Tuesday, March 30, 2010

That Pesky Internal Editor Is At It Again

Several of you have emailed to ask how to silence that inner critic.

Here’s what I do. I talk to myself aloud (honest). “Be patient. Let me get on with this. When I finish, I’ll let you rip it apart.”

Although I’ve often had to repeat the words several times, I’ve discovered that I can calm my judgmental voice. And it’s fun to listen to that dark side of myself who revises and gleefully reminds me, “You wrote that poorly. I’ll show you how to do it right this time.”

* * * * *

Twila says, "Hmmmm, Cec talks to himself. That concerns me. Does anyone know a good doctor?"

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: Have I 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 must have read 50 ads that touted 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.

Monday, March 29, 2010

That Pesky Internal Editor

Hi everyone. It's Twila here. (Oh boy, I wonder if that makes sense. Of course I'm here. Do they really need to know that?) Cec let me out of my cage for a few minutes to interject his answer tyo (Oops, that should be to.) someone's burning question about the infernal editor. (Okay, strike that. I meant to put internal editor. And did I really say burning question? I better strike that too. I know Cec will accuse me of using a cliché.)

Anyhow, here's what Cec asked me to post. I hope it will help you. Maybe it'll do me some good as well.

* * * * *

Susan asked: How do I turn off my internal editor when typing that first draft?

I plan to write about that issue later, but here's a brief answer: It takes self-discipline. The more self-demanding you are, the more difficult the task.

I had to keep reminding myself that I could go back and clean up the mess after I'd written it. I also reminded myself that I would probably never finish if I stopped to make changes.

Most professionals write first and edit second.

Friday, March 26, 2010

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, March 23, 2010

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 and 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.

Friday, March 19, 2010

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.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Start to Finish (Part 2 of 10)

Don't distract readers.

As you read each article, here’s another question to ask: Is there anything that distracts me from a single focus? Less experienced writers, like beginning preachers, tend to provide too much information and thus divert the power of the message.

Once you have a single-focused idea, you can state it in one sentence. Here are examples:

• If you’re considering adoption, here are seven things you need to know.

• Too often people see the patient but the caregiver becomes invisible.

• I didn't want to forgive Betty, but Betty forgave me and made me see the hardness of my heart.

If you can't reduce an article, scene, or chapter into one statement, you probably haven't focused.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Start to Finish (Part 1 of 10)

We can cite many reasons for rejection such as poor quality of writing, but one of the major problems is that too many people simply didn’t understand the nature of an article. (I use the word article, but the principle applies to chapters of a nonfiction book, a fiction book, or a scene in a novel.)

Focus on one idea.

Let’s start with a definition. An article is a short piece that focuses on one idea. A chapter is a short piece that focuses on one idea. In the chapter of a novel, several things may happen but the chapter has a single purpose and stays with it. It's also true with a chapter of a nonfiction book in which you may explain five ways to avoid a heart attack. But all five methods stay with the same theme.

Here’s an easy way to see how this works. Pick out two magazines. (I suggest you avoid ezines. Many of them are badly written and poorly edited.) Read three articles in each magazine.

As you read, ask yourself: What is the one point the author makes? The title should help. If it’s a how-to article called "Three Ways to Lose Weight," that points the direction. If it’s something such as "The Day Dad Cried," everything in that piece needs to point to a single, poignant event with no distracting information about where Dad lived when he was fifteen (unless it’s relevant) or the fact that he went to school with Brad Pitt's mother's younger brother.

Open a novel at the beginning of any chapter and the principle works. If we look at books from 100 years ago, they often had a table of contents for fiction that told readers what they were about to read in each chapter.

"It's not portable," an editor said about an article I wrote 30 years ago. He meant it wasn't focused. You don't want to get a similar message, do you?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Fun with the Progressive Tense

My friend Frank Ball wrote a clever piece about the use of the progressive tense.

