Here is my belief system on writing, with some thoughts borrowed, others spawned. I’m sure some come from Roy Peter Clark, whose books I’ve consulted and seminars I’ve attended. No doubt Strunk & White are in here, as is William Zinsser. When I’ve taught writing seminars, I’ve used notes. For you, I’ve put those notes in a narrative. I don’t claim all the following thoughts and words as original or my own. I just claim they work.
Information is communication. No matter what technology does, that basic truth never changes. People ask me if the printed word is dying. Perhaps. But information and communication most certainly are not.
Think of modes of travel through the decades – from horses to automobiles to airplanes. Whatever the mode, it’s still travel. And the better the mode, the more people travel. It’s the same with communication. The better the technology, the more the communication. People are thirsting for information and communication, more so than ever before. Thus, the need for quality writers is at a premium.
In her book, “Gift From The Sea,” Ann Morrow Lindbergh said, “Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after.”
Let’s create some insomnia.
Writing is an effort to sustain a coherent train of thought. Remember that phrase, train of thought, because we’re going to revisit it. My longer definition of writing is that it is communication that grabs and engages a person’s senses and emotions so that the effect lingers long after the words are gone.
When someone is reading your work it should feel as if someone is pulling their eyes across your words, and they don’t want them to stop. When someone reads a long piece you’ve written and they tell you it seemed short, then you know you’ve accomplished something.
Finally, writing is building. It’s putting things together – letters, sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Some people work with computer chips, some with bricks, some with wood. We’re all builders in some way. And all big structures start with small components.
Writing’s key components are:
One important bit of advice that has served me well: Write for readers, not for editors. Readers are your real boss.
My college professor, Benton R. Patterson, once told us to think of what we’ve written as one of three glasses:
Full Glass – This means there is a preexistent interest in what you’ve written. The reader is going to read it no matter what, and perhaps (although we hope not) no matter how poorly it’s written. An example is someone diagnosed with cancer. They’re going to read anything they can get their eyeballs on regarding that form of cancer, regardless of the quality of writing.
Empty Glass – You can write a Nobel Prize winner and some people will not read it, simply because they’re not interested in the subject.
Half-Full Glass – This is where most of what we write falls. People will take a sip, they’ll invest a little something in what we write. For those people, it’s our job to plop ice cubes into that half glass of water and make it full. What are those ice cubes? They are the tools of your trade; the art of your craft.
History is rife with great musicians and songwriters who can’t read music. John Lennon once said of the Beatles, “None of us can read music. None of us can write it.”
When I arrived as a freshman in college, it was embarrassing how little I knew about the rules of grammar, style and usage. I’ve applied myself to learn those rules, if only because I don’t want to be ignorant. I also want to know which rules I’m breaking, and why. But if you ask me to explain a split infinitive, or break down various clauses, I’d probably struggle.
I still write a lot by ear, by feel, by instinct. A lot of musicians and songwriters are like that, too. But they, and hopefully I, have learned the tools of our craft. Knowing the rules are important. But the tools are what you use to build something uniquely your own.
Writing, as I mentioned earlier, is an effort to sustain a coherent train of thought. So think of it as a train.
In English, sentences write from left to right. Your lead car in that sentence is the locomotive – the noun. The next car is the engine that supplies the fuel – the verb. The middle cars carry freight. And then there is the caboose – the end of your sentence or narrative. If your freight cars are not carrying freight, then get rid of them. Doing so requires effort and examination, but it’s worth it.
Toward that end, get in the habit of reading with a pen and identifying where the subjects and verbs are. You’ll be surprised at how doing so helps you to write active, tighter sentences.
Think cinematically. Collect anecdotes as if they are scenes to a film. Involve all your senses when you’re writing. See the details and you’ll get your reader to see them. A small detail can tell the reader big things. Saying someone was smoking a cigarette says one thing. Saying that they’re smoking an unfiltered Camel says so much more.
When it comes to action, take heed of what George Orwell said: “Never use the passive, when you can use the active.”
If the subject performs the action, it’s an active verb.
If the subject receives the action, it’s a passive verb.
Passive: “The ball was caught by Steve.”
Active: “Steve caught the ball.”
