Here is a simple tip used by generations of writers.
If you’re not happy with a sentence, read it on the page. Then look away and try to repeat it, either out loud or in your head. Out loud is better. Often the way that you say it while looking away is better than the way that you wrote it.
LEARN: Try the exercise with the passage below, an introduction to the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne from the Norton Anthology of American Literature. Do it one clause or sentence at a time, and notice where you vary:
“Above all, his theme was curiosity about the recesses of other men’s and women’s beings. About this theme he was always ambivalent, for he knew that his success as a writer depended upon his keen psychological analysis of people he met, while he could never forget that invasion of the sanctity of another’s personality may harden the heart even as it enriches the mind. He knew that there was ‘something of the hawkeye’ about him, and that the line was vague between prurient curiosity and legitimate artistic study of character. At his best, he was a master of psychological insight … “
USE: Use this technique on your next piece of writing.
Now let’s go from that very spark to the very end.
No idea is ever “done”. Art is never finished. Instead, you just stop working on it. This is a paraphrase of many famous artists (for one, it is said that George Lucas said this when deciding when to walk away from Star Wars).
In a sense, this is a relief. You don’t have to be perfect. The biggest issue, it seems, is when to walk away.
Often “done” is connected to a deadline. My co-writer once joked that 97% of all news stories are filed four minutes after deadline. And deadlines do help. Having a time limit forces you to focus (otherwise you may be JOTTING AND JAMMING forever). It demands that you pull your disparate ideas together into a flow that a reader can follow and understand.
But it doesn’t answer an essential question. How do you know when something is done?
In writing the idea of “done” changes from genre to genre and section to section. Take a research paper as an example. There are three clear sections. In the first, you ask yourself questions. Have you cited all relevant research, both prominent and obscure? Did you also show how that research, though valid, has left something undone, some stone unturned?
For a story, the easiest measuring stick is this: is the journey done? Has the character on that journey changed – and do we the audience feel it?
A good joke transmits an experience and ends on a punch. When it does, it’s done.
In a similar way, a sensory image in a poem should convey an emotion. Can you name it? Can you feel it?
The metaphorical finish line for writing can be a day away or years. The real finish line is this: do the words move a reader where you, the writer, want them to go?
LEARN: Watch Jerry Seinfeld discuss his writing process for a single joke:
Then watch a final version of the joke:
USE: Write a single page narrative describing a single event from your childhood – start with the who / what / where / when and go! Tell your story then finish with the why; that is – what you took from the experience.
As you write, do two things only: either advance the story (from one part to another) or color it (add specific sensory details to add detail to the most important parts),
Once you finish, put the paper or file it away for one day (this foreshadows tomorrow’s lesson!). Bring it back the next day. To tell your tale within a single page, ask yourself as you re-read: what’s important? Let that question be your guide as you rework the story toward a satisfying end.
Every day you recognize things worth writing about. Don’t wait – jot them down.
On “Mitch All Together” comedian Mitch Hedberg said, “I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen is too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.”
The glint of inspiration is ephemeral; it’s there, then gone. Worse is how we sometimes treat it. We question that flash. Dissect it. Like in the joke above, we convince ourselves that true inspiration isn’t worth the two seconds it takes to capture it. Between laziness and self-doubt, we dis-believe.
So believe. Believe in yourself. Believe in your ideas. Honor them – by jotting them down.
Technology helps us. You don’t have to be Hemingway, jotting on a Moleskin. An app like Evernote goes where you go. So do voice notes. Post-Its and receipts and bar napkins work as well. You might call these flashes kindling for the fire or a spark in the darkness – whatever phrase resonates with you. It’s what has to be there to make fire.
Say you have a spark that you suspect is a story. Finish each sentence and ask yourself “what happens next?” For the basics on this, take another look at IT HAS TO FLOW.
Always – write onward, from the five senses and the heart.
Save the inevitable lust for results for later. To begin, just flesh out the ideas.
LEARN: Write down five things you experience this week that inspired you. This can be either to do more or to be better. Write this in a notebook, so . . .
USE: Buy a notebook (I just did before I wrote this). Make the notebook a small one, one you can find it in a back pocket or nook of your bag. Take five days and jot down any idea that could be of use.
‘Flow’ is when “every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.” This description by psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gets at a mental state where everything can be followed with ease. This whole series on writing is, in one way or another, about flow.
