Archive for October, 2009

Too Many Words Risk Reader Confusion

Last Friday morning, I had the honor of talking about editing to the Minnesota Chapter of the National Speakers Association. We did an editing exercise I’ve used in my classes for the past fourteen years. The exercise directions were to “cross out every unnecessary word and when you are finished, count the words remaining.”

Then I polled the audience asking for the number of words that remained. The original paragraph had 78 words and poll revealed the number of words remaining ranged from 45 to 5.

As I asked each speaker to read the paragraph he or she edited, it became clear some totally missed the point (main idea) of the paragraph (for they had crossed out the words that pertained to it).

That created a learning opportunity. Even though we love words, we need to be mindful that they can confuse our readers if we use more than we need to make our point.

Some in the audience claimed the answer (which is four words, so one speaker was close) lacked style and embellishment. But my response was the directions were to cross out every unnecesary word in that paragraph.

When you decide embellishment will make your writing more interesting, use it. But that’s another assignment.

I trust you’ll read your own writing with an increased awareness of whether or not any given word is necessary to conveying your point to your reader.  Don’t risk losing your reader. Instead give your reader your best effort. It’s much harder to write tight than to write verbose. Try it and see.

Happy writing!

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Are you squandering your writing ability?

I’ve been teaching my “Writing for Fun and Profit” series at two different colleges this fall. As often happens, students take the series to help them decide if they really want to write as much as they think they do.

I’ve been doing this series since 1996 and have watched hundreds of students blossom as they realize they not only want to write, but they want to write in a variety of venues–from short pieces to full-length books.

One of the underlying issues many students bring to class is the discounting of what they have to offer–the squandering of their writing ability. Notice I didn’t say talent (although talent is a nice thing to have). Writing is both art and skill and skills can be learned, given ability.

Writers set high standards regarding what counts as writing–what personal experiences should be drawn upon, what emotions can be shared, and what thoughts deserve deeper exploration.

My response: human experiences should be drawn upon–when your reader can relate to what you’re writing about, you create fans who want to read more from you.

Emotions aren’t good or bad, they just are. It’s the behavior the emotions motivate that determines good from bad. Anger is often thought of as a negative emotion, but it got the founders of MADD to do something positive–work on reducing drunk driving fatalities. Love is often thought of a positive emotion, but when someone’s murdered, among the first people authorities look toward  is those who loved the person–spouse, lover, etc.

Thoughts create possibilites. If no one thought of word processing software, we’d still be creating manuscripts on typewriters. Before dismissing a thought too quickly, give it some time to ruminate,  then consider capturing it in your writing.

My point is don’t squander your writing ability by thinking everything you write has to be profound, world-shattering, or the next literary masterpiece. Write so your readers can relate to your words.  The old saying, “Writers are observers of life,” still holds true. Live your life, observe life around you, and capture what you experience, feel, and think in your writing!

Happy writing!

Advice from a Literary Agent

I was cleaning out old files this week and came across a tip sheet from a literary agent. Some of the tips are so obvious (use quality paper, write a clear letter, enclose SASE–self addressed, stamped envelope), but others are a bit less elementary.

When approaching a literary agent, do:

  • Present one project at a time.
  • Submit in standard manuscript format (double-spaced, one-inch margins, Times New Roman font, your name and page number on each page).
  • Provide your project’s word count.
  • List your published works.
  • Provide pertinent information about yourself–experience, for example.
  • Expect to wait up to 120 days for a response.

When approaching a literary agent, don’t:

  • Offer an unprofessional presentation (no typos, spelling or puncutation or grammatical errors please).
  • Send your only copy of your proposal.
  • Use cliche characters when writing fiction–instead make them memorable.
  • Use exclamation points or unusual fonts–let your writing create the excitement instead.
  • Claim to be better than best-selling authors.
  • Act paranoid that everyone’s out to steal your work.
  • Use the opinions of those who love you (family and friends) as confirmation of your work.

Here are some things I’ll add to help you increase your chances of success.

  • Follow the conventions of the kind of work you’re proposing (genre fiction is formulatic, so follow the formula).
  • Do your research (both fiction and nonfiction writing require research). You also want to research your marketplace and find a literary agent who represents what you write.
  • Read as much as you can in your field.
  • Realize that publishing is business and if anyone says it’s about fulfilling your dream, run as fast as you can. There’s something not quite right going on.
  • Join writers groups. Be mindful that any critiques you get aren’t very helpful unless the one giving them regularly reads the type of writing you do. For example, a critique on a romance isn’t worth much from someone who doesn’t read romances.
  • Don’t take rejection personally. Publishing is business and rejection only means that what you’re offering isn’t a good match for what they’re needing.

