Category Archives: My opinionated take on things

I am not a robot, nor do I cut like one.

Have you been harassed by the writing-efficiency taskmasters? Have they told you that you should edit out every redundant word until your writing (in effect) is cut to the bone? Sounds to me like a butcher in a meat market.
 
I always want to point out to them that I am not a robot!
 
 
Let me explain. Language is more than mathematics, just like reality is more than the physical universe alone.
Language is a higher language than the so-called language of math (as beneficial as mathematics can certainly be and has been). It is a mistake to try to apply scientific reasoning to the language we speak, read, write, and think with–at least when it comes to doing such things. Such misapplication can kill language, limit its meaning, make it just about unreadable. 
 
Cut until your writing bleeds?
I’ve heard it said that words such as “really” and “very” and various other imprecise terms and colloquialisms should be edited out of one’s writing (maybe even one’s speech). But, to me, that can be the pathway to impoverishment of communication. But is the word “really” really meaningless and empty? I don’t think so. I’ve read some writing, precise and well-defined, but cut to the bone so much that it is definitely not reader-friendly. In fact (sorry!), it’s a chore to read. Needlessly a chore.
 
Language is not a science.
Nor should we try to confine it in lockstep to logic and reason. It is more than that. It is subjective as well as objective (who among us is ever totally and purely subjective?). It is human.
 
And when writing patterns itself to a degree after the way we talk, with all the expressiveness of being a person, all the quirkiness of being a unique individual, and even includes a word here and there that doesn’t strictly-speaking really need to be there to be precise–it still can communicate very well indeed.
 
I don’t know about you, but in front of my monitor, I for one will not let the sometimes rigid, super-conservative and occasionally cold and unfeeling gods of business–efficiency and profit–kill my writing. I am not a machine to be judged by my efficiency or even by the standard of perfect accuracy. I am not a computer. I am not a robot. Not even an android. Really, I don’t even want to be cloned.
 
Does editing out superfluous wordiness help a piece of writing? Of course it does. In spite of what I wrote above, I advocate careful editing and cutting. But must we students of the writing craft insist on going to extremes in that direction? I don’t think so. 
 
Moderation, my fellow writers. 
 
Moderation. Really.

I have to Confess: I like Reading Nancy Drew

I’m a mature–well, at least older–male who reads Nancy Drew. The original series of 64, that is.
 
Why on earth would I do that? Well, I started reading them to check them out to see if they would be appropriate for my granddaughter to read. They are. But surprise! I found I like them. Why so? They’re good, that’s why. None of them will ever vie for Great-American-Novel status. But the stories are solid, as well as good examples of sound story structure.
 
Granted they’re dated. They’re straight like a boy scout convention (or should I say “girl scout convention”?), kosher and proper in every way–no sex or violence or even occasional profanity. Darn! They’re filled with frequent and sometimes funny coincidences and some improbabilities here and there. They have wonderful. honey-coated endings that at times rival a Disney feature presentation. And Nancy Drew herself, in addition to being pretty and brave and smart, consistently comes across as a saint with strawberry-blond hair.
 
But, these novels, incidentally, have sold zillions of copies. And starting in 1930, they have been translated from English into as many as 25 additional languages and published in an impressive number of European, Scandinavian, Latin American, and Asian countries–and most recently in Estonia. Not too shabby.
 
Want to learn mystery writing? Read Nancy Drew. Now why would I say that to you my savvy readers? Rather cheeky, right? Empty boast? I don’t think so, based upon thoughtful and commendable consideration. But Why? Because their mystery-writing bones are nearly naked for all to see, laid bare certainly to the critical eyes of students of the craft–those of us who know some of the tricks well enough to spot them easily where and when they occur. The books are chuck full of classic mystery and thriller/suspense techniques, twists and surprises.  And come complete with simple, straight-forward examples of those techniques right there on the page to learn from. At least if you’re relatively new to the genre. And for you veterans, some reminders couldn’t hurt.
 
