Good writing does not waste words. Good writers are ruthless in their editing. They eliminate vague, general words, preferring specific and concrete ones. They choose active verbs over wordy, passive constructions. Good writers learn to create worlds with few words.
Learning to edit, then, is an essential skill for good writers. One way to edit is to invent entire stories, telling them with few words. Here’s how:
Take the classified ads from today’s newspaper or the last pages of some magazines. Why the classifieds? Ad writers have already sliced and diced their message, bringing the word count down to an affordable place, making editing even more challenging.
Now, copy the content onto a page in your writing journal. For example:
1. “Psychic Studio: Reunites Romance. Lifts Woe. Guaranteed. Call xxx-xxx-xxxx.”
2. “Hauling by Jack. House clean-outs. Foreclosure our specialty. We make it all go away. Call xxx-xxx-xxxx.”
3. “Bankruptcy. Free advice. Call xxx-xxx-xxxx for ½ hour attorney consult.”
Then study the content. Select words. Re-order them to tell a new, complete story. One appears below.
“Foreclosure. Bankruptcy. Romance woe guaranteed. We make it all go away.”
In eleven words, the chronological tale begins with a foreclosure notice that leads to bankruptcy and a broken heart. Thus, home, haven and heart fade after foreclosure.
This exercise helps you identify the most significant words. More important, it helps you invent, depositing ideas and phrases that will return to you as you try to shape messages on demand or for the pure joy of writing.
Recently, in an interview on NPR March 24, 2010, Tim O’Brien offered this advice about writing: “I try to preach to students tenacity and stubbornness--to be a kind of mule walking up the mountain, to keep plodding. Inspiration is important, but you're not going to get it on a bowling alley or on a golf course or all the other things you could be doing. If you're not sitting there inspiration is simply going to pass.
Just like getting to Carnegie Hall... you gotta practice.”
Mr. O’Brien, with awards and honors in his wake, is so right. He says beautifully what I offered in the first blog entry. To become a good writer, you must write. Inventing extremely short stories is an excellent way to practice, becoming more aware of language and order as you do.
GUM: Grammar, Usage and Mechanics.
Read the short passage below to determine what happened and to whom:
“Max and John played with a ball. He spiked to him, then he returned the ball, lobbing it over the net.”
The verb “spiked” and the noun “net” suggest that the game is volleyball. “He” must refer to John because personal pronouns refer to the person immediately preceding the pronoun. Now, however, I’m confused. How could John return the ball that he just spiked to Max; John does not have a ball, does he? I guess the second “he” refers to Max, but I’m the reader. I should not have to guess. Writers should write clearly and precisely so that I do not have to guess. Corrected, then, the short passage should read:
“Max and John played with a ball. John spiked to Max, then he returned the ball, lobbing it over the net.”
Do not be afraid of repeating words in the interest of clarity, and if at all possible, proofread after the writing is no longer fresh to you. If you can wait at least twenty-four hours before re-reading, you will notice corrections that must be made because you will be reading the piece with fresh, editor’s eyes rather than the eyes of one who loves what he’s just put down.
Read Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” for a beautiful example of word economy in the telling of short, powerful stories. You can find the story online or in any library.
Choose classified ads. Copy several of the best into your journal. Pluck words from the ads, arranging them in patterns to tell short, short stories.