto a California day, all brilliant blues and yellows. The writer set her story in wintertime. Bleak, snowy, and cold as February in St. Petersburg. As the afternoon wore on, I read and read, caught up in the story and life of the protagonist. Finally, somewhere near sunset, I finished the story and with a satisfied sigh, closed the book. To this day I can't recall the name of the book or the author's name, but I can remember the surprise I felt when I looked out my window after I closed that book and guess what? No snow! The day was a bright and gorgeous as any California day. I had been so transported by the author's skillful use of sensory descriptions that I was there, in that place in the snow, right along with the characters.
"Readers don't want to merely read about your characters and the world you've created," wrote Los Angeles novelist Janet Fitch, "they want to smell it, touch it and taste it."
Our job as writers is to create a world as rich in sensory stimuli as our own world. Maybe more so, because who is really aware of our sensory world these days? It's through the five senses that we ground our writing in the concrete - the sight, smell, sound, taste, and feel of it. From this physical world, our writing can reach out from the page and into the sensory perceptions of the reader and, if we've done a good job of it, the piece comes to life.
Now, as you read this, pause to take a sensory inventory of the place where you are. Look around you and notice what you see, how things look. Colors, shapes, textures. The way the light falls against your desk, the shadows on your hands.
Breathe in and say what you smell. Say it out loud. Left-over coffee. 60-watt light bulb, on too long, a faint burning smell. Daffodils wilting in the vase on the bookshelf, that murky, swampy smell of three-day old bouquet water.
Next, listen to the sounds of your space. Computer humming, patient, steady with its occasional chewing of bytes, swallowing. Airplane taking off, grumbling against the night sky. A 737, you think. Maybe bound for Las Vegas, Friday night sounds aboard - reckless laughter and high hopes.
Feel the chair beneath your bottom, the keys under the soft pads of your fingers, smooth and slick, the little nubs on the k and d keys like tiny road bumps to let you know you're home safe.
Pick up that cup of cold coffee and notice the heft of it against your thumb. Trails of coffee dried in the muddy shape of Illinois up near the curve where your lip presses against the cup's edge. It tastes like… that love affair you ended earlier in the day: bitter and discarded.
Writing from the senses provides a richness, a layering to description. But often, we don't enter the sense directly; we approach it obliquely. One thing tastes like another smells, a sound is a color, an emotion feels like something looks. This effect of using one sense to describe another is called synesthesia. A brassy blonde, a buttery sun, the violet hour, the saxophone sound of midnight, a mole like a raisin, the taste of yesterday: yellowed and brittle.
This effect works so well for writers because it offers up multiple sense perceptions in one word. A buttery sun for example, gives us color, texture, taste, and smell. Same with brassy. (And while brassy blonde works for my example, it's too clichéd to use any other way. So, too, might be the combination of yellowed and brittle.) (What's a cliché? someone asks. Novelist and short story writer Kate Braverman tells her students, "For you, it's anything that's ever been used before." She doesn't smile when she says it either.) Back to the examples. Notice how a mood is created by "the violet hour," and "the saxophone sound of midnight."
Sense is also a way to enter memory. Who can say "the smell of cookies baking" that everyone present doesn't get a memory, intact and complete of some time, some where from our individual pasts. Smell is the one sense that can evoke complete memories: the whole setting, the people who were present, what they were doing, the conversations or other sounds, the emotional tone of the scene. Think of Proust and his madeleines.
Begin with one sense - the smell of wild lilacs in the back country -- and soon you will be far into the memory of the time you lived on that acreage 35 miles out of town where you and your husband planted avocado trees along the hillside and remodeled an old farmhouse. You'll be knee-deep in the dusty smell of the hill as you cleared away brush, your boot heel crashing through the fragile burrow of a rabbit's hole, the air hot and dry as an old woman's skin. You keep writing and find yourself describing the way the sun burnished his hair dark copper, like an old coin and that some men need space around them like the roots of the trees you're planting. The Fuerte and the Haas and the Bacon with its deep green leaves and trunk thick as your wrist.
