Sunday, March 28, 2010

Editing Practice

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.

Reading Challenge:
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.

Writing Challenge:

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.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Writers are readers.

Good writers are avid readers. Like sponges, writers absorb the rhythms of language, words that sparkle in the mind, passages that jar our memories, allowing us to live again in a moment almost forgotten. To write well, read.

Writers should be informed about a broad range of issues shaping the human experience so read non-fiction. Choose at least two magazines, electronic or print, and promise yourself that you will read the feature article in each edition. (Publishers advertise the feature with cover art and headlines; the feature spreads across the most pages in that edition and is often complemented by charts, photos, and time lines.)

After a first reading to understand the issue, return to the article to map its course. First, consider the beginning: how did the writer engage you, the reader, enticing you to enter into the conversation begun by the article?

Second, consider the content: how believable is the evidence? What are the signposts that direct your attention to key points? How does the writer amuse you and challenge you? Is the article convincing? Why?

Finally, consider the style: Where is the writing particularly artful?

Such close reading will provide you with a model that you can honor and imitate. Choose a different topic, but use the skeleton you have uncovered by close, analytical reading. Let the original author’s organizational prowess teach you about building an argument, then build one.

In addition, let the original author teach you about effective phrasing. Imitate the phrasing, noun for noun, verb for verb, using your own subjects. For example, if the original author writes about taxes, you may write about dogs or flowers—anything you know well. The goal is to manipulate words, shaping them into new patterns.

Some worthy non-fiction authors to study and imitate include Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Stephen Hawking, and Stephen J. Gould. Enjoy their art and ideas.

Fiction writers are also useful to expand the budding writers’ understanding of the human experience, of bringing worlds and characters to life with beautiful language. Read widely for pure joy and to absorb the craft.

Consider Elmore Leonard and J. D. McDonald dialogue that sounds true and alive. Let yourself be carried away by Toni Morrison’s great empathy for human suffering and her ability to make incongruity sensible. Enter into the vast, complex realms created by Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Larry McMurtry, William Styron, Barbara Kingsolver, and Tim O’Brien.

GUM: Grammar, Usage and Mechanics.

One follower has asked for a GUM review, and I am happy to begin such a review even though the task is daunting. Whole volumes have been devoted to GUM. I will choose common errors that I see in email messages, friendly letters, and advertising—errors that, like weeds in a garden, seem to reproduce at an alarming rate.

First, the wee word its and its misunderstood companion, it’s. The first its is a possessive pronoun. Its cousins are his and her. None of them requires an apostrophe to be possessive. Only a proper noun such as John or Jane or student needs an apostrophe to transform the noun into its possessive form. For example:

--I cannot find my book. This book belongs to him. The book is his book.
--Aunt Jane cannot find her book. The book needed belongs to Aunt Jane. The book is Aunt Jane’s book.
--Cousin It cannot find his book. This book belongs to It. The book is It’s book.

In the final example above, Cousin It is proper name (Remember the Adams Family?) so the apostrophe to show possession is correct, but how many people are actually named It? Few. The more common use of it’s is as a contraction, a contracted or shorter form of two wee words: it and is. For example:

--It is clear to me that John has lost his book.
--It’s clear to me that John has lost his book.

The apostrophe indicates that something is missing, in this case, an i. The apostrophe is our cue that two words have been run together, helping us understand.

So proofread your email messages, letters, and documents. If you need it is to be understood, then choose it is or it’s, never its.

Writing Challenge:

When you find a published passage that seems particularly effective and powerful, mark it or copy it into a journal. Later, imitate it with your own messages. Experience the many ways to say the same thing. Liberate your messages by learning to play with word choices and word order.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

College and Scholarship Essays. Job Interviews.

Writing on demand and for a purpose is often the reason people begin to write. The most common purposes are for college admissions, scholarship awards, and job searches. Many people abandon all hope and never compete. Others—you perhaps—recognize the potential pay-off and will now invest in your future by practicing to write for a purpose.

What do employers, college admissions officers, and scholarship committee members want to know about you?

First, they want to know if you have a sense of purpose. They want to know if you have asked yourself why you want to work for Company Z, whether you are ready for the perseverance required to earn a college degree, and what you’ve done to earn a scholarship. You need to be prepared to answer those questions in writing or during an interview.

Conduct some research, a task made exponentially easier by online search engines. Learn what the employer stands for, what product or service he delivers, and what may be required of you. Then, rehearse answers to the question: why do you want to work for Company Z?

Stand and deliver an answer. Sit and speak answers. Then write an effective answer. If you follow this advice, when you need the answer, it will bubble to the top. You will speak with conviction. Today, however, the interview often follows a first impression made with words on paper or submitted electronically so you will also include the answer in your cover letters and in the “objective” entry at the top of your résumé. You will have the edge over other candidates if you do.

For college admissions, the implied question is different. Admissions officers want to know if you have the right stuff to go the distance. Can you read the reading, listen to the lecture, complete comprehensive notes, put off parties, sacrifice some sleep, and work the work, all in the name of a long-term, uncertain reward?

Yes, a college degree promises that you will earn more money, live longer, and enjoy better health than the hourly-wage worker. College graduates are less likely to be laid off when the economy dips and dives. They are more likely to enjoy the work they do, but they have none of this in hand. They must believe, and when everything seems too hard, they must be able to recall the reasons for pushing through, for persevering.