The King of Ing

At dawn, the King of Ing was standing at his window, wishing for a better way of communicating with his people who were not responding to his commanding style but were sitting, resting, and accomplishing little. He started pacing, moving from one side of the room to the other, contemplating what to do. Knowing improvement was not happening without something changing, he was considering acquiring a differing way of writing. Therefore, using his own quill, he began composing an edict for posting at the city square.

The King of Ing Revised

At dawn, the King of Ing stood at his window and wished for a better way to communicate with his people who had not responded to his commands but sat, rested, and accomplished little. As he paced from one side of the room to the other, he contemplated what to do. Without change, improvement is impossible, so he considered a different way to write. Therefore, he used his own quill to compose this edict posted at the city square: Your leader has decided to speak in better style as your new Prince of Simple Past Tense.

If you want to amuse or show imprecise writing, use the progressive tense at least once in every paragraph.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Avoid the Progressive Tense

Careful writers avoid the progressive tense because it requires more words and it's less precise. For example, I will be teaching next month in Los Angeles. The simple future works and is clear: I will teach. The progressive tense is usually awkward and implies that I am even now in the process of teaching next month.

The progressive tense isn't grammatically wrong, but it becomes what we call lazy or imprecise writing. If we think "in the process of," we'll probably use the tense well. It means some action is ongoing and uses a participle (an active verb with an –ing ending).

It's correct to use the progressive tense to express frequent action: We will be going to church Sunday. But it's just as easy to use the future tense: We will go to church Sunday.

Present Progressive tense indicates an action that takes place right now. It uses a "to be" verb and the present participle. (a) I am walking to the store. (b) He is lecturing to the class.

Use the simple past: I walked to the store. He lectured to the class.

Indifferent writers use the present progressive for future action: (a) My brother is graduating next month. (b) I will be visiting Canada in September.

Careful writers use the future tense: (a) My brother will graduate next month. (b) I will visit Canada in September.

Past Progressive tense refers to an action that took place in the past and is formed with a "to be" verb and the past participle. I was eating lunch with my friends. The past-progressive form implies an interruption to the action: While I was eating my lunch, the phone rang.

The weakness of using the past progressive tense becomes obvious when we use the passive-progressive form. Compare: (a) She was being robbed on Main Street. That construction implies that someone interrupted the in-progress robbery. (b) She was robbed on Main Street. The crime was committed and the culprit vanished.

Make your meaning clear by using simple past, present, and future tenses.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

When Do You Use the Passive Voice?

Some writers equate using the passive voice with something like picking their nose in public. Here's the principle in one sentence: When we don't know who did something or we don't want readers to know, we use the passive voice.

Use the passive when you want to de-emphasize the doer. That is, the thing acted on is more important that the actor. The clothes were received by the two grateful refugees.

Use the passive when you want to command or give your words authority. Smoking is not permitted in this building is stronger (and less argumentative) than you may not smoke in this building.

• Sometimes the person doing something isn't significant and you want to emphasize the action. Twila Belk was arrested at noon yesterday. Who arrested her may not be important.

Use the passive to emphasize the receiver of the action. The New Testament speaks of Jesus being raised from the dead. It's an important theological point. (John 2:22 is one example.)

Use the passive when you want to have a punch line: The gold medal in the triathlon competition was won by a ten-year-old girl. This withholds the information until the end of the sentence.

Use the passive when you want to achieve a rhythm and the cadence determines the style. Someone pointed this out to me: Robert Frost could have written, "I took the road where not many people travel," but note the cadence of "I took the road less traveled by."

It's not a sin to use the passive voice, but it's a serious misdemeanor when you avoid it because you're afraid of breaking a rule.


(And now, an unapproved message from Twila Belk: "Excuse me for butting in here, but I beg to differ with you. If I was being arrested yesterday, it is of extreme importance to me to know who I was being arrested by." After she wrote that sentence, she wondered if she had committed a serious crime. "Oh oh," she said, "the grammar police will really be after me now. I might be arrested again. But this time I'll know who did it.")