I am often pleasantly amazed at how when reading these stories, I keep getting worried when Nancy or also George and Bess get themselves into dargerous situations. And I keep getting mad when those diabolical bad guys and gals–some of which are downright nasty–devise and pull off such shameful trickery against such a likeable heroine (old fashioned word, I know). And I must also confess that my heart is often warmed by the nifty, all-loose-ends-neatly-tied-up endings, each like a cleverly wrapped Christmas package.
 
Hey, they’re a quick read, and I don’t lose any sleep when I make them my night cap, which lately has been embarrassingly often. 
 
Well, having gotten that off my chest, I’m off to start chapter 1 of The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, #25 in case you’re wondering. That’ll be my reward for some exhausting editing work done earlier today.
 
Stay tuned!
 
P.S. I do read other novels too.
 
P. S. S. Your turn. Be honest now. Have your read Nancy Drew?

Don’t Miss Mary Jaksch’s Essential Post on Guest Post Pitching

Do you want to pitch other blogs to get your guest posts on them?  It’s one of the top ways to increase traffic.

Read the post (link below) by Mary Jaksch, Chief Editor at Write to Done.  Last time I heard from her, she was getting around 300 pitches a day.  Mary is one of the best bloggers around and co-created the A-list Blogger Club with Leo Battauta, another one of the best.

In other words, Mary knows what she is talking about.

This is the best description of a winning pitch I have found any where.  Previously, as far as I know, the only way to get this info was to be a member of A-List. (Although I did do a  post on it a while back. Hers is better!)

And while I’m at it, check out the A-List Blogger Club

If you’re serious about making your blog a success, that’s an  excellent idea.  The A-list Blogger Club has the best and the most info in existence. Now that’s a guess because I haven’t done extensive research–but it’s an educated guess, and a good one.

And yes, I’m a member.

And yes, if you click on the ad on the sidebar I might get a few cents. Don’t click on it to give me a few cents. Check A-List out as an opportunity to enhance your ongoing learning as a blogger. I highly recommend it.

Here’s the post: http://writetodone.com/2012/06/22/how-to-land-a-guest-post/#comment-69795

So, if you want to guest blog, don’t miss this.

How is Writing like Adding and Subtracting?

 

Photo courtesy nathanmac87 @ www.Flickr.com


What’s your approach?  Do you just ad-lib, follow your intuition? Or, do you have a system for generating ideas and recording them, arranging them, and revising them?

I have a hybrid approach.
My approach to writing is really a combination of two approaches: right brain and left brain, creative and imaginative followed by logical and reasoned.  Call it, if you want, free-writing and re-writing. But even more generally, I think in mathematical terms: I call it “adding and subtracting.”

Make every word count.
There’s been a lot of emphasis in recent years on dumping words from your text that aren’t really earning their stay–vague words, empty words, superfluous words–words that do not add to the meaning you want to convey. In other words, what can you take out of your text to make it better? Subtraction. And this is a vital emphasis for sure.

But to me, it’s best to begin with the idea of addition.  Meaning writing do not consist of what we cut out of it but rather first what we add.   Writing is a process of addition.  One idea is recorded, then another is added, and then another.

Discussing the weather.
If I’m waiting in a line at a restaurant and turn to the guy next to me and say, “They’re predicting bad weather tomorrow,” I’ve said something, but not much.

He might respond with, “Like what?”  He wants more information.

So I add some: “Tornadoes.”

“Bad?” He’s still fishing for more.

“Yeah, a lot of them maybe.  And where standing here is 15 mines from Red River. They call it  Tornado Alley.”  And that’s certainly meaningful information, especially if you’ve been in that area of Texas  during tornado season.

Nouns and verbs are important to our sentences, but adjectives and adverbs–when needed–are important too. An adverb is not a bad word, and neither is an adjective.  Both have their place in writing. When to use them is a judgment call, certainly.

Meaning in our writing is captured by association, by comparison, by one idea added to another. Ideas bouncing off of other ideas, colliding, expanding, clarifying.