So dream the dream. Imagine graduation day with a career on the horizon. Then write about it. This essay will answer a second question that interests future employers and admissions officers: where do you think you’ll be in five years? In other words, what do you want to be when you grow up?

The wisest among you will know that this is an essay you should write as a freshman in high school, again as a sophomore, and annually, thereafter. Life shifts and changes course with every stream of knowledge so be patient as you dream and reflect. Be willing to write and re-write.

Finally, scholarship committees want to know what employers and college admissions officers want to know: do you have a sense of purpose and can you go the distance? Scholarship committee members, like employers and admissions personnel, want to know what you have done to prove that you have purpose and can persevere.

Can you demonstrate long-term commitment, or are you a serial joiner? In other words, if you have a talent for soccer, have you played the game, win or lose, coached by jerks or inspirational role models, beside committed and uncommitted teammates, for the love of the game? Or did you quit after a series of losses, after a foul-mouthed, blind coach took over? Your answer speaks volumes about your sense of purpose and abilities to persevere.

Some students, on the other hand, never commit so they do not have the opportunity to quit. They resist becoming involved until the senior year in high school. Then, they join anything and everything to pad the résumé, but last-minute membership does not prove your willingness to pursue talents, to learn, and prove your gifts for getting along with others. Last-minute membership rarely provides the opportunity to lead, another quality that interests scholarship committees.

Scholarship applications also ask about your abilities to think beyond yourself and your immediate needs. They often pose questions to learn if you have an attitude of gratitude.

Are you grateful for the challenges and opportunities that your high school and greater community provide? Have you selected the more difficult courses? Have you made time for electives that allow you to prove your talents and interests? Have you auditioned, striven, performed, and given in order to enrich your own life and the lives of others? Can you imagine yourself as a satellite orbiting a grand, central purpose, or do you imagine yourself as the center of the universe? Above all, can you write answers to these questions?

Writing Challenge:

Write about your sense of purpose to a) enter college, b) compete for scholarship money, and/or c) land the job. Prove that you can go the distance, that you can and have persevered. Prepare answers to the many questions from the last paragraph, and if you cannot answer that you auditioned, performed, and gave, explain why you will now. Perhaps you had no choice but to work part-time and consequently, your grades are average, your extracurricular activities non-existent. Explain convincingly what your choices and work ethic prove about you. If you reflect upon them and write genuinely, you and your audience will see that you have purpose and the ability to overcome.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Craft of Language

Beginning to write also requires that you begin to pay attention to words. Writers learn to love the sound of words. They learn to eschew pompous words, designed to impress the reader, and despise empty, overused words. Instead, they love words in combinations, bouncing and bubbling, stretching and straining against one another.

First, good readers hear the sounds of words because a writer has selected his words carefully. For example, a good writer understands that drown is not an example of onomatopoeia, but it is potent. It cannot be said quickly or crisply. The two-vowel combination followed by an n stretches the word until it suggests sliding down or under. The use of drown or drawn or prawn, bound, and sing will slow the pace of the passage, especially if used in combination with other similar words.

On the other hand, some words are more staccato and clipped. They make the heart race and quicken the pace with consonants such as b, t, d or p. Brittle, belittle, dapple and drip do not stretch; they spring.

Second, writers study their audiences and choose vocabulary accordingly. A writer trying to publish in a professional journal for attorneys, physicians, or research scientists will choose vocabulary not frequently found in weekly news magazines or a good story. Professional journals employ vocabulary that allows professionals to describe accurately the issues that confront them, but the best writers know how to communicate with a larger, broader audience. Stephen Hawking’s essays and lectures about quantum physics or Stephen J. Gould’s books about biology and paleontology are wonderful examples of complex subjects made accessible with a beautiful blend of learned language and common words that form analogies and metaphors for the non-professional.

Good writers follow the example of Hawking and Gould. They blend uncommon words with common ones to form a delightful clarity and rhythm. Neither a writer nor a reader needs to know that olfactory describes smells and gustatory refers to taste. A good writer makes smells and tastes come alive without needing to dazzle the reader with his polysyllabic vocabulary.

Third, writers avoid common, overused words such as the one that plagues our conversations today. For example:

--I’ve gotta go!
--What’s your rush?
--I’ve got something to get.
--What?
--I’ve gotta get a dress to get with John Friday night. It’s gotta be simple and modest ‘cause he’s not a guy who gets worked up by gals who don’t get self-esteem.

Okay, I’m getting carried away with all those gots and gets, but I think you get my point: we seem to be addicted to get as the all-purpose verb. We are also enamored of you. Few bother to distinguish between he, she, it, they or them when you will stand in for everyone. Such habits, while perfectly acceptable in conversation with one’s least critical friends, should be hunted down and eradicated in one’s writing.

Writing Challenge:

Begin collecting words. Make lists of words and word combinations that delight, words that are fresh, telling and learned without being pompous or off-putting. Circle or highlight them in your own writing; copy them into a journal when you find them in others’ works. Finally, be ruthless as you examine your own work. Stamp out all forms of get and illogical or unnecessary uses of you. Play with other, more exact phrasing to replace such tired, overused words.