Friday, January 31, 2014

Write Tight (Part 7 of 7)

Rid your writing of clichés. Although I've mentioned it previously in my blogs, writers don't seem to grasp the banality of hackneyed phrases. I can easily provide a list of 50 tired, overworked statements, but the better way is to point to the principle.

Think of it this way: If the phrase or term we use is something we've heard or read before, revise it. Careful, creative writers find new expressions for old ideas.

In most pieces of advice by writers on clichés, they usually write, "Avoid clichés like the plague." Someone said it, others found it humorous, and copied it. By the time writers have encountered the phrase 900 times, the humor has been sucked out of it.

Here's an exercise I devised for myself early in my in my writing career. I looked for clichés in my writing and in what I read. I copied them and tried to devise a better, sharper way of making the same point.

Don't we want readers to think of us as clever? Original? If our writing is like everyone else's, why do we write?

I am a growing writer; 
I learn new ways to say old things.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Write Tight (Part 6 of 7)

We are authorities. When our articles or books appear in print, we are the the know-it-person on that topic. Once we recognize that we are authorities, we tend to write tight. That's why we're published.

Therefore, we can write, knowing our words carry weight. Too often I see limp phrases such as I think, I feel, perhaps, probably, maybe, in my opinion, or even IMHO. If we're unsure about what we want to say, avoid such statements. We don't want to end up as looking ignorant or foolish.

At times, we need to express an opinion, but we do that to state a conclusion based on our expertise that we can't prove.

When my words appear in print,
readers consider me an authority.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Write Tight (Part 5 of 7)

Words slip into our language in casual conversation and before long, they weaken our prose. And weaken is correct. The best writing keeps readers moving from sentence to sentence without stumbling over needless words.

Awesome! Absolutely! Those two expressions have sneaked into our writing. In fact, (I used those two words as a transition to the next sentence) I deleted both words as I reread an email this morning. Awesome, when used properly, refers to an overwhelming emotion, which can be negative or positive. Too often it means only, that is good or I'm impressed—but not overpowered.

Absolutely means without restriction or condition. In casual conversation, it's usually meant for emphasis—but it sounds as if we've misused a powerful word.

If we ask ourselves what we want to communicate,
we can excise meaningless words.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Write Tight (Part 4 of 7)

Weeding the garden. That's how I think of editing my prose—pulling up anything that hinders a beautiful array of flowers. In writing, those weeds choke or slow down the reading process.

Here are a few phrases that make me want to grab scissors and snip the words from a magazine or a book:

* Needless to say . . . Then why say or write it?

* There is no doubt that . . . If that's true, just write the statement. (Did you notice I used just? Here is a place where the word holds meaning. I could have written simply.)

* As a matter of fact . . . Occasionally I've seen it written: As a matter of actual fact . . . In the second example, I assume it's for emphasis, but actual and fact say the same thing.

Like weeding a garden,
I delete words and expressions that mar the beauty of my prose.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Write Tight (Part 3 of 7)

Teresa shrugged her shoulders. Not wrong, but if we want to use the fewest number of words, we write: Teresa shrugged. No one would think she maneuvered her toes.

Another is stood up. Except for the military order of "Stand down," we don’t need to give directions for standing.

We ought to be able to write, "She grabbed the boy by the nape." How many napes do we have? However, the single word doesn't feel right to most of us.

English usage isn't always logical—but you probably knew that.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Write Tight (Part 2 of 7)

"In the midst of all the Christmas merriment, Henry literally fell off the chair in laughter." I read that sentence in an article, but Henry didn't fall. The sprinkling of literally troubles me: To many people, that word has become a symbol for something beyond ordinary responses to events.

Couldn't the writer have told us about excessive laughter? Perhaps Henry kept howling over something others found only slightly humorous. How would we know? The writer took the easy way out—he used an over-generalization that doesn't communicate well. (Originally, I wrote a sweeping statement, but that sounded like a cliché.)

LOL has become popular in tweeting and I often wonder if they really do laugh out loud. More likely, it means, "I thought it was funny."

I ask myself what I want to say;
then I use appropriate words to express my meaning.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Write Tight (Part 1 of 7)

We used to refer to "the economy of words," which means the same thing as write tight. The shorter our sentences, the easier they are for readers to grasp. One way to economize is to eliminate words that add no value.

Really, very, just, and quite top my list. We use these words in oral communications and our voices add the inflection or emphasis. That doesn't carry through in print.

They're not bad words; they're simply limp and useless. If they add no strength to a sentence, cut them.

Because I want my readers to keep reading,
I eliminate any unneeded words.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Telling Stories (Part 10 of 10)

A few weeks ago I sat through a lengthy lecture with a number of anecdotes—and they were clever. But afterward I wondered why the woman told them. They seemed to have no direct relationship to the message or to us who listened.

I see this in writing as well. So here's my principle: Whenever we want to insert an illustration in nonfiction or a scene in a novel, we need to ask ourselves questions.

* Why am I including this? That is, what's my purpose?

* What will my readers learn from this story or scene?

* Why is this relevant to readers?

* If I left out this scene/illustration, would readers notice?

As we know, many people seem to tell stories just to tell them. But when we ask why people share (and listen to) stories, there is an objective. It may be to encourage or inspire or cause readers to think differently. But there is still purpose in the telling.

When we end the scene or the story, we need to reflect on what we wrote and answer at least two questions for ourselves:

* Why is this relevant?

* What’s the moral or point?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Telling Stories (Part 9 of 10)

We end with a strong takeaway.

When we choose to tell a story, unless we're doing it only for entertainment, we give our readers something to make them ponder—even if they ignore the meaning.

Novelists of earlier times often addressed readers and told them the message they wanted them to grasp. As a child, I enjoyed Aesop's Fables because each story ended with a lesson for life.

These days our writing needs more subtlety, especially in illustrations or short pieces. If you've crafted a first-person story, you can say, "That day I learned . . . " Readers automatically transfer the "I" of the author to themselves.

Most of my blog entries present a takeaway, even when I'm not telling a story. I try to keep the words simple, direct, and easy to remember. The principle is the same: Leave readers with something they can take from our writing. Or another way to say it is: We reward them for staying with us.

A good takeaway is memorable;
it also enriches others' lives.