In this “addition phase” the question is always what to add. And that question has three meaningful versions:

What do I need to add next?

What do I need to add next so that my reader understands me?

And, What do I need to add next so that my reason for writing this piece in the first place is closer to being achieved?

Answer those questions at each key juncture and you’re well on your way to good writing.

“Writing is Re-writing.”
Ever heard that? I have. And I agree with that quote–with one modification. Maybe this captures it: “Writing is putting down words  and then re-writing them.”

The Watercolor Analogy.
When I paint a watercolor, it does me no good to stare at the lovely and expensive piece of watercolor paper.  Planning is good, but at some point I need to make a move, get some color down on that paper to work with. Or I’ll get nowhere toward my goal of a painting.

When I have written something on paper (digital or otherwise), I can begin the next phase, which I generally call “subtraction.”  Because much of re-writing is just that, taking out what I need to do clean up my writing, trim the fat, cut out the dead weight.

One warning.
It’s easy to get wiggy with a subtraction agenda and wind up taking out so much that you achieve a machine like efficiency, so much that your reader has to stumble through  your writing, supplying missing words to make sense of your text.

Sometimes even those nearly meaningless but thoroughly human words, like “really” and “very” and “in fact, ” especially with  today’s conversational style,  add to a reader’s reading pleasure and her ease in getting it.  Even though admittedly they are not the penultimate in a terse and Spartan style.

“Everyone fears the long sentence. Editors fear it. Readers fear it. Most of all, writers fear it…Write what you fear. Until the writer tries to master the long sentence she is no writer at all, for while length makes a bad sentence worse, it can make a good sentence better.”
–Roy Peter Clark in his Writing Tools, page 36

The next time you sit down to write.
Try thinking about what you are doing as addition and subtraction.  Build words upon words, adding ideas, until your content is woven like an elegant tapestry.  Then apply your eagle-eye. Remove every word or sentence or paragraph you figure you don’t need.

Just don’t get too carried away.

So how do think about writing when you sit down to do it?

 

 

Is Minimalist Writing the Only Way To Go?

“Make every word count” is certainly good advice. I’ve read that in a number of  of how-to books I respect.  But is it always best to opt for minimalist writing?

It’s certainly true that cutting is a key revision technique.  Cut out the fat. Eliminate those words, phrases and sentences that just  aren’t helping convey your meaning.

However,  I think too that it’s just possible to go to far in editing our writing that way.  When does clean and concise writing become terse and even hard to read?  After all, eliminate enough words and no one will understand you.

One blogger, whom I respect, recently posted the opinion that there are words that should be eliminated from our writing, like “really” and “very,” because, she implied, they don’t pull their weight and can make you, the writer, sound overly anxious to be convincing.

More than one excellent writer-teacher has advocated eliminating all adverbs, or nearly all of them from our writing.  Sure a good editing practice is to take a hard look at the adverbs in our writing.  Theodore Cheney, in his Getting the Wrods Right: How to Revise, Edit & Rewrite, advises us soundly:

The secret of good prose writing is to try first to express the thought with only verbs and nouns [make that strong verbs and specific nouns].  Then, in revision, decide whether they absolutely must be modified to get across the meaning and mood. (page 151)

Others tell us to virtually never use the passive voice.  Never?  How about when the subject of the verb is victimized by the action of the verb. (for example, see Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark, pages 23-26). One of Clark’s examples: “The teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined.”

Here’s a rather famous paragraph from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style:

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Certainly that’s good advice, generally.  But must we always write with robotic efficiency, fearful of slipping up and leaving in an–oh my–unnecessary word or two?  Must we march always in lockstep with the gurus of precision and propriety?  Whatever happened to being human at least occasionally? How about playfulness, humor, even a little–dare I say it?–wordiness just once in a while?

I had a grad school professor who had a saying: “They get on their hobby horse and want to ride it all the way to the sunset.”

Another  saying comes to mind, an old one, from the Roman playwright Terrence, circa 150BC: “Moderation in all things.” It’s still good advice.