Here's an exercise to try in your notebook: Begin writing practice sessions with "I remember … " exercises, filling in the I remember with a sense. For example, "I remember tasting …" and "I remember hearing…" then follow the trail of the memory expanding into a 18 or 22 minute free-writing exercise.
Do this with each of your senses. Or fill a page with short three- or four-sentence memories, beginning each subsequent "I remember…" immediately after you've completed the previous, without stopping to think or trying to remember. Just let one image follow the other, like rain falling on leaves. After you've filled a page with these short journeys, reread what you've written and choose one that resonates with you and expand it, filling in the edges and layering the center.
Imaginings, fantasy, the psychological stuff of good writing, all these can be entered through the senses. Use sense words to portray the emotions and attitudes of your characters and the tone and timbre of your piece. A sunrise can be as faded as the dying roses on the far edge of the garden, or as lively and fresh as the pink skin of a baby. It can be slippery or phony - a dishonest yellow, like oleomargarine -- heavy or light, bright or harsh.
Here's another exercise: Do a paragraph describing a room so that it's bright and hopeful, optimistic. Now do a second paragraph describing that same scene from a dull, depressing, or pessimistic perspective. Try others: threatening, peaceful, exciting, warm and friendly, edgy and a little dangerous. Each time accessing mood or tone through the sensory.
Diane Ackerman wrote a stunning book, A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES, (Random House, 1990) that takes the reader through all the facets and possibilities of our senses. She has a poet's voice, a researcher's thoroughness, a storyteller's sense of the dramatic and enough information, lore, history and observation to satisfy all our senses. It's worth a read. And a permanent place on your bookshelf. I use it for inspiration and evocation.
Your senses will never let you down when you're circling around your writing, looking for a place to begin. And when you want to bring a piece to life, you need only to turn to your own senses. There you will find riches.
by Thom Barker
"You should really have something to fall back on in case that doesn’t work out."
Chances are if you’ve ever had the dream of pursuing a career in writing, you’ve heard words to that effect. The parents, guidance counsellors or friends who utter them are, for the most part, well meaning. But well meaning or not, the implication is that you don’t have the talent to "make it" and even if you do, they — the people who care about you — don’t want to see you struggle in obscurity, die young from alcoholism and only achieve celebrity after you’re gone, as the age-old cliché predicts.
But it’s really just a defeatist attitude cloaked in helpful pragmatism that’s hard to ignore since most of us already possess enough self-defeatism that we don’t need anyone else’s help to fail.
Self-defeatism starts with ego. You need to have a strong one, if only to endure the inevitable rejection, but by the time we’re adults, few people have a strong enough belief in their talent to negate the perception of what a long shot it is to achieve success in their creative field of choice.
At the end of elementary school, we’re still dreamers. Every time we step onto the church stage for the annual Christmas pageant, it’s the stage at Carnegie Hall; every time our mom hangs on the fridge a drawing we’ve completed, she’s a curator at the Louvre; and every time we put that final period at the end of a short story, the very next thing we think we’ll write is our acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature.
But by the end of high school, we’ve started to buy in to the myth that we should maybe have something to fall back on just in case our dreams don’t work out. A D- here, a C+ there on writing that we thought was Pulitzer material, four or five years of being put down by jocks and gentle urging by well-meaning authority figures have us looking for a compromise job in a "safe" profession.
But that too is predicated on a few self-defeatist misconceptions, the first of which is the definition of success. The approach we take in our fallback careers is a tried-and-true process. You get the training you need to qualify you for an entry-level job. You work hard and learn the ropes so you can get promoted. You put in your time, pay your dues, rise through the ranks and consider your career successful if you can manage to raise your kids, afford a comfortable life with a few perks and are able to look forward to retiring with enough time and energy left to know your grandchildren, travel a bit and play some golf or whatever strikes your fancy.
The kicker is that those things don’t need to be conflicting desires. We would never dream of defining success in terms of the overnight fame, fortune and critical acclaim we apply to our writing careers.
I spent five years getting a University degree and another nine garnering experience to become a senior-level project manager in the high-tech business. Conservatively, that’s somewhere around 30,000 hours, not to even mention a lifetime developing all the other skills that it takes to make it in that business.
