This guide is intended for beginning media writing students at North Dakota State University, Fargo.
Good writing should be fun. But it must not be, according to most of the guides to good writing out there. It's tough, it's painful, it's drudgery writing a quality non-fiction article designed to attract attention of jaded readers. So we have long, glum guides opening into chapter after tedious chapter of grammar, spelling, punctuation, organization, style, structure...sigh! If your fifth grade teacher's assigning essays as punishment wasn't enough to convince you that writing is indeed drudgery, then most writing texts surely will finish the job.
This book aims to debunk the old myth that writing should be painful and difficult. "Book," that's too pompous a word. Booklet, really, and designed to be that way. Short, light, entertaining but insightful, just like your writing is supposed to be. Assuming you already know a little about the language, it bounces past the bigger books to the heart of good non-fiction. No frills, but a promise: if you master these simple techniques you will not only be a good quality writer--you'll have more fun behind the keys.
The guide is designed primarily for media writing students, to complement a basic text. But it is also easily digestible to non-news students and to others interested in improving their writing, but not ready to wade through a standard writing text.
Most of the time in the writing world, packages need to be kept small. That's not necessarily because good writing doesn't also come in large packages. More, it's because large packages may not be opened--long stories may not be read. Keep your writing is brief as possible, and you'll find it's better to have your audience read a little than to ignore a lot.
That premise forms the basis of this mini-guide, designed to complement a textbook, or to give a hurried new writer a fast-reading ride through the best of the professional's tricks.
Chapters are based, not on what other textbooks have said, but on what I have found through everyday experience writing for a wide variety of newspapers and other publications. Experience counts for much in the writing business: you can bluff people to death in some jobs (read, "consulting"), but if you're a writer, your creative claim to brilliance is laid bare for all the jaded world to scrutinize.
The hints in this book will help you back up bluffs with performance and, I hope, have fun doing it. Because good writing IS fun, and not only for the reader. Writing shouldn't be agony, despite the myth. Who wants to open a vein to write a city council story? Just ingest the ideas in this brief book, take a deep breath, and write bright, but write tight.
This book assumes you already know some writing rudiments. It is primarily designed for news writers, but the techniques are easily adaptable to all kinds of non-fiction writing. Nearly all the bad examples are taken from published sources, to make you feel better about yourself already.
Picture, if you will, a shoe box filled with short lengths of multi-colored strings. The box is packed with dozens of strings, each one just slightly different in color, but all of them ranging from dark red to light blue, plus many colors in between.
Your job is to tie all of these strings together into one long length. But you don't tie just any string onto any other string, helter-skelter. Instead, you need to tie the strings together so that each color smoothly leads into the next, so that the colors of adjacent strings are only slightly different from each other. Now, you wouldn't tie a light pink string onto a dark blue one, right? That would be a jarring juxtaposition, and you could easily tell the difference between two strings.
So instead you begin to group the strings together according to color: blues with blues, reds with reds, etc. After you've done that, you refine your groups further, light blue to dark blue, light red to dark red.
Next you try to match the colors so that they harmonize: purple is very close to darkish blue, dark yellow isn't too far from light red, etc. Now you begin to tie.
In the end, what will you have? A long string, full of little strings, but all together, one strand that seems to be a smooth single length.
Those little strings are the individual facts of your story. Each one is different, but some are more closely related than others. Your job when writing is to group the related facts together so that your readers are carried form one idea to the next, smoothly, quickly, form beginning to end, without the pain of having one statement butted against another completely different statement.
For example, let's examine a passage from one of America's fine syndicated columnists, Ellen Goodman:
"The sophomore had left college to 'find herself,' rather as if she were a set of misplaced keys. She had the notion that her mind was a collection of pockets and if she searched in each one of them long enough she would find the keys to unlock this self.
"Months later she told her parents that she was deeply into the independent study called 'Who Am I?' and by now, surely, she had become a professional introspector. A very private eye.
"The woman didn't know this sophomore very well; she was a friend of the parents. But she knew others her age who conducted their own missing persons bureau: others who had turned inward to see what they could find and had found self-discovery a totally absorbing sort of trip."