Course Mark Twain typically had his own take on that: “Moderation in all things including moderation.”Wink

My advice is to listen carefully to the wisdom of the pros, the principles they promote, the rules they would have us write by.   But when you face your latest writing effort, don’t forget creativity, personality, and pluck.

Be your own boss.

 

How much grammar is enough?

Let’s get real about grammar.
What is grammar about?  I’m talking the rules here, not the general word “grammar” that includes things like  syntax and rhetoric, great sentences and  paragraphs, eloquence, oratory, formal verses informal and conversational writing, and so on.

Grammar is about rules. Merriam-Webster’s gives this among other definitions: “speech or writing evaluated according to its conformity to grammatical rules.”  In other words it’s about whether or not you and I obey the rules when writing.  The rules are about the accepted ways speakers and writers do their thing. It’s about writing according to the rule book on writing.

Will it make you a great writer?
Brooks Landon, celebrated professor of English and writing at the University of Iowa, in his lectures on the sentence in the Great Courses videos, puts it this way: “Grammar won’t teach you to write well.”

Grammar concerns naming the parts of speech and, again, the rules for avoiding mistakes that go against common accepted usage.  Translation: Knowing the rules of grammar well can help prevent you from embarrassing yourself when you publish your blog post.

So, then, how much grammar  is enough?  “Enough” means you know what you are doing, that you know the correct forms.  Not that you are duty-bound to always follow them.  But if you are going to violate one of those rules, it’s far better to do so knowingly than out of ignorance.

So you need to know your grammar–and spelling, or at least be diligent to look them up when you’re not sure you’re right.

There are lots of grammar blogs and books available.
I see frequent posts on grammar online, and that is good.  But with one exception:  There’s a lot more to good writing than correct grammar. It’s good to keep that in mind. For example:

How do we write sentences that keep our readers in suspense right there in the midst of the sentence until its end? (Answer: the periodic sentence.)

How do we write sentences that flow naturally like the way we speak, often by association, that mimic the way we humans think, and that allow our readers to follow our thinking, sentences written with upfront honesty? (We’re talkin’ the so called “loose sentence’, also called the cumulative sentence.)

What is the pathway to power writing?
How do we write words and phrases that are poetic and lyrical, that make our readers laugh and cry or feel generally wonderful?

Ah, now we’re way beyond grammar.
We’re into the glorious realm of syntax and rhetoric, the art and discipline and techniques that make for fine writing, that made Shakespeare and Chaucer and Dickens and so many others famous and worth reading.

Your turn:
How do you see the difference between grammar and rhetoric?  Is it important to you?

 

 

Build your Writing the Easy Way

Courtesy Ed Yourdon @ www.flickr.com

You’ve got an idea.
You’ve got some points you want to make.  You’ve tried writing it, but it just isn’t working. What do you do?

Organize those ideas.
Get them into a sequence that works.  You find out what’s missing and you plug it in. Or you decide what you don’t need  take  it out.

So let’s take those ideas and work with them.
First, we list those ideas on, say, 3×5” cards, one idea per card.  Or you can  type them in your word processor, one-line-per-idea, print them out, and then cut them apart so you can play with their arrangement. Or, if you’re using Word, use the Shirt-Alt plus the Up or Down arrow keys to rearrange them on the digital page.  We want to be able to move those points, trying different arrangements, quickly and easily.

A piece of writing is a collection of ideas
That’s a key concept. At best, those ideas are interrelated and interconnected. Arranged well, one idea seems to grow out of the one that came before it, and then another and another.  Idea A leads to idea B, then C… The whole piece makes sense for your reader.

It’s also important to remember: Writing is a process of addition
You put down an idea, then you add another idea, and then another until your done.  (Save the cutting for the revision or re-writing stage.) Certainly a lot of your meaning comes from the words you choose, but the meaning is also communicated by the sequence of ideas.  You want to construct them in a sensible and easily understandable flow.

College was stressful at times
I was an English major in college.  That meant I had a lot of term papers to write, like all the time.  At the semester’s beginning I would go home from my classes stressed—all those papers to write, those deadlines!