In the GARNER lesson, we looked how sentences flow grammatically. Now, let’s focus on how the topics (and ideas) connect via this flow.
First of all, the topic must be clear. It can be in a sentence (on a page) or utterance (in a script) or panel (for a comic) or premise (for a joke) or ideas and feelings (in a conversation). Next, there must be something the writer wants to tell the audience about that topic. Give the audience a subject, then add what you want to say about said subject. Educators such as Joseph Williams define this structure as TOPIC + COMMENT.
Once you have TOPIC + COMMENT, there are two ways to continue. A writer can use parallel progression by taking the same topic and add a new comment. Or a writer can use sequential progression by taking the comment in one sentence, then saying what happens next.
Flow can also combine the parallel and the sequential. A writer can bring up a topic, make two or three comments about it, then progress from the first topic to a second one. Your audience expects, even demands, one of these two moves.
Keep in mind that different languages have different ideas about flow. In 1966 linguist Robert Kaplan looked at how writing flows in different languages. It turns out Japanese writing often flows differently than Arabic. Both have a slightly different flow than English.
Don’t worry about that now. To write sentences and paragraphs (and chapters and scenes), just focus on two steps going forward: the parallel and the sequential. Then your ideas will connect – and flow. In improv, this concept is called Yes …And – meaning you accept an idea and add to it. In writing, Elmore Leonard wrote Get Shorty by moving ideas in the same way.
The only thing left, then, is heart (see our earlier lesson, DRIVE TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER). What do you really want to say? What feeling do you want to convey?
LEARN: Read these five passages from world literature. In four, the word order has been re-arranged. Try to figure out which one was left intact, and try to recast the rest as the author wrote them.
1. “God created the heaven and the earth, in the beginning.”
2. “So we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the past, boats against the current.”
3. “Terry held the pistol at arm’s length on a level with his eyes – the Russian Tokarev resembling an old-model Colt .45, big and heavy. The shots left a hard ringing sound within the closeness of the brick walls. Terry made the sign of the cross with the gun over the dead.”
4. “Ivan Nikiforovitch is rather shorter in stature, but he makes it up in thickness. Ivan Ivanovitch is tall and thin. Ivan Ivanovitch’s head is like a radish, tail down; Ivan Nikiforovitch’s like a radish with the tail up.”
5. “Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”
USE: Check if you got it right. Here are the originals:
1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (first line of the Bible)
2. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)
3. The shots left a hard ringing sound within the closeness of the brick walls. Terry held the pistol at arm’s length on a level with his eyes–the Russian Tokarev resembling an old-model Colt .45, big and heavy – and made the sign of the cross with it over the dead. (Elmore Leonard, Pagan Babies)
4. Ivan Ivanovitch is tall and thin: Ivan Nikiforovitch is rather shorter in stature, but he makes it up in thickness. Ivan Ivanovitch’s head is like a radish, tail down; Ivan Nikiforovitch’s like a radish with the tail up. (Nikolai Gogol, How the Two Ivans Quarrelled)
5. No changes in this one, the last line of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez.
There are two ways to write a press release: flattering or factual. Which way you go depends on whom you consider to be your client. This illustrates the principle that no matter what sort of writing you are doing, consider it from the audience’s point of view.
Typically a press release is written internally or by a public relations agency for an organization such as a company and distributed to members of the news media.
Sometimes these releases describe the organization as the embodiment of the current corporate virtues – innovative, dynamic, world-class, pioneering. This reflects a view that the organization is the client.
But if you think of the news media as the client, then your writing must adapt. Journalists want facts, not fulsome or abstract phrases. When they read a release they are searching for a fact that is new and significant enough that they can use it as a headline. Otherwise it’s just spam. In short: verbs, nouns and numbers, not adjectives.
The factual route removes the feelgood factor for the organization but it does demonstrate that they are confident enough in their news that they needn’t puff it up. When you have important news, you can let it speak for itself. Consider the press release issued in 1999 when Michael Jordan returned to pro basketball. It did not go on about his greatness, stature or titles. After a brief intro from the PR agency, it merely quoted Jordan as saying:
That was all, and that was enough.
The catch with all this is that nowadays news spreads online mostly; the old gatekeepers are few. This new method of dispersion is influenced more by keyword-seeking bots than by humans. But for access to the remaining bastions of “quality media”, and the prestige associated with them, you need to provide meaningful facts.