Passive: “It was Sally’s observation that …”
Active: “Sally observed that …”
Again, we want to remember tools and not so much rules. Passive verbs do exist for a reason. Sometimes we use passive verbs to call attention to the receiver of the action. John Steinbeck once wrote: “The night was loaded with omens.” It’s passive. But it’s much better than: “Omens loaded the night.”
Three things to keep in mind with verbs:
Then there are the cerebral verbs, words like think, feel, hope, suspect, fear, regret and understand. Try to avoid them. Instead of naming emotions or describing what’s in someone’s head, let the readers discover it for themselves. One way to do that is to think of how emotions are experienced physically. You do this by conveying emotions through actions, reactions, interactions and dialogue.
This requires showing rather than telling, and it’s what the great writers do.
Adverbs often weaken the action. I’m not going to go so far as to say that adverbs are anathema, because I do believe they have a role on the stage, but they must pass certain standards.
Keep in mind, too, that adverbs often attach themselves to clichéd phrases. Here are a few examples. As you read them, notice how the adverbs weaken the sentences, and how they’ve also become clichés.
Allow your verbs to flex their muscles. They can lift a lot of weight on their own, if only you’d trust them. Strong verbs don’t need a spotter. If your verb isn’t muscular enough to lift the weight of a sentence, then search for another verb. Too often, when we don’t have a strong enough verb, we run to the nearest adverb we can find.
And just because a verb is an active verb, it doesn’t mean it’s a strong verb.
There are weak active verbs. Some examples are entered, moved, went, fell and rose. All are active. All are weak. Weak verbs often describe an outcome rather than an effect.
Focus on flesh and blood rather than numbers and statistics. When I’m writing sports, I like to think outside the box score. Do the same with whatever subject you’re writing about. To breathe life into what you’re writing, write about life.
William Randolph Hearst said, “People are interested in the fundamentals – love, romance, adventure, tragedy, mystery.”
Joseph M. Ungaro, the man famous for eliciting the “I am not a crook” line from Richard Nixon, once said: “If the only people in your newspaper are on the people page, you’re reading a dull newspaper. People are what news is all about.”
And this from Norman Vincent Peale: “Tell me a story.”
Stories involve relationships between characters, situations and actions.
“That’s all a story is,” William Faulkner said. “You catch this fluidity which is human life and you focus a light and you stop it long enough for people to be able to see it.”
Picture your reader sitting in a room with the shades drawn. He or she walks over and pulls the shade up. Outside is a beautiful garden you’ve sweated over and toiled long hours on, and you’re proud of it.
What do you want them to see? Do you want them to see smudges on the window? Do you want them to find it difficult to peer through the window because it’s opaque? Maybe it’s a stain-glass window. Beautiful, yes. But is that really serving the purpose for the moment, which is the scenery outside the window?
Don’t smudge your writing. Don’t obscure meaning. Don’t get flowery with your prose. Keep your window clean; keep it clear. Allow your reader to see what you’ve worked so hard at.
Toward that end, here are some quotes I’ve collected:
Simplify, simplify, simplify.
To be sure, though, simplifying is a complicated process.
Take the reader on a drive. Don’t keep him or her on the freeway. At the same time, don’t subject them to constant stop-and-go traffic.
How do you do that?
Think of punctuation as road signs. Red lights and stop signs are periods and exclamation points; commas are rolling stops; colons are right-hand turns at red lights. Punctuation helps you move the traffic along. It moves your narrative along.
Mix short, medium and long sentences. Mix short paragraphs with long paragraphs. Use quotes and dialogue.
Remember, paragraphs are units of thought, not of length.
Gary Provost, from his book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, said this:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals — sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
“So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.”
I like to think of writing in the same terms as music. And if writing is a symphony of words, don’t forget the drumbeat. Implement parallel structures as if they were your melody; a hook the reader can’t get out of their head.
Read aloud. Think like an orator. The great orators know the power of words and their proper placement.
Listen to Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado.“
Do you notice the steady drumbeat – how each sentence begins with “let” and ends with a state’s name? It creates a cadence, a steady repetition that brings rhythm to his words.