Notice Goodman begins by writing in the active voice, and continues to write that way. She doesn't jar her reader by flipping back and forth between the active and the passive. She weaves like strings together.
Goodman begins the second graf with the sophomore, the same as the first graf, but adds a new element toward the end: the parents. In this way she guides us from sophomore to parents, not from sophomore to parents to sophomore, chunk, chunk, chunk.
The third graf introduces a third aspect, the woman. But Goodman repeats sophomore, and shows a relationship between the two, to guide us softly to another idea. Then Goodman brings in parents again, an aspect we have already been introduced to, and shows the connection between the two. The idea is, try to find some aspect in each fact of your story that can easily lead into another fact. If a passage seems rough, you may need to lead you readers from one fact to another with a sentence of transition. For instance:
"'I made a conscious decision to do that,' he said. 'A team must come to Minneapolis.'"
"Another decision Dr. Levine had to make was to tell the parents of the accident victim...."
By the addition of the phrase "another decision..." you have been slipped from one fact in the story to a rather different fact. Without the transitional phrase, the shift would jar.
Words and phrases can be used as transitions, to indicate to the reader that you are shifting emphasis, introducing a new idea, moving to a new string. Some good transitions include:
Still, on the other hand, however, though, of course, remember, last, then, finally, yes, no, but unfortunately, once again, as well.
As you write, you may sometimes hit a block--bong--where you just have to move to a new aspect, even though it's different from the last. What to do? Just plunge on to the new idea, and let your reader flounder about a while saying, "wha,' whey, whoa...," right? What do you think? You move heaven and earth to come up with a transition. Take this example:
"Jones, a blackjack dealer, studies accounting at the university. 'I hope I can get out of this rut and make something of myself,' she said. "Jones was raised on a small farm near Perley, Minn. The youngest of eight girls, she...."
Well. Could we leave this story as written? Yes--you can walk around with greasy hair and B.O. too, and get by. The tacky will always be with us. But not for present company--at least, not for our writing. Find a transition. You get a minute to think.
Find one? How about this, as just one possibility:
".... make something of myself,' she said.
"That smoky night work has taken Jones a long way from her fresh-air rural upbringing. Raised on a farm near...."
It's a little hokey, true, but on purpose--now it's up to you. Try to think of a better transition. And appreciate the importance of directing your reader smoothly from one idea to the next.
Transitions do NOT make your copy wordy. They are necessary to help you reader make it over the bumps. All good non-fiction writing includes such transitions, although you probably haven't been aware of it. You're not supposed to be; that's the idea. Don't let words get in the way of the story. But in the future, when you read other people's writing, try to analyze the transitions, the grouping of facts. Decide whether that grouping has made the story better, or whether disorganization has made the story worse.
And in your own writing, remember what I call the colored strings principle: don't throw a mismatched fistful of facts willy-nilly at your reader. Lead slowly, carefully, from beginning to end. "Writing is like driving sheep down the road. If there is any gate to the left or right, the reader will most certainly go into it." --C.S. Lewis
Writers begin with two things: a jumble of facts, quotes statistics, hearsay, lies, possibilities, inanities, grains of wisdom--and a blank page or screen.
It is the task of the writer to gather up all this material, mull it over, separate the important from the dross, the facts from the foolishness, organize the important and throw away the rest, and then write it so clearly that everyone will understand exactly what it means. Think of the writer as a sculptor, perhaps, not with clay, but with a medium even more difficult: ideas.
Obviously, it will be impossible for a writer to sculpt this material for readers if he does not really understand it himself. Therefore, the first step to organizing a story is:
1. Read all the facts and notes at your disposal, from beginning to end, before writing a word. Be sure that you have all the information at the top of your consciousness, and that you clearly understand it.
If you don't clearly understand what a source has told you, or what was voted on at a meeting, or how the gadget works, or how the accident happened, it's better to find the answers before you begin to write.
2. Decide what kind of lead sentence you want to write. Will it be direct or indirect? Time will be a consideration here--if you're cramped for time, you'll probably have to write a direct lead, because it's easier to think up. Also, for a "hard news" story such as a fire, an accident, an important meeting, an indirect lead becomes a nuisance for the reader who is anxious to have the vial facts, fast. Keep the indirect lead for the slower stories where you need to hook your reader more gently.
