Write Tight

by Joyce K. Ellis

Sitting in a face-to-face conference appointment with a highly revered writer, I trembled as she silently read my devotional article. I clutched my notebook like a shield over my heart, awaiting her reaction.

“This is good,” she said. “I think it’s publishable. Tighten and polish and send it off.”

Ecstatic, I found refuge in a nearby restroom for a quick thank-You-Lord session. Then I realized I didn’t have a clue what she meant by “tighten and polish.” I’ve spent the rest of my career figuring that out.

With shrinking publisher budgets and reader attention spans, we can increase our publishing quotient if we learn to economize with words. Here are a few “cutting” reminders.

Stay Focused

Begin with the big picture. What is the purpose of your nonfiction piece? Write, in one sentence, what it will say (not what it’s about). For example, not this: My article is about how we can strengthen our prayer lives. But something like this: We can strengthen our prayer lives by learning the art of worship, learning the importance of a pure heart, and learning the practice of praying without ceasing. By the way, those would make great subheads.

I call this an article-in-a-nutshell sentence. Does each sentence, paragraph, anecdote, quotation, and statistic support the article’s focus?

Similarly, write a book-in-a-nutshell sentence for your novel and each chapter. Is every action, dialogue exchange, and setting description essential to that scene’s purpose? If not, cut it. (But save it in another file. You may be dumpster-diving for ideas someday and find a way to recycle what you discarded.)

Eliminate Redundancy

Once we shape the big picture, we can start hacking away at smaller pieces of “deadwood,” such as these redundancies:

  • ecstatic with joy. Could we be ecstatic with sadness? Ecstatic is sufficient.
  • down through the long centuries. All centuries consist of exactly one hundred years, none longer than another. Through the centuries will do.
  • mischievous grin on her face. Where else would she be wearing it?
  • She nodded yes, or he shook his head no.

When noting this last redundancy in workshops, I say, “Look at me.” I nod. “This means yes, right?” Then I shake my head. “This means no, right? So we don’t need the yes and no.”

Note: Axing a word here and there can leave room in our word count to develop our theme better.  

Pick One

Writing flows better with wise word choices. Often we use too many words, trying to ensure readers understand, and we wind up sounding like the Amplified Bible. That reference work provides unique insights, but it’s awkward to read.

So, painstakingly pick the best word. Here’s an example: Through Christ we experience the joy and delight of our salvation.

How much difference is there between joy and delight? When you find other multiple-choice synonyms, such as sins and transgressions or sadness and sorrow, in your writing, I hope you’ll hear my little bell-like voice in your head, chiming, “Pick one.”

Streamline

Wordiness tires readers. Keep them engaged by streamlining expressions such as these:

Wordy: Diane inquired as to his reason for coming. [8 words]

Streamlined: Diane asked why he came.[5 words]

Wordy: Jesus often used stories as an effective means of making abstract truths understandable. [13 words]

Streamlined: Jesus often used stories to make abstract truths understandable. [9 words] Or …to clarify abstract truths. [8 words]

Wordy: We need to take time to reflect on what we read. As we do this, we will receive new insights into what God has to say to us. [28 words]

Streamlined: As we reflect on what we read, God will provide new insights. [12 words]

Note: If you want to emphasize taking time, you might retain that part. However, reflecting implies taking time.

Though I’m mathematically challenged, I believe we have saved twenty-three words in these few examples. That offers another sentence or two to develop an important point elsewhere. We don’t want to change the nuance, but such streamlining can enhance precision.

Restructure Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases can also indicate places to simplify. For example, we wouldn’t write the favorite planet of Janet. We’d turn it into a possessive: Janet’s favorite planet.

But when a proper noun isn’t involved, we often miss an opportunity to write tight. Note these examples:

Original: opportunity for self-advancement

Restructured: self-advancement opportunity

Original: her address in London

Restructured: her London address

Original: tablets of stone

Restructured: stone tablets

Little by little, we whittle and whittle—tightening our writing.

Write Lean

Often we ease into a statement instead of hitting it dead on, even in fiction.

Wordy: Michael decided to get even with the bully.

The decision isn’t the important thing here, so we can delete that whole sentence. In context, we will know what Michael decided when we read what he did.

Better: Michael punched the bully in the stomach.

Watch for Trigger Words

Other expressions that slow the flow include these: one of the, there is/are/were, it’s interesting to note that…. I call them trigger words because they trigger a need for “surgery.”

Surgery candidate: One of the fears many of us experience as a reality in our lives is the fear of being alone.

Healthier: Many of us fear solitude.

Surgery candidate: There are many people who have never read the Bible through.

Healthier: Many people have never read the Bible through.