A warning, though. Make sure you know the difference between intended and unintended repetition.
Think in threes.
Abraham Lincoln did.
In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln spoke of a government by the people, of the people, for the people – one, two three.
Listen as Lincoln speaks. Notice the words I’ve highlighted with different colors and you’ll see how he rhymes, employs alliteration, repeats words and phrases and creates a cadence.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
I’ve prescribed one consistent maxim to myself throughout my writing career:
I report as if I can’t write, and I write as if I haven’t reported.
I’m neurotic about anecdotes and details. Not that I’ll use them all. But I live with the healthy fear that if I don’t have them, I won’t be able to craft a story. Then I work hard to craft a story as if I haven’t done my advance work.
Details appeal to the senses, and description makes a reader a sensory participant to your story.
Notice the lede to this news story about mass murderer Ted Bundy:
BOUNTIFUL, Utah — Belva Kent always left the front porch light on when her children went out at night. Whoever came home last turned it off, until one day in 1974 when Mrs. Kent told her family: “I’m going to leave that light on until Deb comes home and she can turn it off.”
The Kents’ porch light still burns today, night and day. Just inside the front door, a strip of tape covers the switch.
Deb never came home.
Notice the rich use of details?
In looking for details, look for specific nouns instead of generic nouns.
Instead of a cigarette, write that it’s an unfiltered Camel.
In the above lede, as good as it is, I would’ve liked to have known what kind of tape is covering the light switch – duct, masking, Scotch?
What kind of car is your subject driving? Is she wearing designer clothes? If there is a dog, what is its name? Notice this lede to a cover story I wrote on Arnold Palmer for Orlando magazine, and how I used his dog by name to get into the story:
The old dog barks a greeting from down the hallway and Janet Hulcher confirms what everybody already knows. “Mr. Palmer is here,” announces the golf legend’s executive assistant, sitting at her desk. Mulligan, a lumbering yellow Labrador whose age nobody seems to know anymore, appears first, the metronome of his tail wagging slowly. Mulligan’s master, Arnold Palmer, is moving even slower, his body contorted with pain, his gait forced. “I’m not having a good morning,” he states as he gingerly shuffles to his office located on the second floor above the pro shop at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge. He had played golf the day before on the course he owns, and his creaky body is what’s barking at him.
Palmer is 83, and in golf parlance he has played life’s 18 holes and has had the good fortune to be able to go back onto the course for perhaps another nine holes. Twenty-seven holes would be nice. It would also provide a sense of symmetry, for it was 27 holes that his father got; not in figurative years, but literally. On a postcard Florida afternoon back on February 6, 1976, Milfred Jerome “Deacon” Palmer, 71, played 27 holes of golf at Bay Hill, came back to his room at the lodge, had a massive heart attack and died.
When you use details, your writing becomes vivid.
Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
The less specific you are, the more you force readers to make their own interpretations. Don’t leave things broad or vague. Instead of saying someone was shy, show them standing apart from others
There is a balance to description, however. It takes touch. You have to know when your reader needs to be a tourist, and when they need to be an explorer.
You are the tour guide.
Bad writing is like bad acting. And bad acting is painful to watch – the over-enunciating, the over-gesturing, the over-dramatizing. When you’re watching it, you’re drawn to the bad acting rather than to the story. Simply stated, bad acting is when you can tell that people are acting.
It’s the same with bad writing. When you can tell that people are writing, then it’s bad writing. The flowery descriptions, the obsession with adverbs, the seven-syllable words … you know what I’m talking about. Said the novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Just saying “hackneyed cliché” is, of course, a cliché, which illustrates how easy it is to give in to them without even realizing it. Few things will make your writing seem more amateurish than littering your work with clichés.
Clichés are worn-out metaphors that were once young and vibrant but are now ready for the nursing home. Instead of relying on tired clichés, coin your own and it’ll invigorate your reader.
Opinionated — “He clings to his opinions like a tick on a dog.”
Quarterback sacks — “They should rename him blackjack, seeing as how he took so many hits.”
Southern accent — “He spoke with a mouthful of Georgia.”
Tough interview — “Interviewing him is like trying to shake hands with a shadow.”