3. After you've written your lead, go over it, make it smooth, polish it. Use your ear--how does the sentence sound? The difference between non-fiction and poetry is not as great as you may think.
4. After you write your beginning sentence, say, "what facts from the story will best support this lead I've written?" In most mass communication writing, you must immediately support your lead, or your readers will become bored and lose interest. For instance:
"At first the cost seemed indigestible."
What does that mean, for God's sake? It must be explained immediately.
"The city of Glover would have to put up $2.3 million to build a south wing on the courthouse, plus another $1 million to remodel the old building."
Or a more straightforward lead:
"The Cass County Commission Tuesday put a kink into plans to build a second grain elevator near Alice."
Yeah, what kink?
"Acting on advice from the Cass County Director of Tax Equalization Clarence Miller, the commission rescinded its approval to exempt the elevator from paying property taxes."
5. Usually, after you've explained your lead statement, it's time to elaborate. A quote to support it often works well here, or an amplifying fact, or a chronological list of events leading up to the action in the lead.
You may wish to further elaborate on the lead--put in more facts, explain how a decision will be implemented, the effect it will have. Try to begin with the most important facts, in your estimation, and end with the lesser important ("inverted pyramid style"). Remember: in making these decisions, you are the most powerful judge of what becomes news. Be fair.
Example: "The Cass County Commission Tuesday put a kink into plans to build a second grain elevator near Silver City. Acting on advice from Cass County Director of Tax Equalization Clarence Miller, the commission rescinded its approval to exempt the elevator from paying property taxes.
"'To exempt the elevator from taxes would set a dangerous precedent,' explained Miller. 'I foresee the possibility of at least a dozen other rural elevators demanding similar breaks,' he said. 'That could wreck our budget.'"
6. Write short paragraphs. This is newspaper style--it makes narrow columns look more open and inviting. But don't go overboard. All one-sentence grafs become so disjoined they actually inhibit readability.
7. You may wish to scribble an outline to help you organize the body of your story. Some writers always do this, when they have time. Others write books without outlines. The one disadvantage to an outline: it takes time, and often on a newspaper or in broadcast news, time is what you ain't got.
8. And for an ending? It is acceptable to end a straight news story without any ending at all. Just quit writing. But your story appears more polished, especially if it is a feature story, when you write an ending which harks back to your lead, tying up your package. Another option is to find a great quote to sum up your piece, and leave your reader with something to chew on.
9. Re-read your story one more time, two more times--as many times as you can before deadline. Think of your reader: will he or she understand what you're trying to say? Have you grouped related facts together? Are transitions appropriate? Do sentences sound smooth or awkward? Hear the music, the flow of the sentences as you read. Is the grammar and spelling correct? Hint: all of us have a few characteristic weaknesses, mistakes we ALWAYS seem to make. In these cases the rule is, "know thy weaknesses." For instance, if you always spell dozen, "dosen," as I do, well, a little mental "red flag"--blip--should spring up every time you write the word. You'll know every time to look it up. "The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots bringing down the bird of thought as it flies by." --E.B. White.
People slaving against the infernal deadline sometimes cry out in anguished desperation (okay, maybe not that anguished), "what's the secret to writing fast?!"
Well, there is one.
The secret begins with a chain of principles at the base of many skills which demand quick action, from playing music to piloting an airplane. The principles revolve around this hub: have your job nearly finished before you've started it.
In other words, be familiar enough with your task so that, in your own mind, the work is finished, like Mozart, "in your noodle:" all that is left is to make your body translate it into reality. In the case of the musician, no chords, no scales, no grouping of notes is new--the patterns he sees in the score are immediately recognized and transferred to the fingers, without much conscious thought.
For a pilot, of course, the purr of the plane, the gleam of the instruments, the response of the controls need no longer be noticed at length. They have been noticed so many times before, and are understood instinctively.
The experienced writer begins a story with that same extensive knowledge of similar stories written and read before. The tools, the words, are old servants, trusted and ready for instant fitting to lines of sentences similar to thousands of lines read and written in the past.