Surgery candidate: It is interesting to note that God didn’t rebuke Peter when he began to sink.

Healthier: God didn’t rebuke Peter when he began to sink. (Let the reader decide whether it’s interesting or not.)

Clean Up Qualifiers

We can slash most qualifying words, such as these: very, slightly, almost, nearly, just, really, and seem to.

Ridiculous example: I just want you to know that I really don’t like to see so many qualifiers in your writing. They seem to be very distracting and almost always make meslightly nauseated.

Cleaned up: Eliminate nonessential qualifiers. They’re distracting, even sickening.

Qualifiers have a place in our language. But cut the nonessential ones.

Go on a Which Hunt

Use your manuscript search capability to find the word which (also who, whom, that)in your piece. Often they can go bye-bye:

  • conversations which are replete with stories [delete which are]
  • people whom we have known [delete whom]
  • Teenagers don’t enjoy the same activities that they did when they were younger. [delete that].

The more we read good writing, carefully edit our own work, and get peer critiques, the more ways we’ll learn to tighten and polish our writing.

Want to communicate clearly and hold reader attention? Eliminate nonessentials.

This blog post is adapted from Joyce’s book Write with Excellence 201: A lighthearted guide to the serious matter of writing well—for Christian writers, editors, and students.

Language and Story

by Randy Petersen

A story lurks in every sentence.

See what I did there? You probably have a dramatic image flashing in your mind right now—the story crouching under the staircase, ready to pounce.

I’ve been reading a book that is alternately confounding me, challenging me, and dazzling me. It’s deep stuff, rooted in the study of language, its nature, and its origins. I can make sense of every third sentence, which I then have to read three times—and then it blows my mind.

The book suggests that human language is built on story—more specifically, what it calls parable. We find and express meaning as we throw one observation alongside a separate context. Our brains do this so naturally, we don’t even recognize it. When I write, for instance, that “language is built on story,” I’m throwing that philological principle alongside a tale of construction. Somewhere inside my brain, and yours, there are hardhats and backhoes and cement trucks with their spinning payload pouring a story-foundation for everything else we say.

There are two directions I want to go with this. (And you may already be recognizing a story of travel in those words—perhaps I’m stopped at a traffic light with the GPS saying “turn right” and my friend in the passenger seat pointing left. Travel is a common story-thread in language. How often have you written a piece that “doesn’t go anywhere” or “ends up” where you didn’t expect?)

You might already be traveling in my first direction. I say foundation and parable, and you’re thinking about Jesus’ mini-story of houses built on rock and sand (Matthew 7:24-27). A life built on the firm foundation of Jesus’ teaching will withstand storms. So . . . how did Jesus teach? Often with stories. So if human language is built on a foundation of story (as my mind-blowing book asserts), and Jesus asks me to build my life on his own story-based teaching, can I build my writing on that foundation? Is there some way the divine story can inhabit my vocabulary, my syntax, my subject matter?

I’m not just saying, “Use nice words.” And I’m not suggesting that we ensure our writing aligns with theological principles. Quite the opposite. I’m suggesting that there are action-stories at the heart of our faith, and at the foundation of our lives. As language merchants, we can import the action of those stories—in all their vagaries, scandals, and contradictions—into our modern communication.

 Not sure exactly how to do that, though.

My second point is simply a writing tip. Find the stories in your sentences. Language wants to be active, dramatic. Treat ideas like people. Don’t just say what they are. Find out what they do. The resulting metaphors and mini-parables will energize your writing at a granular level.

I wasn’t going to tell you the name of the book, because then you’d buy it and blame me when it baffled you. But if you have the patience, it’s The Literary Mind by Mark Turner. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Make Sense: Write Clearly

Your first duty to the reader is to make sense. Everything else—eloquence, beautiful images, catchy phrases, melodic and rhythmic language—comes later, if at all. I’m all for artistry, but it’s better to write something homely and clear than something lovely and unintelligible.

Paticia T. O’Connor, Words Fail Me (Harcourt Brace, 1999)

Ten “its” for Writing Well

by Stephen R. Clark

Gene Fowler said, “Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Know the feeling?

Those of us who do it, love it, but writing is not without pain. Especially when the deadline is only hours away and the article you need to write is one of several items on your day’s plate. It’s one thing to be a writer, it’s another doing it. For many, writing well in a compressed period of time seems impossible. But you can write quickly and write well. Here are ten “its” that can help.

Know it. Good writing derives from clarity. Clarity comes from knowing what you’re writing about. What’s your purpose? What’s the point? What are you trying to prove? What’s the central idea?

Research it. Collect your facts and examples. Do your polls and interviews. Research thoroughly before you begin writing. Get what you need to address who, what, when, where, why, and how. Be sure to verify names, titles, and anything else you’ll need to include. Writer’s block is almost always due to inadequate research!