That’s the problem with dreams, though, they tend to gloss over all that-in between stuff and demand a quantum leap from talent to stardom. And maybe on some level we realize that, so we don’t immediately buy in to the "something to fall back on" myth. Maybe we go out and struggle with our art for a few years and when we discover we can’t make the leap it’s because we’re misunderstood or unlucky or, heaven forbid, maybe we really don’t have what it takes.
But it’s not a matter of having what it takes; it’s a matter of doing what it takes. Michael Ondaatje did not spring forth from the womb generating award-winning fiction. When The English Patient won the Booker Prize in 1992, he was 50 years old and had been studying, teaching and writing for at least 30 years.
I’m not suggesting that anyone who has ever been born has the same capacity for literary accomplishment as the Ondaatjes of the world. And my own ego is certainly not so overdeveloped as to compare myself with him. But I have to wonder what might have happened if I had put 30,000-plus hours of my time, energy and talent into developing a writing career instead of a career in high-tech project management. Today, I might not be helping to adapt my Booker prize-winning novel into an Academy award-winning motion picture, but I’d probably be making a pretty decent living doing what I love to do.
Then again, maybe we never bought into the "something to fall back on" myth. Maybe we never lost the conviction that we do have the talent. Maybe we did work at it, read everything we could get our hands on and wrote every day, yet we still didn’t get anywhere. It’s easy to get disillusioned, start doubting, blaming, resenting. Maybe publishers really do have their heads up their asses. Maybe the reading public really is too ignorant to recognize our inestimable genius.
Or maybe, just maybe, we forget that it’s a business just like any other business. Yes, it’s competitive. What business isn’t? Yes, it’s a lot of hard work. What business isn’t? Yes, there is a certain amount of insecurity. But in retrospect, the only security we ever really have comes from putting in the time, working hard and knowing what we’re doing. Yes, it requires a bit of luck but the funny thing about luck is that the harder we work, the luckier we get.
In an ironic twist of fate, I recently found myself needing something to fall back on from my fallback. A year ago I made the decision to leave my high-tech job and return to Canada from Texas for family reasons. It couldn’t have been at a worse possible time in the high-tech industry. Despite all my qualifications and experience, it seems my luck had run out. Try as I might, I could not find a job. And, having been out of the country for close to six years, I didn’t qualify for any employment or social benefits.
It’s amazing how self-defeatism goes out the window, when survival is on the line. Fortunately, I’ve been writing all my life, starting with superhero comic books when I was seven. In high school I fancied myself a budding poet and novelist. This led to song writing in my twenties and a novel that I keep threatening to rewrite for the third time. I worked for my university newspaper in my junior and senior years, and dabbled in the periodical market after that. I even started in the high-tech business as a tech writer.
After all of that, it turns out I’m a halfway decent writer. I’ve been working at it full-time for the last eight months and it’s been paying the bills for the most part, sometimes even on time. But that modicum of success has had very little to do with actual writing. I spend maybe 20 percent of my time writing — including research, interviews, and so on. The rest of it is doing the business part of the business. And, for every thousand words I publish, I’m probably producing 20,000. Who knows how many millions it took to get here.
So, my life is not a whole lot different now than it was when I was in the high-tech business. I work full-time and write part-time. The only difference is that the work is in support of the writing and the writing has some financial benefit. It has come back full circle. What is behind the dream? Why do I want to be a writer in the first place?
Why does anyone do it? One of the worst things that another writer ever wrote about me as a writer was: "Thom uses the medium to express himself, to clarify how he feels." I hated that because it somehow seemed to negate the validity of what I do. Or did it? Maybe I just hated it because it’s true. This essay is the ultimate reflexive exercise — writing about writing to make sense of why it is I write.
But whether it’s for emotional clarity, fame and fortune, entertainment, to influence or inform, isn’t it, in the end, a quest to find meaning in life? Isn’t that the goal of all human endeavours, even the mundane task of making a living?
It’s really not such a long shot. The biggest problem with following your dreams is not being successful: it’s defining what success looks like; understanding what the dream really means; knowing what it is that we are truly seeking. The rest of it is just time, a lot of hard work, some luck and a little talent.