The experienced writer of the routine news story can slap it out in 10 minutes because, in her mind, the story is written--it needs only to be transferred to paper. True, that's not always art, but art takes more time, usually. If you have time, look for leads more creative, content more imaginative. But if you don't, work to establish this skill of writing fast.
How? As you might expect, it begins with practice in writing many kinds of stories, but there's more to it than that; media writers use other shortcuts too. Besides writing, the beginning writer should spend time reading critically what experienced reporters and other writers have written. Notice the rhythm of the beginning--the direct lead of standard news stories has a rather predictable cadence, almost like a stock poetic meter. Notice what the writers stress, what they play down. Notice the construction of the sentences, the smoothness (or, unfortunately, roughness) of them.
After you've read quite a few of these stories, you'll notice that media writers, like plumbers and carpenters, keep in their tool boxes a few tools they use over and over again. Writers use them, like the trades people, because they work so well in so many situations, because they seldom fail, and because they're quick. Some are words, yes, but more useful to learn are the common "hooks" a writer uses to begin his story, that is, the angle she chooses. I call them:
My Favorite Themes
These help you shortcut the most difficult and time-consuming part of writing a story: how to begin. The themes, you'll notice if you read many news stories, are used time and time again, day after day after day, by competent news writers on small weeklies and senior reporters on metro dailies. They use them because:
Here are some themes:
1. Deaths. If any story, most often accident, disaster, crime, etc., includes the news that someone was killed, the death is usually the most important, and should make the lead. This reflects those Judeo-Christian values of Western civilization--we value human life above all else.
2. Serious injuries. When someone is critically injured, this is often the second most important lead. Moderate injuries may or may not be lead material, and slight injuries, the "treated and released" variety are usually included lower down.
3. Damage. When death and injury are not a concern, property damage becomes most important, usually including an estimate of the losses in:
4. Money. Newspaper writers recognize that money is the focus of many people's lives, and that most readers are vitally interested in it. Whether it be how much money was taken in a crime, how much was spent by the city council, how much was won in a state lottery, how much was borrowed to buy the building, if you're in a bind for a lead, money often gives you the answer.
5. Taxes. This is related to money, of course, because it affects most people's wallets one way or another. When taxes have been raised, or reduced, or discussed, or spent, or misspent, this if often the ideal lead. When you write about taxes, by the way, if possible translate what the rate means to the average taxpayer. For instance, say, "The nine-mill levy means the owner of a $60,000 home will pay $75 more a year in property taxes."
6. Controversy. If an issue was raked back and forth at a meeting by supporters and detractors, it has become controversial, and in the news business, that makes it more interesting. It also helps you to slap out a faster story, because often people who are arguing spread about some great quotes you can sprinkle into your paragraphs.
7. Prominence. If a person is well-known to your readers, that may be your best lead. Agreed, sometimes we may be playing slightly to the lure of gossip, but readers are interested in the eccentricities of the well-known and, frankly, to be successful, newspapers do need to publish what people want to read.
Something out of nothing
Looking for these themes in a pinch will help you write your story faster, but there's more to speed than stock themes. Remember, I said skilled writers have most of the story written before they've touched finger to key. Not only do they pick up speed from experience--they pick it up from making something out of nothing.
For instance, let's say you're covering a city council meeting. You've heard a few interesting discussions, squeezing between some probably interminable and insignificant dither. During the less important talk, what do you do? Drink coffee and doodle? Wrong. You begin to organize the important stories on your notepad, while keeping one ear open to the discussion. You may have to make a few changes later, but in this way you'll at least have a start by the time you get back to the office.
In the same way, you don't spend your drive time listening to golden oldies. You mull over in your mind the organization of your story, the lead, the significant facts. That way, when you return to your desk, you'll leap to the keyboard, zip off the yarn in 10 minutes, and impress blazes out of your editor. It works. Who said media people had to work lots of overtime? Just the slow ones.
The goals of both builders were the same: each planned to stretch a length of driveway from the main highway to his house.
But though they worked side by side, their constructions were not at all alike. On the one side, the builder poured his concrete carelessly, skirting boulders and tree stumps that got in the way, leaving deep cracks, ignoring piles of rubble poking through.