How did I get them done on time?
So I would do my research, collect my ideas, then write them down, at that time  on a yellow pad (no word processor yet!).  Then I would then cut my ideas apart, one idea per clipping.  The floor usually worked best. So I would arrange those ideas there, moving the clips of paper here and there, until I got them in a sequence that worked well.  Next I pulled out a long strip of clear plastic tape and pressed it down over all those pieces of paper–capturing their order.

Build your writing 3×5 cards or computer
Incidentally, I still use 3×5 cards  at times because they are handy to file away. If I decided not to use an idea or two, I could put those cards into a handy file box, indexed so that they’d be easy to find later if  needed.  I am frequently remembering ideas and hate it when I can’t find them in their original wording.

And with cards, I can number them to preserve their order, usually in pencil in case I change my mind.  I change my mind a lot.

Now write!
Once you have that order nailed down, go ahead and write.  Free-write if you like, pushing yourself to write rapidly, getting the ideas on the page, but following your “outline.” Or, go more slowly adding idea to idea carefully and deliberately.

Get a grip
This method  helped me crank out those many term papers and also feel like I had a grip on my to-do list.

Try it.
The next time you have some ideas for a piece of writing, perhaps the thought will occur, “I don’t know where to start.”  Give this method of idea-arranging a go. I think you’ll like it.

NOTICE TO MY READERS: Please comment and/or feel free ask questions.  

Are there any topics you’d like me to write about on this blog?  If so, let me know.  I’m open to both fiction and nonfiction subjects.

Other ideas on ways to build your writing

http://www.youngprepro.com/article-from-scratch/

http://www.writingforward.com/better-writing/characteristics-of-good-writing

http://www.ttms.org/PDFs/01%20Writing%20Strategy%20Guide%20v001%20(Full).pdf

http://www.rswarren.com/library/writing_structure/

http://www.dailywritingtips.com/34-writing-tips-that-will-make-you-a-better-writer/

(photo source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/3643033719/)

Have you found your Writing Voice yet?

Courtesy DeaPeaJay @Flickr

It’s like learning to walk.
When you learned do walk, were you concerned about developing a distinctive walk?  Of course not.  Yet when a person grows up, others can easily recognize her from afar,  just by her walk.  Sometimes just by the way she is standing.

Give it time
Writing is like that too.  It just takes some time–and writing.

It’s like fine art work
I’ve spend lots of years learning watercolor painting. Often I’ve heard fellow painters fussing over being original, having their own style.  Some of them were careful never to copy the style or even techniques of other artist.

Even though that is a time-honored and classical way of apprenticeship.  But after I had been painting for about a year, one gal told me that she could always recognize my style.  I never worried about it after that.

One more art illustration
A favorite oil painter/teacher of mine once said words to this effect: “What does it take to get good? Miles and miles of canvas.”

A Distinctive style
My advice? Just write. Keep writing.  If you want to hurry up the growth process a bit, write more often.  Soon you will realize that your distinctve voice is emerging.  It’s inevitable. You don’t even have to try.

Meanwhile, I wouldn’t even be afraid to imitate the style of writers you admire.  This can increase the range of your style, add tools to your toolbox.  Even if you worked at it really diligently and  wound up sounding like those other writers a bit more than usual and for a brief while, in time you would give their stylistic techniques your own flavor anyway.

You’re a snowflake
You are unique, you know.

Keep writing. Write every chance you get.  And enjoy the journey!

If the writing is honest it cannot be separated from the man who wrote it.— Tennessee Williams

______________________________________________

Related info (not necessarily in total agreement with me!):

Excellent post:  http://hollylisle.com/ten-steps-to-finding-your-writing-voice/

Here’s a whole book on it: http://www.amazon.com/Finding-Your-Writers-Voice-Creative/dp/0312151284

Copyblogger is always good:  http://www.copyblogger.com/find-your-writing-voice/

As is Zen Habitshttp://zenhabits.net/voice/