You might want to print these tips off and keep them handy for future use.

Happy writing!

All Writing Has an Intended Readership

One of the things I keep reminding authors we work with is that the writer is one-on-one with the reader. Our society doesn’t have masses standing at the storefront window reading. Instead, writers are intimately connected to their readers–except readers can’t stop the dialogue to ask questions of the writer.

My header for this post implies everything is written for someone. Those who write private journals may question my point, but even that writing has a readership–the one doing the journaling often goes back and reads his or her own journal entries.

Every Wednesday we get a community newspaper, called The Shopper, and it’s filled with ads. Even that newspaper is written for an intended readership.

So, what about your writing? How much time do you spend thinking about your reader? Who is your intended reader? Male? Female? Young? Middle-age? Senior citizen? Education level? Expert? Novice? Somewhat informed? Professional? Parent? Married? Divorced? Single?

Once you know who you’re writing for, you’ll want to spend some time figuring out the answers to these questions:

  • What’s my purpose in writing this work (article, story, book, etc.)?
  • What does my reader already know?
  • What does my reader want to know?
  • What questions might my reader ask me if we were face-to-face?
  • How well have I answered these questions in what I wrote?

You may have a different reader every time you write. That’s fine, but you still need to think about your reader for everything you writer. What’s the reader’s attention span? Sophistication level on this topic? Of course, we know no two readers are exact replicates of each other, but your writing will appeal to specific groups, and you’ll want to make sure you write with those groups in mind.

When possible, get another set of eyes, someone you trust to tell you the truth, if your writing accomplishes its purpose in a reader-friendly manner. If your reader has to plow through your purple prose to get to the nugget, you probably need to do some self-editing (see previous post).

Keep your readership in mind and you’ll enjoy your relationship with your readers for a long while to come. We all know people who can’t wait for the next book by (pick a name). Wouldn’t you love to have readers waiting for your next article or book? Get to know your reader well and make it happen.

Happy writing!

Can You Edit Your Own Writing?

One of the most commonly discussed issues in writing is whether or not writers can self-edit their writing.

While I truly believe writers need editors, I also believe writers can improve their writing by learning some self-editing techniques.

Your writing reflects you. You shouldn’t allow an editor to change your voice or your intent. And you should allow an editor to make you look good.

Here are some things to get you started in editing your own writing.

  • Be honest about what your writing weaknesses are. If you know you go comma crazy, learn the rules for inserting commas (“because this is where I took a breath” is not a rule). If you know you’ve got spelling issues, use your spell checker but understand spell checkers don’t catch every error, which means you need a dictionary too.
  • Put yourself in your reader’s position, then ask if what you wrote is clear to the reader. Ask if what you wrote clearly says what you intended the reader to know.
  • Make sure you include only one idea per paragraph. I wrote on topic sentences in an earlier post, so won’t belabor the issue here.
  • Look for redundancy. Check to see if you unnecessarily repeated yourself or if you overused a favorite word or phrase.
  • Analyze your sentence structure. Do you have some short sentences and some compound sentences? Do you always start with I or The or do you vary how you begin your sentences?
  • Look for parallel structure in your sentences. Here’s an example of parallel structure: Jimmy went skiing on Friday, swimming on Saturday, and sailing on Sunday. (All the verbs are “ing” verb.) Here’s an example of a sentence that doesn’t have parallel structure: Jimmy went skiing on Friday, to the beach on Saturday, and he decided to sleep all day Sunday.
  • Buy and use a grammar book. Browse your writing reference section of your bookstore and find a grammar book that’s friendly to your preference of looking things up.  Since we’ve become PC (politically correct), we’ve made it harder to write with subject/verb agreement. That is, we use the gender neutral, plural subject (they, for example) with the singular verb. Every grammarian knows that’s incorrect English, but it’s easy, so writers do it anyway. There may be a time when it’s acceptable, but we’re not at that time yet. Better to rewrite the sentence and assure you have subject/verb agreement.

Can you edit your own writing? Yes, you can, but it’s a lot of work. It may be easier to get someone else who loves the language to help you. As always, you have a choice, so make it a good one.

Happy writing!