On the other side, the builder worked not at all like his neighbor. Here, the builder grubbed the stumps aside before pouring the concrete, dragged the boulders away before laying the pavement. This man paved carefully, smoothing the wrinkles and cracks, creating a silken ribbon to his house.
Looking toward the first builder, this man become curious. "How come you're building a road though the stumps and stones?" he asked.
"What's the difference?" replied the other builder. "People can still get to my house. Why work so hard for perfection? If they want to see me, they'll make it through."
Writers of non-fiction work a little like the road builders. Some try hard to sweep away the boulders and stumps and other road blocks, to roll out a smooth way for their readers. Others strew impediments along the way, forcing readers to stumble through misguided words and phrases.
What's the diff, as the one road builder told the other? The diff is that no one has to take your road; it's up to you to attract them to it, pull them onto it, and keep them on it until it ends.
One of those impediments too many writers fail to grub from their work is called, grammatically, non-parallel construction. It comes in many forms: verbs that don't agree, phrases that switch voices, suffixes that change form, adjectives repeated and then later dropped, articles dropped and later added...it doesn't matter so much if you know the misfits grammatically. What matters is your ability to feel the bumps as you cross over them.
When you drive a rough road, you feel the plunk of a pothole, the clunk of a crack. When you read, you should feel an uncomfortable CHUNK when you confront non-parallel construction.
Poor: "I look forward to meeting with you and to discuss your college plans."
PrrrrrrrrrWHUMP! Feel that bump? It's right after the "and," because the infinitive "to discuss" does not match the present participle "meeting." Make your verb forms match and blend with each other.
Some better: "I look forward to meeting with you and to discussing your plans."
Poor: "Construction engineers must find answers to the questions of ground stability, materials quality, worker efficiency, design strength, and containing the high costs."
All is going smoothly, then BONG, you hit that last phrase. Where did that unmarked present participle "containing" come from, for lan' sake? This kind of non-parallel construction, in a list of several elements, is particularly common.
Better: "Construction engineers must find answers to questions of ground stability, materials quality...and cost containment."
Poor: "The teacher is expected to grow professionally by attending workshops and to read scientific journals."
Better: "The teacher is expected to grow professionally by attending workshops and reading scientific journals."
Poor: "Melodic fecundity and courage to try new chords are characteristic qualities of Schubert's music...."
A little better, at least parallel: "Melodic fecundity and harmonic audacity are...."
Not so hot: "He says the program aims at returning more authority to state government and reduce federal regulation.":
Better: "He says the program aims at returning more authority to state government and reducing federal regulation."
Effective use of parallel construction may make your writing so strong it not only breaks though roadblocks, but it actually compels the reader to follow your sentences and your work. Strong and repeated parallel construction attracts readers as repetition attracts music lovers. The magnetism may stem from the endless repetition in nature itself, its undulating waves, its quivering leaves, its eternal cycles of birth and death and life anew. As a writer, even a non-fiction writer, you become a creator, and after a while you realize that all artistic creation is kin, beginning in nature.
For instance, who can resist the elegant power of this concise lead built on parallel construction:
"More than its founder could have dreamed, the world changed. And more than its builders could have hoped, the building did not." (Cathy Mauk, The Forum.)
Or these examples:
"Through the gloom drift the girls, shrugging hat angles in the mirrors, rehearsing blouses beneath their stretched necks, dancing out of the dressing room in unzipped minis, trading clothes, fingering though a haystack of baubles...." (Michael Kernan, The Washington Post.)
"Our lies about our histories tell the truth about our souls."
(William Crawford Woods, The Washington Post.)
As you write, think of yourself as a road builder, as a creator of a ribbon in words, no wrinkles, no cracks, no blocks to your reader. It's one of the keys to great writing.
"Though knowledge and creativity have distinct temperaments, they both serve us. Knowledge responds like an obedient dog, but creativity must be coaxed like a cat. It may come when you call, or walk away. Unlimited by what we know, creation works on." --Joseph Ferguson
"Write bright!" the English teacher tells us.
"Make your writing sparkle!" the journalism prof tells us.
"Make your writing hop and sing!" the outspoken editor of a Midwestern daily used to say.