One more thing: while the text of a press release often runs through several drafts, typically far less thought goes into the subject line for the email that conveys the release. That’s a mistake. Journalists receive hundreds of releases a day and the subject line is often the only part they look at; it’s your headline. A good subject line should include time sensitivity and a peg, eg: «Company X to unveil new product on Tuesday morning».
In document #39 of The Federalist Papers, James Madison stated that communication fails for three reasons: (1) the language is inaccurate, (2) the brain behind the language is cloudy, or (3) the object or idea itself is indistinct.
There are marketers and PR people for the last; there are meditations and substances for the second.
You as a writer can only control the accuracy of the language – that is, how it is used. Thoughts about this range from proper-is-best-forget-the-rest to anything goes . . . as long as the words can be understood as the writer intended. Author Bryan Garner tries to bridge this gap, and provides a guide that points to how words work in reality.
Garner is a lawyer by trade, and his book Garner’s Modern English Usage is one attempt to define how writing and language is most effective. The physical book is a tome; outside of language, it is best used as a building block for housing or a cinder block for cars. Contrast that with another, more famous book, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. The slim book’s minimalist approach (in such maxims as omit needless words) reduces instruction on how to write into its simplest terms. Both books are excellent references.
Both books get at what it means to write well. So what are the elements of good writing?
Rather than focus on what could go wrong (a la Madison), we prefer to spotlight, in general, how to write well (like Garner and Strunk & White). A good writer will vary sentence structure, sentence length, and paragraph length. Topics will connect from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph (for clear ideas on this, see below).
In terms of ideas, describe physical things from the senses (reveal how the thing tastes-feels-looks-sounds-smells) and mental things in terms of how they manifest, either in terms of behavior or thought process. Usually the more relatable the example, the better . . . and give people the background info they need to understand each point.
Good writing is more than choosing, as Twain said, “the correct word and not its second cousin (we’ll address this in our lesson for the letter N). Yes, FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT, but then what? A piece of writing is you, putting your words together in a way that is immediate and intriguing. Whatever the subject, you want your readers to follow your words and the ideas they convey. Below are six rules (which we’ll explore in detail in our W essay) to make sure the ideas flow well:
(1) Make the person doing the action into the subject of your sentence.
Note: Choose humans over institutions.
(2) Conditions for the main sentence (when, if, before, after, because) come before . . . but make sure the condition is no more than eight words long. In addition, if the condition is the most important part of the sentence, move it from the beginning to the end.
(3) Know the psychological subject of each sentence – that’s what you connect to the sentence before and the sentence afterward.
(4) To move from sentence to sentence, there is (a) parallel structure: when the next sentence has the same topic as the previous one, and (b) sequential structure: when one action causes the next action to happen.
(5) Every sentence has a topic and a comment; every paragraph has a topic sentence and a discussion.
(6) If you write a long or complex paragraph, add a summative sentence at its end to either (a) connect the end to the beginning or (b) restate the main point of the paragraph.
In the end, reading or hearing people talk about writing is good . . . but writing is better. 😉
LEARN: Read the six rules again and think about them; then read the following sentences:
In the end, a writer puts together ideas with a combination of style, word choice, and arrangement.
Let’s talk about style, first of all.
Style comes from knowing your audience and your purpose – that is, your intention as a writer.
What are you trying to do?
An expert in your topic can understand high-level vocabulary and sophisticated explanations; a reader who is not an expert cannot.
This affects word choice, as an expert has the background to understand more about your subject.
For example, someone who knows comedy knows what punching up is while this must be explained to a reader unfamiliar with the term.
Joking about someone with more status or authority than you is what punching up means, for the record.
Finally, we come to how to arrange your ideas.
Just as a DJ arranges beats to flow smoothly from one song to the next, a writer must do the same.
In the end, as a writer, you want your ideas to flow in that same smooth way.
USE: Re-arrange two of the above sentences to make the paragraph clearer.
In many forms of writing, the first sentence is crucial to grabbing the reader’s interest. This is true in journalism, marketing and creative writing, though less so in technical writing (anyone remember the first line of their Windows operating manual?).
There are two ways of approaching your opening line.
One: Express the essence of the piece.