Organize it. Make a map connecting each piece of information. Make a simple or elaborate outline — whatever works for you. Write the headings on 3 x 5 cards and organize your research (clippings, notes, etc.) beside each card. Try using the AIDA structure: create Attention that engenders Interest that stirs Desire to take Action.

Write it. Quickly. Stack your research and start writing through the pile as fast as you can. Don’t worry about transitions or try to write perfectly the first time. Relax, have fun, and get something on paper. Just keep writing all the thoughts that occur as you work through your research, even if they are incomplete. If you’re blocked, do more research!

Leave it. Walk away. When you’ve exhausted your research and feel you’ve written yourself out, stop. Take a break. Let it cool off.

Clean it. Good writing is concise. Use no more and no fewer words than necessary. Cut the fluff. No matter how magical a phrase seems, cut it if it doesn’t fit the flow. Rewrite and rearrange your paragraphs. Often a buried paragraph makes the best lead. Double check your facts and attribute all your quotes.

End it. Say what you need to say and then stop! Stick to the point and don’t write past it.

Speak it. Read what you’ve written out loud and fix what doesn’t sound right. The ear hears what the eye misses. You will be amazed at how this dramatically improves the quality of your writing.

Release it. Know when to let it go. Stop tweaking it to death. You’re good at what you do so have confidence in what you’ve written. It’s good. You’ve done your best and it’s time to move on and do it all over again! Deadlines are forever.

Print it. And be proud! After all, you are a writer.

Splurge on Verbs

The verb is the word that gets things done. Without a verb, there’s nothing happening and you don’t really need a sentence at all. So when you go shopping for a verb, don’t be cheap. Splurge.

Because verbs are such dynamos, writers often take them for granted, concentrating their creativity on the nouns, adverbs, and adjectives. This is a big mistake. Find an interesting verb and the rest of the sentence will practically take care of itself.

Patricia T. O’Connor, Words Fail Me (Harcourt Brace, 1999)

Four Questions for the Scrupulous Writer (plus two more)

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (an essay published in 1946)

5 Questions to Ask Before Challenging Your Editor

by Michael Foust

For most of my journalistic career, I have see-sawed back and forth between the role of editor and writer. I began my career as a writer, then served as a newspaper editor, then switched jobs to become a writer again, then switched jobs once again to become an editor. And now, I’m back to being just a writer.

This means I’ve experienced both sides of the give-and-take that occurs between editors and writers. I’ve sat at an editor’s desk when a clueless writer submitted a supposedly perfect masterpiece. And I’ve sat on my writer’s couch at home, stewing that an incompetent editor turned my masterpiece into a heap of unreadable trash.

So no matter which side of the fence you find yourself, I feel your pain. This column, though, is for writers.

Over the years as a journalist/writer, I’ve developed the following five questions that I always ask myself before challenging my editor.

1. Are They Right?  

Scripture tells us that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Humility serves any career well, but especially within the field of writing, in which you have a gatekeeper—the editor—who can become either a good friend or a thorn in your side. I’ve written thousands of stories during my life, and I have yet to pen one that didn’t have an error in the first draft.

You’re not infallible, and your copy isn’t inerrant. Maybe, just maybe, your editor is right.

2. What Can I Learn?

To be humble is to be teachable. Think of your editor as a college professor who is giving you free lessons. More than likely, they know something you don’t.

My first editor taught me to use quotes sparingly. My second editor improved my transitions and headlines. My third editor taught me the significance of keywords for social media.

Unless a kindergartener is editing your copy, you likely can learn a thing or two.

3. Is It Worth It?

Imagine, for a moment, that your story is a triage unit, and you’re determining which patients need the most help.

Are your editor’s changes tantamount to a person with a minor cut that can be ignored? (They changed “said” to “says.”) Or are the changes equivalent to a deep wound that requires surgery? (You wrote “Bob shot Jim,” but they changed it to “Jim shot Bob.”)

By my experience, most editorial changes are like minor cuts that can be ignored. Rarely does an editor make a change so severe that it impacts the story’s intended meaning. Besides, editors often improve the story. Guess what? The reader won’t ever know—and you’ll get the credit.

4. What Might Happen?

If you gain a reputation as a constant complainer, you may forgo future writing opportunities with that publisher, who might look for a different writer who is more manageable. Are you are willing to cut those ties? If not, it might be best to swallow your pride in order to build a relationship. Then, after you’ve written additional stories and gained the editor’s trust, you can speak up more often.

As the old maxim goes: Pick your battles wisely.