That's all fine, sounds great, especially in this age of aerobics--writing should be fit, too. Question is, what do we mean by all this hopping and singing and shining? How an you make your writing vigorous, and make your readers excited and anxious to read what YOU write?
It's no great marvel or magic muse, of course--good writing begins with knowledge and practice, and ends with inspiration and talent, not the other way around. To begin with, you must collect into your writing certain jewels that radiate that sparkle, the brilliance all the teachers and editors talk about.
The First Jewel
Jewel Number One: unconventional, vigorous, specific, hard-working verbs. Verbs make the guts of your writing. They, more than anything, decide whether your work will be interesting as aged wine or dull as diet cola.
Begin by writing in the active voice as often as you can. In the passive voice (example: "This guide was written by Ross") you must always add form of the verb "to be" to your sentence. "To be" is weak--I am, you are, he is, etc., sounds fuzzy, unspecific, unfocused. It really tells us very little specific information about the subject. Verbs should be specific. In the active voice, you can avoid using the verb "to be" and substitute another, more interesting verb. If possible, find a way to write your sentences avoiding the verb "to be." Can't find a way? You can, usually, if you work at it.
Weak: "His main concentration is on writing."
Better: "He concentrates on writing."
Weak: "The station's costs are much lower."
Better: "The station's costs stay much lower."
Weak: "All of these materials are free."
Better, and more specific: "Students may choose from free brochures and catalogs."
Closely related is the weak opener "there is" and its kith. Nearly always you can find a way to avoid it:
Weak: "There wasn't enough beer left for little Andy."
Better: "We found enough beer for Bob, but not enough for little Andy."
Weak: "There were 6,000 people at the fair Friday...."
Better: "A stuffing of 6,000 jammed the county fairground Friday...."
Weak: "There was only one good rain in June."
Better: "A thundershower soaked the area in June, but after that, nothing."
Closely related to "to be" are weak, lazy, do-nothing phrases. Mostly these phrases sit around on your paper and mope, complain, and do nothing to earn the right to take up your precious writing space. Look for phrases such as: "As a result of...." "Due to...." Results in a...." "Caused by...." "Because of...." "The fact that...." Etc. Zzzzzzzzz.
Rip out that verbal fat and replace it with something sprightly:
Weak: "The basic theme is that of learning."
Better: "The household stresses education."
Weak: "This results in a better product."
Better: Acme tests every stove it makes, guaranteeing you a stronger, more reliable appliance."
Weak: The storm was due to (or caused by) a sunspot."
Better: "A sunspot triggered the storm."
Weak: "One fund involved a $500-a-year contribution to research."
Better: "Students may apply a $500-a-year fund to their research."
Get the picture? Be specific. Use concrete verbs and expressions instead of hazy ones. Root out that passive voice.
As a general rule, you might develop the "red flag" instinct toward any phrase with a "the/of" combination.
Yuk: "The conversion of a fieldhouse into a cinema was the topic of a meeting Thursday...."
Passible: "City leaders Thursday debated a plan to turn Flora Frick Fieldhouse into a movie theater."
Yeesh: "A higher drinking age and the acceptance of gambling for charity are two outcomes of a recent poll taken in Moorhead."
Yes: "A majority of residents want to gamble legally in Moorhead bars, but want under 21 year olds to stay out, according to a poll...."
Famous topic, weak: "The U.S. Supreme Court today authorized the liberalizing of pornography laws in the country."
Recast: "The U.S. Supreme Court today said that if you want to read dirty books at home, the government can't throw you in jail for it."
As far as the verbs themselves: once you've made them active, make them even more active. All verbs are not created equal. Some of them, poor things, are worked to death, used over and over and over and...they're exhausted.
For instance, the verb "to walk." She walked to the store. He walked with her. They walked to the produce section. The clerk walked over to them....
Do you know how many verbs you can find to replace walk? Fresh verbs, specific verbs, descriptive verbs. Here's a start: trudge, step, stagger, bounce, pace, proceed, advance, stride, march, stroll, saunter, hike, strut, parade, waddle traipse, trundle, plod, shamble, stomp, inch, shuffle, stalk, tiptoe, ramble, toddle, trek, bowl along, pad, wend their way....