Thom Barker is a creative schizophrenic shunning specialization in pursuit of the perfect bittersweet irony. He is a writer, musician and visual artist squandering his B. Sc. in Ottawa. You can reach him at http://www.thombarker.ca
- link no longer available.
Experiencing writer's block? Maybe you need to work harder on working less.
by Michael J. Vaughn, Writer's Digest
Every writer knows you can't sit down in front of a notebook or computer screen and wait for ideas to simply show up. You'd better have some ideas before you sit down, and you'd better figure out a system for harvesting those ideas.
Ironically—and happily—one of the best ways to achieve this is to do...nothing. Well, not nothing, exactly. Think of it as "creative lollygagging."
Picture yourself as a satellite dish. The way a dish receives signals is a decidedly passive activity, but nothing comes in until the equipment is properly charged and opened to the universe. A few years ago, ensconced in one of my "brewing" modes—done with my last novel, waiting for the next to come a-knockin'—I decided to take my dish to the beach and open 'er up.
About a half-mile into my walk, I noticed a friendly spark among the small rocks and found bits of frosted glass—triangular shards worn to a gem-like smoothness by sand and waves. I remembered the fascination I felt as a child—that nature could take a piece of man-made litter and make it so beautiful. I walked a little farther, discovered another smattering and had the following thought: What if someone became so obsessed with frosted glass that he decided to make it his life's work?
I didn't know it yet, but the satellite dish had just taken in an entire novel.
But not just that: It also took in the process for imagining a novel. In the following months, as I continued my beach hikes in search of frosted glass (if my character was obsessed, I had to be obsessed), I discovered an intriguing pattern. I arrived at the beach between chapters (my characters dangling in midair, awaiting their instructions); I left with pocketfuls of glass and my next chapter, nicely mapped out in my head.
If you subtly stimulate your other senses—in this case, tactile (the glass) and auditory (the ocean)—you can take the "edge" away from your conscious, purposive mind, return the satellite dish to a state of active passivity and open yourself to the forces of serendipity. And if you come to the beach for frosted glass, you'll also get ideas for your story, slipping in along your peripheral vision.
A CREATIVE LOLLYGAGGERS TO-DO LIST
The key to successful lollygagging is to do it creatively. So what makes lollygagging creative lollygagging? Let's look at the basic elements. First, consider activity. We are not talking about sitting around on a couch. Just as a satellite dish needs electricity, you need some blood pumping into that brain. Next, consider low focus. The activity shouldn't be so intense that you don't have time to think (Grand Prix and ice hockey are out). Look for a mellow pursuit, surrounded by low-level distractions. Finally, consider separation. If you don't hie thee away from the computer, the television, the bills and the kids, you're headed for a mighty wall o' brain-lock.
Following are some specific types of creative lollygagging to try:
• Mobile (because it's difficult to preoccupy a moving target): biking, hiking, kayaking, rollerblading, a long road or train trip
• Idle pursuits: fly-fishing, horseshoe-tossing, kite-flying, a solo game of eight-ball, a solo game of bowling, a session at the batting cage or driving range
• Boring jobs (for those who simply must be productive): paint the garage, rake the leaves, wash the windows, clean out the roof gutters, mow the lawn
• Dilettantism (effective only if you try something for which you have absolutely no talent): abstract painting, making up tunes on the piano, creating monsters from modeling clay, inventing a ballet to your favorite symphony, pounding on a conga drum.
THE COFFEEHOUSE RITUAL
If you'd like to take this one step further, try incorporating your lollygagging directly into your writing ritual. The Coffeehouse Ritual is a routine I've followed for 15 years, with excellent results (in fact, I used it to write this story).
1. Pick your place: Locate a coffeehouse that's a mile or two from your home (ideally, a 30- to 45-minute walk).
2. The walk-up: Head off at an easy pace (no power-walking, please) and let your thoughts drift. For the first few blocks, you'll likely be occupied by small matters of the day. Don't worry—this is a necessary step, one that will clear out your mind for the work ahead. As you pass the halfway point, your thoughts should turn naturally to the project at hand.
