Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Start to Finish (Part 9 of 10)

Polish the article again.

You've edited once and you're finished.

I doubt it.

Keep editing and revising it until you know you can’t make it better. The first article I ever wrote for publication (and it was accepted the first time out), I wrote eighteen full drafts—and that was in the typewriter days. My first draft was slightly more than 900 words. I tend to be a skinny writer (physically and professionally), and each time I revised I added information and illustrations. When I finished, I had about 2,000 words, which was the right length for periodicals in the 1970s.

Look for redundancies. Most writers tend to overwrite and to say the same thing three or four times with different words. In print, you need to say something only once (unless you're using it as a literary device). Therefore, when you polish, aim for brief articles and short chapters.

Today, articles run 800 to 1800 words, and if you stay below 1200 words, you're probably about right. Chapters have also gotten shorter. Look at the novels of James Patterson for example. None of his chapters takes up more than five pages. Each is one scene, and a decade ago editors would have combined several of them into a single chapter. Patterson caters to the byte-size generation, and his books consistently hit the best-seller lists.

Your writing may not hit the best-seller lists, but you can make it the best writing you're capable of producing. And if it's your best, that's good enough—for now.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Start to Finish (Part 8 of 10)

Ignore the manuscript for a time.

Many writers feel exhilarated or relieved when they write the final word and want to get it to the editor or agent. Resist that urge. Look at it again critically. Does this sentence make sense? Did I explain it thoroughly? Did I over-explain?

After I close the file on a manuscript and leave it a few days, perhaps as long as a month, I've always improved it. I use the absolute always because I mean without exception.

When I return to the material, I read it with new insight because the material has been churning in my unconscious mind. (I intentionally put the previous sentence in the passive voice. I could have written: My unconscious mind churned the material, but the emphasis was on the action (churning) and not on the actor (my mind). This is an extra tip.

Write to get the story written; rewrite to improve the quality.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Start to Finish (Part 7 of 10)

Shorten those sentences.

Grumble if you like, but terse-and-clear is the mark of good writing. Whether or not you think a sentence is too short, in order to write well, it probably isn't too short at all.

Read that 15-word sentence again. You can cut words. Whether implies or notAt all is redundant and you can cut in order. I'd suggest you make the sentence read this way: If you think a sentence is too short, it probably isn't.

When I first started to write, the late Charlie Shedd taught, "Never make a sentence longer than 15 words." His words were a bit arbitrary, but in those days 50 words wasn't too long a sentence. Yet vigilantly limited to no more than 15 makes choppy writing.

Here's how I say it: "Let your sentences average no more than 20 words." Good writing doesn't demand a word limit on a sentence. Take as long as you need to express a thought. Afterward, go back and ask if you can eliminate words or perhaps make a long sentence into two.

If you write succinctly and clearly, you're one rung higher on the good-writer ladder. You can figure out the antithesis of that statement. Antithesis is a good word, but it may be beyond the vocabulary of some readers. Why not say the opposite? That's another tip.

Good writers cut ruthlessly.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Start to Finish (Part 6 of 10)

Polish your writing.

I like to rewrite. Sound crazy? Not to me, because I enjoy finding ways to make my writing better. Below are some of the things I look for when I get into Serious Mode Editing.

I scrutinize for clichés, fuzzy thoughts, grammatical problems, poor word choice, and favorite words I've used too often. I ask myself if I've written with a logical progression. Too many writers touch on a topic and four paragraphs later go back to the same point.

Another thing, I read the final sentence of a paragraph and the first of the next to see if I've made good transitions. If you read the two previous sentences, you'll see that by starting this paragraph with "another thing," I made a transition. You had no trouble following my thoughts.

I get rid of clutter, such as redundancies and laborious phrases. A good rule is that if I can think of a simpler word, I use it in place of a long word. We write to communicate, not to impress.

Check sentence length. When you get above 20 words in a sentence with no commas or semicolons, you're already straining the grasp of some.