Two: Convey the facts of the matter.
Intros that express essence are more interesting and ambitious than fact-filled intros, whereas fact-filled intros are more utilitarian and achievable. Here are four intros that express essence:
*The opening line of Goodfellas: «As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.»
*The opener of Pride and Prejudice: «It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.»
*The start of Peter Pan: “All children, except one, grow up.”
*The full instructions on the dashboard of a long-ago video game: «Insert quarter. Avoid Klingons.»
*A page 1 opening line from The Wall Street Journal of October 20, 1987: «The stock market crashed yesterday.»
To capture and convey essence is challenging. It requires discipline, reflection and inspiration. On the other hand fact-filled intros, being formulaic, are easier to deliver when you are pressed for time or not inspired. That is why they are more common.
Fact-filled intros provide the who-what-where-when and sometimes the why, like so:
City council at its meeting last night voted to fine anyone whose dog poops in the park.
Who: City council
What: Voted to fine anyone whose dog poops in the park
Where: At its meeting
When: Last night.
You could vary this by dropping «at its meeting» because that’s obvious. A second variation would be to add the why:
«Responding to more than 200 public complaints, city council last night voted to fine anyone whose dog poops in the park.»
If however you aspire to write intros that express essence, here are four tips:
• Write «The point of this article is that…»: and whatever you write after the ellipses is your intro.
• Write «This article matters because…»: and do as above.
-Picture your audience as one person, maybe your mom or dad. How would you explain this to a parent in one sentence? My daughter is studying oceanography and if I were to explain her research to my mom I would write something like: «By studying the mix of nitrogen and oxygen in seawater, we can learn about changes in the ocean’s nutrient cycles and currents.» That’s 22 words: short, simple.
-Think and keep thinking. Distilling something to its essence is like making maple syrup. You start with watery sap, but by laboriously boiling away the water you are left with just the good stuff. As part of this process it can be helpful to ask yourself questions like, What is the vein that runs through this piece? Where is the tension? What is the big picture?
Non-native writers sometimes try to stuff too much into each sentence, perhaps as a way of compensating. Brevity will prevent your sentences from spinning out of control. In general, strive to keep it simple: one sentence equals one thought.
Whatever type of intro you write, try to stay under 35 words or even better under 25. The four examples from Goodfellas et al above are 14 words, 23 words, four words and five.
LEARN: Go to your bookshelf and measure for yourself the word count in each book’s first sentence.
USE: Write the first sentence of your life story – first as no more than 35 words, then 25, then 15.
We tend to write long. We have things we want to say, and we grow attached to them, either for their power as argument, for their novelty, or because they sound nice.
But that is pride. Your pride is not serving the reader. So counteract your pride – which is not altogether a bad thing, it shows you care – with the discipline of an exact word count.
Sticking to a word count forces you to be your own editor. It compels you to cast a critical eye on your work. It reveals tendencies in your writing, such as pet words and constructions, that are holding you back.
Here is an exercise in exact word count. The following extract is from an article in Foreign Policy on Nikki Haley resigning as US ambassador to the UN in October 2018:
Haley rose to prominence against the backdrop of a nearly constant state of chaos during Trump’s first year in office: Top White House aides rose and fell with the whims of the president, entered office, and were sacked. The National Security Council fell into dysfunction as Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI. The State Department languished under Rex Tillerson, whose tenure was marked by low morale and dozens of senior posts sitting empty for months on end, while the secretary of state himself shied away from the spotlight.
The extract is 99 words long. How might we shorten it, say to an exact count of 75 words?
The key is to tighten the writing without altering the meaning. A few trims are easy: state of chaos can become chaos; “entered office” seems out of place and can be dropped; and the Tillerson part can be recast to lose “whose tenure was marked by” — we don’t need that clause, as it’s obvious from context that the writer is talking about Tillerson’s tenure. These changes get us down to 83 words:
Haley rose to prominence against the backdrop of the near constant chaos of Trump’s first year in office: Top aides rose and fell with the whims of the president, and many were sacked. The National Security Council fell into dysfunction as Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI. The State Department languished under Rex Tillerson, with morale low and dozens of senior posts sitting empty for months, while Tillerson himself avoided the spotlight.
Okay, that was not really arduous. But can we trim it to all the way to 75? That’s more of a challenge. Try it yourself before peeking below.