3. Write! Buy a large beverage, find a nonjiggling table and go to it. Note: Keep your coffeehouse sacred. Be polite but not excessively friendly to baristas and regulars. If a friend drops by, tell him that you have five minutes to talk, but then you really need to get back to work. If he's not buying it, tell him you're on deadline.
4. The walk-down: The hike back home is often the most rewarding part of the process. Still adrift on your creative buzz, you may find that your satellite dish is more open than ever. It's a great time to think about what you've written and to contemplate future developments.
As I continued taking my walks along the ocean, searching for inspiration and frosted glass, it began to seem, in fact, that my novel was scattered along the beach, like pirate's treasure, and all I had to do was come along and scoop it up. The real secret, however, came from my protagonist, Frosted Glass Man, as he was helping a neophyte who'd lost her "glass vision."
"Let me guess," he said. "Suddenly you can't tell frosted glass from the Queen of England, and you're sort of losing your place on the sand. Feeling disoriented."
"Yeah. That about describes it."
He grinned. "You're trying too hard. When you begin to lose your sight, just rub the last piece you found, and listen to the ocean."
" Give, give, give -- what is the point of having experience, knowledge or talent if I don't give it away? Of having stories if I don't tell them to others? Of having wealth if I don't share it? I don't intend to be cremated with any of it! It is in giving that I connect with others, with the world and with the divine."
These are two pieces off NPR, about the writer, Isabelle Allende. In one, she discusses her latest book and parts of her writing process. In the other, she shares her most important belief for "This I believe." I choose these pieces, because she shares many lessons that we can translate into our own writing. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6442719
(click the extra link on her writing process for some added insight)http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4568464
~Ms. Allende writes about things from a deeply personal level. She writes what she knows best. She chose to tell a story involving the Spanish conquerors and the native Chilean indians, because she comes from both, and feels she can speak for both.
~Her philosophy on life translates into her writing "You only have what you give. It's by spending yourself that you become rich." Why is it important to "give" as a writer? To share the stories in your heart?
The following guidelines are given in Mark Twain's satirical essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," and were selected from a larger list.
Any writer, but especially students trying to write acceptable essays or other prose for a grade, would do well to follow these rules.
1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
2. Episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts and shall help develop it.
3. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader [as "sophistication" or "scientific truth"] by either the author or the people in the tale.
4. Events shall be believable.
5. The author shall: Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
6. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
7. Eschew surplusage.
8. Not omit necessary details.
9. Avoid slovenliness of form.
10. Use good grammar.
11. Employ a simple and straightforward style.
For full text see here: http://users.telerama.com/~joseph/cooper/cooper.html "The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say."
- Mark Twain's Notebook, 1902-1903
"The feeling of inferiority rules the mental life and can be clearly recognized in the sense of incompleteness and unfulfillment, and in the uninterrupted struggle both of individuals and humanity." ~Alfred Adler
You know how, when you're watching a speaker, you can tell if he or she is nervous? There are those tell-tale signs: trembling hands and voice, lack of eye contact, perspiration, twitches, lots of "ummms," and a myriad of other idiosyncratic gestures and signs that show he or she is not fully at ease in front of an audience.
Did you know that I can spot those same tell-tale signs in your writing?
If you're not completely confident in your skills as a writer, and in what you've written in particular, there are warning signs that can tip off an editor or reader. I find them in query letters all the time, and, to a lesser extent, in articles and stories themselves.
The first tip-off? Stilted language.
Stilted language is formal and proper. It employs big words when small ones would suffice just fine. It "sounds" canned and over-prepared.
Example: "Marjorie was required to submit to a physician's examination prior to the interview in which she would be considered for the position."
Doesn't it sound like the writer is working too hard to impress here? Like she's trying to SOUND like a journalist? "Real writers" don't have to use big words and serious language to effectively get their point across. In fact, the more direct and simple the language, the better.
"Marjorie had to go for a doctor's exam before the company would consider her for the job."