5. Are You Being Charitable?

Perhaps you’ve decided this battle indeed is a “hill upon which to die”—or at least one that can’t be ignored.

If so, write your email carefully. Be charitable in your wording. Sprinkle compliments in with your concerns. (“Great job editing this.”) Avoid sarcasm. Begin your sentences with phrases like, “I may be wrong but …”—thus indicating you are bringing an item to their attention they may have overlooked. That way, you don’t come across as haughty, and they’re able to hear your opinion.

Finally, proofread your email before hitting “send.” You don’t want misspellings and typos in an email that’s complaining about shoddy editing.

Picture Book Writer—In Process

“If you want to write children’s books, begin by reading 100 children’s books.” I heard that advice at a writing conference more than 45 years ago, at the beginning of my career, and I took it to heart—sort of.

Our children were moving through stages—cuddling on my lap while I read to them, reading by themselves, and even reading to each other. So I became well acquainted with numerous picture books, but 100? I certainly didn’t keep track. And can we take multiple credits for those books we read eleventy-eight times in one night? With kids at home and kids I was teaching at church, story ideas whirled in my mind. So I devoured books and articles about writing for children. And many of those stories made their way into Sunday school take-home papers, magazines, and books.

Over time, this writer-mom branched out, writing and editing for both kids and adults while mentoring and teaching writers. Still, I kept reading and learning, taking workshops, college classes, and seminars. One of my deepest desires was to publish a picture book that might bring as much delight to others as picture books did to our family.

Decades later, apparently God decided the time was right. And the publication of The Fabulous World That God Made—as well as ideas for sequels and new projects—motivated an even deeper study of the craft and the market.

About that time, highly respected picture book author Ann Whitford Paul released an updated edition of Writing Picture Books. Although I had perused the original book years earlier, I treated the new version like the text of a university independent-study course. Some of my self-imposed course requirements came from recommendations in her text; others were my own.

Here are some strategies you may find helpful:

  1. As you read Ann Whitford Paul’s book, Writing Picture Books, highlight the titles of all picture books cited as examples. (There’s a list in the back of the book, but highlighting them as they appear in the chapters facilitates finding them in context.) Buy the ebook format, too, if you can, to easily search for topics and examples you want to study further.
  2. Check out as many of the mentioned picture books as you can locate through your local library or interlibrary loan. I used a sturdy grocery-store box with handles to corral the books as they came in. Read the books—out loud, multiple times if possible—to hear the rhythm and to analyze the way the story or concept unfolds.
  3. Make an Excel file for picture book analysis. Include for each book, the title, author, illustrator, publisher, date published, page count (very important), and other significant elements. I also noted the way the text and illustrations are presented, such as number of single-page illustrations, two-page spreads, and pages without any text.
  4. Type other authors’ picture book texts into your computer. Yes, I meant to say that! Ann Whitford Paul suggests doing this for books you like and for those that fall short, in your opinion. This helps you get a feel for such elements as themes, word choice, sounds, rhythm, and rhyme. (Even published books don’t always handle rhythm and rhyme well.)
    Typing in the text also allows you to easily ascertain the word count. Picture books are getting shorter and shorter these days, so paying attention to word count is important. Be sure to indicate, at the beginning of each of your copied text files, information such as title, publisher, author/copyright holder and date so you don’t run across one of these files, years from now, and think you wrote it!
    I found this copying exercise interesting because our youngest child often “did her writing,” as she called it, while I did mine. She copied her favorite chapter books, word for word, into a notebook. Her siblings teased her, but I believe this practice gave her a good sense of spelling, sentence structure, and flow, which has helped her throughout her schooling and career.
    As long as we don’t plagiarize other people’s books, slipping even parts of their work into our own without credit, this method of examining good and bad examples can teach us much.
  5. On Goodreads, keep track of the picture books you’re reading, and write reviews for as many as you can. If you follow me on Goodreads you can see my efforts regarding this assignment. Other people’s reviews can provide ideas of the types of information to include in your own.
  6. As you’re reading picture books, make a list of titles you can’t wait to own. Watch for less expensive, used copies online, and shop at Goodwill, second-hand bookstores, and library sales.
  7. Buy more bookshelves to host your new favorites as you read them often for instruction, inspiration, and—most of all—sheer enjoyment.

Through these exercises and in other ways, I’ve committed to continued growth in my craft. This summer, attending a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference provided more learning opportunities and encouragement: breakout sessions, peer critiques, feedback from agents, writing intensives, and even a social media consult.

My fast-growing Excel file indicates that over the summer I far surpassed the requirement of reading a minimum of 100 picture books—laughing and learning all the while. I even returned all those books without library fines.

It’s time to fill up the grocery-store box again.

Joyce K. Ellis