Big heart — “He might be little, but he has a XXXL heart.”
Gray sky — “A canopy of granite.”
Middle of the month — “Half-past November.”
Someone who can’t help stirring things up — “Just when the buzz around him seemed to have subsided, he gave the beehive another kick.”
Boring speaker — “He can put coffee to sleep. Someone should’ve put chalk marks and yellow tape around the podium after he left.”
To create your own metaphor take phrases and twist them, change them, modify them. If you can’t do that, then write it straight.
Quotes contribute to cadence.
Quotes involve another sense.
Quotes reveal character.
Quotes are friends to your prose. Even when we write badly, people still tend to read the quotes.
At the same time, don’t over-quote. And don’t over-attribute. Credit the reader with knowing who is talking. You don’t have to use he said or she said every time you quote someone. It creates unnecessary drag.
And another thing, as best you can, avoid ending a quote with he said. Quotes should end with the quote. This is particularly true when you have a passage with some punch.
“You must evacuate this flight. There is a suicide bomber on board with explosives strapped to his chest,” he said.
Better to write: “You must evacuate this flight,” he said. “There is a suicide bomber on board with explosives strapped to his chest.”
One more thing. In your research, try to get dialogue when you can. There is a difference between dialogue and quotes. A quote is something heard. Dialogue is something overheard. It’s much more intimate, creating a sense of eavesdropping.
“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” – Arthur Plotnik, editor and author
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author and aviator
“Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” – Pablo Picasso, painter, and sculptor
Write your story and then go back with a hatchet, then a knife, and finally a scalpel.
Cut adverbs that modify instead of intensify.
Cut prepositional phrases that repeat the obvious.
Look for every a, an, the, that, out, up, down, to and eliminate them if you can.
Test every that to see if it belongs. Often, it doesn’t.
Look to turn prepositional phrases into possessives:
Semicolons are your efficient friend. They allow you to eliminate conjunctions or prepositions that become necessary with commas – words like because, whereas, for, or, but, while, and and.
Think like a machinist. A machine should have no unnecessary parts. When it does, that extraneous part stands out, but not in a good way.
I read once that when you go back through what you’ve written, cut the dry branches; then shake loose the dead leaves.
When you eliminate the weak, the strong will be stronger. That’s because when you eliminate the weak there is more room for your story’s strength to flex its muscles.
Don’t just cut anecdotes. Cut quotes, paragraphs, sentences, phrases and words. And don’t forget syllables, too.
Remember, the toughest editor you’ll ever encounter is the reader. If you don’t cut, your reader will. He or she will start skimming instead of reading. If you don’t provide them with the shortest path, they will find it on their own.
The more complex the subject matter, the simpler the sentences need to be. When a sentence becomes unwieldy, break it into smaller ones.
Study what you like. If you admire a piece of writing, analyze why. Study and reread it often.
It’s okay to try to copy someone else’s voice. It’ll prime your pump, and you’ll find your own voice emerging. Be prepared, though; your voice will likely surprise you. You’ll ask yourself: Who is that person? In life, we come across unexpected situations and our reaction to them sometimes surprises us. It’s the same with our writing voice.
I’m not a believer in writer’s block, but I do believe that the faster we write, the better the prose is.
The singer-songwriter Al Stewart once said, “All things I’ve done quickly have worked. I think it’s like wading through quicksand, the longer you have to fight with something the deeper you get lost in it and eventually it swallows you.”
I know how well things are going by how long it takes me to hit my keyboard’s save button. Sometimes I’ve written a thousand words and it hasn’t even occurred to me to hit the save button, and when I do I’m horrified all those words could’ve been lost with a power surge. At the same time, I know what I’ve written was really flowing.
But back to so-called writer’s block. I believe writer’s block is a euphemism for procrastinating, an excuse to not work.
Writing is work.
Writer’s block? Does the baker get baker’s block, does the mechanic get mechanic’s block, does the guy who mows your lawn get lawn mower’s block?
Get started, get going. The baker starts with the first ingredient, the mechanic with the first turn of a screw, the guy who mows your lawn with the first blade of grass. Granted, the most difficult word to write is the first one. So don’t waste time. Write it.