Is it "dumbing down" your language? No. It's cutting through the thicket and allowing the words to flow as naturally as they would in your speech—just with the benefit of editing. It's being purposely as understandable as possible, so that if someone was skimming your query/article quickly, he would still get the meaning, without tripping over S.A.T. words or unfamiliar phrasing.
Many professional writers (myself included) believe in writing first drafts quickly, so as not to give our brains enough time to censor, doubt, and question each word as it flows through us and onto the paper. When I write, whether it's an article, story, or just about anything else, I pretend I'm talking to a friend. I want my friend to hear about this interesting thing I learned. So, I tell him in the same manner I'd tell him if he were sitting next to me in my living room. I don't need to impress him (or confuse him!) by "spicing up" my writing with words like "proceed" and "consume" when the words "go" and "eat" would have worked just fine.
Stilted language is a sign that the writer is not confident that her OWN words—the words she would really use—are good enough. It's puffing up the writing to suit an editor. But think about this: the more formal and convoluted the language, the harder the editor will have to think just to get through the piece. Too much thinking equals rejection, unless you're writing for an academic or very intellectual market. Editors want clarity. They don't want to have to reread sentences to get the meaning of your words. Once the eyes glaze over, you're in trouble.
Another giveaway: namby-pamby qualifiers that shift the responsibility for the statements away from the author. Example: "It seemed to onlookers that Mayor Ross might possibly have been suffering from exhaustion."
Were you one of the onlookers? Was it pretty obvious that the guy was falling asleep at the podium? Then don't shift the observation into a passive voice. Be confident in your own powers of observation and reasoning. "Mayor Ross seemed exhausted."
The same goes for overuse of "experts" and studies when none are needed. We all know that you're supposed to get eight hours of sleep a night, right? Then why do people insist on writing, "According to doctors, eight hours of sleep per night is optimal"? You don't need the doctor to say that for you. If you know it to be true, you can skip the "according to doctors" and get straight to your point, without pulling out of your own voice.
Another example: "usually," "probably," "most likely," "often," etc. Watch for these words in your writing. There are times when they'll be necessary—and, then again, there are plenty of times when you can omit them.
I once had a psychology professor who prefaced every statement she made with the words "basically," "usually," or "typically." It undermined what she was saying, because it felt like she was unsure of herself. When you write these words, it translates to uncertainty—did Mary Beth go to church on Sundays, or did she "typically" go to church on Sundays? If she skipped once or twice a year, she went. You don't need a qualifier. If she skipped every other week, then you can add a qualifier.
Be confident in what you are writing. Every time you shift away responsibility for your words by attributing them to someone else, or by watering them down with adverbs, you give the reader leeway to question whether or not you really know what you're talking about.
Another tip-off: fear of making a point.
Similar to the problem with too many qualifiers, pulling out of your article too soon shows a lack of confidence in your message. Let's say you wrote an entire article about how a certain kind of duck is going extinct. You talked about all the reasons why it's happening, and you explained what people can do to help. Then you end it with a lame conclusion like "Further studies are needed" or "Experts will continue to examine the causes..." blah, blah. Again, if you know that what you've just said is true, you don't need to end off with anything that detracts from your conclusion. Sure, further studies may be conducted, but does that take anything away from the evidence you've just reported? Let your point come through loud and clear. Make the decision to take a risk and be accountable for your words.
You don't need to tie it all up neatly with a moral, a la Aesop's Fables ("And that's why we must all stop throwing plastic in the garbage"). Just let the strength of your entire article carry the message—let your readers come to the conclusions to which you've directed them, and don't let them second-guess those conclusions by giving a wishy-washy ending.
Be bold. Be confident. And let your very best writing shine through.
Jenna Glatzer is the editor-in-chief of Absolute Write (www.absolutewrite.com), where writers can get a free list of more than 180 agents who are open to new writers! She is also the author of OUTWITTING WRITER'S BLOCK AND OTHER PROBLEMS OF THE PEN and other books for writers, which you can read about at http://www.absolutewrite.com/jenna/books.htm
if you want to make her day.
Verse May Not be High Art, but it Trains Writers to Heed Cadence
by James J. Kilpatrick, The Writers Art
If you aspire, dear reader, to write really good prose, first hone your skills by writing verse - that is, by writing verse that scans and rhymes.