I especially look for clichés. I'm weary of reading those overused phrases. At Christmas, for example, I read numerous ads that tout the perfect Christmas gift. Not only is nothing perfect, but the word has become meaningless.

I'll deal with clichés another time, but think of it this way. If it's an expression you've heard before, it's probably a cliché. Find a different-but-clear way to say it.

Revise that article. Then do it again.
There is no magic number of revisions, but it's always more than one.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Start to Finish (Part 5 of 10)

Write the first draft.

Vomit on the page because you can always mop up the yucky stuff and no one will know. Get the material written. Let it flow. That's the first draft.

Don’t worry about syntax, grammar, or consistency: just write. I recommend that you not edit yourself during the first draft. Novice writers often bog down because they try to make every sentence perfect before they can go on to the next. Resist that urge to make it perfect in the first draft. In this computer age, you can make changes easily, and no one else will know how much you edited.

In my early days of writing, I had to fight that urge to make each paragraph totally right, and I realized how it choked my thoughts. I began to say to myself, "I write creatively; I edit analytically." That means I wrote, wrote, wrote. After I finished an article (or a book), I went back to repair the bad spots.

A few times my personal critic grumbled as I zoomed ahead. I started talking to that negative voice. "Relax. Let me write it. After that, you can tear it up as much as you want." That worked for me.

I've been at the craft a long time and my tactics have changed. I often do minor editing as I write. I can do that and stay at my task, but that's the kind of self-discipline most of us have to learn.

Write the first draft and allow no distractions. Afterward, you can make improvements.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Start to Finish (Part 4 of 10)

Structure your article.

Before you write, plan where you’re going. If you start with a single focus, you decide on a beginning or introduction and bring in evidence to support your point. For years, I tried to teach this by using either what's known as the train method or the way Guidepost teaches. Neither has worked well for me. It may be that I'm not the analytical type, so I'll give it as simply as I can.

If you have a focus—a single idea—that's where you start. I strongly recommend a written outline. It helps you know where you start and becomes like a map to get you to the end.

Once I know I have the material structured, I like to begin with an illustration or a statement that points readers in the direction the next six pages will take. The story can be either negative or positive. Its purpose is to bring out the problem we want to resolve in the article. (This holds true with fiction: you start with someone having a problem.)

Ask yourself questions. Answer them in logical order so that each fact or incident naturally leads to the next.

For example (and those two words are a logical transition from the previous paragraph), I want to write about learning to forgive. The most obvious way is to set up the problem. It can be done in a few words or two paragraphs.
I can't remember when I began to detest Maynard. Was it in grade school when he played his stupid jokes on me? Was it the time he stole two dollars from my wallet? Or when he started dating Gina because he knew I liked her?
Again, I urge you to start with a written outline. Later you might be able to structure it inside your head (which I do). If you don't start with an outline, you may end up where you didn't plan to go.

An outline is the beginning of your structure.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Start to Finish (Part 3 of 10)

Gather the material.

Once you know what you want to write and you've decided on one idea for the chapter or article, gather the material. That's called doing research. Learn everything you need to make your manuscript complete and include all essential information.

If it's a personal experience, search your memory and ask others who were involved. If it's historical or factual material (even if you write fiction) read widely. Find the one or two best sources—the original sources others quote.

Always learn more about a topic than you plan to use. Years ago I wrote a scene in a novel that included a woman's visit to a field of pyrethrum, a natural pesticide. By the time I finished my research, I could have easily written 5,000 words on the topic. In the novel, I wrote one paragraph and used 93 words. That's all I needed for the story.

When we research carefully, we provide accurate information. Keep records. Footnote your writing if needed. If you use on-line sources, verify the information before you quote.

Decide the anecdotes and illustrations you want to use. Think of those word pictures as windows. It's a way for readers to see inside the structure—to understand your statements.

Work hard as a writer so you can make it easy for a reader.