These active, specific verbs sparkle as the biggest jewel in your writing. Avoid the obvious. Think.
The Second Jewel
Okay, so you've avoided the passive voice, soporific verbs and do-nothing phrases. Now you have to put music into your metaphors. And similes. Many "C-" parvenus reach no farther than the end of their noses for their metaphors (see?). They use the same worn out cliches, those cute little phrases that were once lively and vigorous but, because they worked so well, have been loved to death like an old teddy bear.
For instance: "bee in his bonnet;" "thorn in her side;" "leave no stone unturned;" "pretty coed (also sexist);" "ax to grind;" "the bottom line;" "nose to the grindstone;" and my personal most-detested, that venerable "beehive of activity."
How do you know if what you're writing has become cliche? By reading, reading and reading. It is the ignorant writer who uses the most cliches--because every cliche is new the first time you see it, even if it's the 5,000th time the rest of the world has seen it. You're writing for the rest of the world. Metaphors, similes and other comparisons add another jewel to your writing--but only if they're new, fresh and appropriate.
The Third Jewel
Once you've gotten the zzzzzz's out of your verbs and metaphors, it's time to wrench them from your lead sentences. Leads should be active, specific and, we hope, just startling enough to make your reader want to continue. Find the unusual info--even if it's just a crumb--and write it into your lead. This tells the reader: "Hey, I'm different form the last 1,644 city council stories you've read! I'm worth a look! Please, oh please...."
Okay, so your lead pleads. Your reader probably has 40 other stories to choose from that day, plus five months of hobby magazines, plus last month's National Geographic ("My gawd, we're paying $20 for the subscription and we're not even reading the damned thing!"), the shoppers, Garfield, the ads--and then, there's your biggest competitor, The Tube. You gotta beg for attention.
Avoid these time-worn leads:
"The Webster's Dictionary defines...."
"If a Martian were to land here tomorrow, what would he think of (or "he would be amazed to find")...."
"One day not long ago...."
"When some future archaeologist comes upon...."
Also avoid leads that begin with questions or quotations. the first makes your reader write the lead for you; the second makes your source write it. Do your own work, unless the question or quote is so original and dynamic that you can't resist. Resist.
If you've done all this, you've captured enough sparkle to catch many a reader's jaded eye. But watch out--don't deflect that beam with a few dumpy adjectives and adverbs. In fact, adjectives often, and adverbs sometimes, can be eliminated without hurting your description at all. Make your verbs do the describing:
Boring: "He walked through very wet streets."
Better: "He splashed through the streets."
Boring: "From the waterfall fell the beautiful, sparkling water."
Better: "The cascade bounced and gurgled about the stones."
If you do all that, your writing will begin to sparkle and, if you work hard to avoid those weak verbs and cliches, maybe even begin to hop and sing!
"Writing is a technique that's learned but ultimately it has to be more than that, because writing involves words, and words are ideas. You can't write well and say stupid things. You can't be an utter fool and still say you're a good writer." --Mike Vaughn
The writing texts below were chosen first for their relative brevity, and second for their general enthusiasm. These writers clearly had fun telling readers about their craft, and their text breathes enjoyment for writing. I hope its infectious.
Fowler, J.W., Modern English Usage. (Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1983). The classic work on how to use the language well, newly updated. Witty, too--like reading Miss Manners.
Rico, Gabriele Lusser, Writing the Natural Way. (Los Angeles, J.P. Tarcher, Inc., 1983). How to begin? The author attacks the toughest part of writing by exploring ways you can tap into that elusive and creative subconscious.
Strunk, William, and White, E.B., The Elements of Style. (Third Edition, New York, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1979). Used by generations of freshman comp students; I'd be surprised if you don't have it already. So look at it again, and again; it tells you what you need to know about grammar and style in a thin paperback.
Tarshis, Barry, How To Write Like A Pro. (New York and Scarborough, Ontario, New American Library, 1982) This successful free-lancer dissects good writing like a biologist and his frog. Such cutting reveals much.
Zinsser, William, On Writing Well. Modern mainline classic on non-fiction writing.
Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <www.ndsu.edu/communication/collins>
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