That advice is prompted by a story in The New York Times three weeks ago. Two professional poets, Paul Muldoon and Thylias Moss, accepted a good-natured challenge from an Internet site. They had 15 minutes to compose a poem. The assigned topic: "Writing poetry is an unnatural act." They could choose their own prosodic form. There were no prizes.
Both chose to write in free verse. Muldoon, who holds a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, used his whole 15 minutes to write "Aim." If the Times quoted it exactly, his poem read, in full: "The sense of the poem as having always been,/as the redknot is bent on that selfsame patch/of tundra grass on which it was hatched."
Let us assume, generously, that as a matter of grammar the subject of Muldoon's epic was "sense." If that subject had a predicate, it flopped away in translation.
Moss used only 13 minutes and 19 seconds. She is a professor at the University of Michigan; she has written 10 books. Her untitled poem read, in full: "my headache remains/a kind of proof of the seriousness/of what is locked in my brain, everything tucked in there, fusing there/into a feeling so tremendous it hurts."
Now, the eggs laid by Mr. Muldoon and Ms. Moss were, arguably, poetry. I'm suggesting that readers who want to improve their style write verse. There's a difference.
Lexicologists have trouble defining "poetry." The Oxford American Dictionary cops out: Poetry is "the art or work of a poet." Right on! The Encarta dictionary says, rightly, that poetry is distinguished from "verse" by its high quality, emotional sincerity or profound insight. Encarta defines "verse," wrongly, as poetry that is "trivial in content or inferior in quality." American Heritage sniffs that verse is "metrical writing that lacks depth or artistic merit."
Well, pooh to Encarta and American Heritage! Verse is an art form to be defended. Metaphorically, it may not be pheasant, but it can be excellent fried chicken. And writing rhymed verse - jingles, limericks, couplets, quatrains, even sentimental sonnets - is superb practice for anyone who aspires to become a better writer.
Although poetic cadence can be overdone, the best prose falls trippingly on the ear. If you're writing a bursar's report on accounts overdue, rhythm is not a concern, but listen! Even if you're assigned only to write a report on air-breathing arthropods, you can try your hand with your own duck-tailed dactyl or a triple-tongued trochee. Let's see: An insect hymenopterous/has jaws that are simply prepopterous./His formidable mandibles/chew like so many cannibles/and his appetite is often unstopperous. And that won't take more than half an hour, either.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist and author of books on language. Write him at 2555 Pennsylvania Ave., Apt. 902, Washington, DC 20037 or at email@example.com.
Journalists understand a few things about writing well: Be sharp. Be concise. Use action verbs. Borrow these strategies from them, but let them keep the moral ambiguity and the ruthlessness. I guess it's just a hazard that comes with the territory. The following is something I saw on Poynter Online, a website for journalists.
Clearer, Stronger Writing
By Al Tompkins
1. Tell the story in three words or OTPS, one theme per story, one thought per sentence. Select, don't compress, what goes in your stories. The stuff that does not make it into the story will make great tags, follow ups, or additional material for Internet sites.
2. Tell complex stories through strong characters. Readers and viewers will remember what they feel longer than what they know. Characters help me understand how the complex facts you uncovered affect people.
3. Objective copy, subjective sound. Let the characters evoke emotions, express feelings, and give opinions in their soundbites. The journalists' copy should contain objective words, facts, and truths.
4. Use active verbs, not passive ones. Consider the difference between "the gun was found" and "the boy found the gun." Ask "Who did what?" and you will write stronger and more informed stories.
5. No subjective adjectives. Your lawyer and your viewers will thank you. No more "fantastic-unbelievable-gut wrenching" or "mother's worst nightmare."
6. Give viewers a sense for the passage of time in your story. Make me feel you have spent some time by showing me the character in more than one setting, in more than one situation.
7. Remember, leads tell me "so what," stories tell me "what" and tags tell me "what's next."
"Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate it. A good writer turns fact into truth; a bad writer will, more often than not, accomplish the opposite." ~Edward Albee