Here’s a stab at it, in which “against the backdrop of” becomes “amid”; sacked is integrated into the clause with rose and fell; and we don’t need the himself after Tillerson:
Haley rose to prominence amid the chaos of Trump’s first year in office: Top aides rose, fell and were sacked with the whims of the president. The National Security Council fell into dysfunction as Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI. The State Department languished under Rex Tillerson, with morale low and dozens of senior posts sitting empty for months while Tillerson avoided the spotlight.
But remember, cutting is not always and endlessly good. Respect the words even as you remove the excess.
LEARN: Go to Marie Kondo’s “About” page and read her rules for tidying up. Ask yourself which ones are also useful as principles of writing and editing.
USE: Take a sample of your writing and trim it by 10 to 15 per cent to an exact word count.
A good story maps then pursues authentic emotion. As the song goes, ya gotta have heart.
Let’s take film as an example. The movie Interstellar follows the connection between a father and daughter. The Blues Brothers sang and danced with rhythm and blues legends in an effort to earn redemption. Under the skintight costume Spider-Man is more than just a boy-gains-powers tale – it is the story of a boy and the girl next door.
A movie may be the best art form for our visual era – and it’s easy to see why. You follow a character through ups and down and you learn about the person (upcoming lesson McKEE will look at this some more). If a movie is written and filmed in a way that makes sense, you as an audience member can’t help but care.
Words and images turn into scenes. These scenes in sequence give the audience a story. Without heart, though, none of these stories would connect. The authentic emotion is what turns a simple series of events into something more. After all, the movie Titanic wasn’t particularly new – one critic called it “Romeo & Juliet on a boat.” The magnificent scenes after the mighty boat hit the iceberg only mean something because of the improbable love between the two main characters, Jack and Rose. That’s what gives the movie its heart.
The stories we tell ourselves shape our world. Why should a piece of writing be anything different? As much as a cynic may not admit it, a story shows us what matters.
Step by step, what matters must be clear on a page. A research paper will review relevant research to show the heart of an experiment and hint at what could come next. A poem will stack images to get at the emotion of a single moment. Your audience is looking for, above all, heart. A person who hears a story may not know its heart at the beginning but should certainly feel it by the story’s end.
Everything you write has an authentic emotion under it. Once you figure out that emotion, the images and details to include fall in line. Figure out a story’s heart and you figure out the story.
Music has many lessons for writers, from rhythm to the simple value of the sounds of words, to structure (the movie-score composer Hans Zimmer says each piece of a score asks a question, then answers it in a way that leads towards the next question – we will look at this more in the essay for Q, “Question-based Writing”). But there is a less obvious lesson from music and that concerns the context of creation.
As David Byrne wrote in How Music Works, much of music history has been shaped by the context of performance. The open savannah lent itself to the percussive sounds of drums; Gothic cathedrals have long reverberation times that suit slowly evolving melodies with very long notes; the enforced silence of large opera houses meant «the quietest harmonic and dynamic details and complexities could now be heard» all the way to the back row. (The picture below shows a draft of Byrne’s lyrics for This Must Be the Place. The final version of the lyrics is here, with the first line and not much else intact.)
The spatial context of written creation today is almost always the computer. It’s so normal we forget about it, yet writing on a computer is quite different from writing on a piece of paper.
The main difference is that writing on paper slows you down (like ALWAYS READ BACKWARDS did in our first essay).
When you write longhand, your hands and fingers get tired and force you to pause every paragraph or so. This encourages brevity while writing, and reflection before writing, as wasted words are wasted effort. Also, for some reason paragraphs tend to be longer when written on paper.
In contrast, writing on a computer is a breeze. You can run on and on for hundreds of words without pause. This is not necessarily good. You are apt to end up with material that fits Truman Capote’s harsh assessment of Jack Kerouac’s work: “It isn’t writing at all — it’s typing.”
Research at Princeton University found something similar: students in a lecture who typed their notes on a computer had the same recall of facts as students who wrote their notes by hand, but the latter had a much greater grasp of the concepts being transmitted.
Byrne says musicians know that “the emotional center is not the technical center”. But technology can come to dominate process, and process to constrict outcome.
LEARN: Read How Music Works, especially Chapter 1.
USE: Try writing a first draft on paper. At first it will feel wrong but persist … even if just for your introductory paragraphs.