F=First Impressions Count (Feb 7)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen sure knew how to write a catchy opener. // Shutterstock

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.

E = Exact Word Count (Feb 6)

It pays to be precise, whether in archery or editing. // Shutterstock

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.

[C’mon, try.]

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.

D=Drive to the Heart of the Matter (Feb 5)


Spider-Man is more than a superpowers tale – at its heart is the story of a boy and the girl next door // Shutterstock

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.  

LEARN: Watch this scene from Interstellar: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogd0ahj4cIE

USE: Write down two things, each in no more than 10 words: What is the heart of the matter for the father? And for the daughter?

C=Computer or Paper? (Feb 4)

David Byrne has some definite ideas on how our surroundings can shape the brain’s response to art // Shutterstock

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.

B=Burroway & Takeaways: What Books on Craft Can Do (Feb 3)

There are a thousand tomes on writing – including this one (we’ll provide a reading list of them when we get to Z in our final lesson). Looking for a guide to how words work in a creative way? Consider Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway.

Burroway breaks the book into two sections, craft and genre, which are tabled below:

THE ELEMENTS OF CRAFT

CRAFTGENRE
IMAGECREATIVE NONFICTION
VOICEFICTION
CHARACTERPOETRY
SETTINGDRAMA
STORY 
DEVELOPMENT & REVISION 

Let’s be clear, though. This book – or any book on writing – isn’t a cure-all. Here’s a quick dive into what it doesn’t cover.

The book doesn’t cover style, per se. Nor does it give rules on writing (and life) like my first-grade teacher (no water fountain for you kid – swallow your own saliva). It’s not a code – for that, try pick-up artists or religious dogma.  The book’s style is also rather dry. Its precise sentences show a deft understanding of the craft but cannot show you how to bring your story to life. I take that back . . . it can, but only to a point. There are “TRY THIS” boxes which give helpful general prompts – but the inspiration to write, the specific spark, must come from you (see Y: YOU for more).

The author focuses on crafting words for impact, which is the only reason to pick up a pen or tickle a keyboard. However, making your words connect to a reader is craft and more. Knowledge of craft, though helpful, leads to good writing in the same way that shooting a basketball well may or may not lead you to become an all-star basketball player on the court.

Burroway alludes to one last thing, a thing missing in many books on writing: regard for your reader. A deep respect for the craft has to be paired with a deeper respect for your reader. As a writer, don’t waste their time. What you write is valuable to you. Work like hell to ensure it is valuable to them.

LEARN: Buy a book on writing such as Burroway’s, or On Writing Well by William Zinsser for a technical knowledge of the craft, or The Elements of Style by Strunk & White for a basic primer.

USE: Read the book, either in conjunction with this series or afterwards. By having multiple viewpoints you acquire perspective.

A=Always Read Backwards (Feb 2)


Whether on page or pavement, a backwards glance can prevent errors // Shutterstock

A: ALWAYS READ BACKWARDS

To improve your writing, read your work backwards.

This is an editing technique that forces you to look at your words more carefully. You will see flaws you missed before.

Why?

Because when you read the normal way, front to back, your brain races ahead of your eye. It sees what it expects to see. It overlooks errors in order to serve the greater goal of grasping meaning.

You need to trick your brain to slow it down. Reading backwards does this. You look at your text more critically once you escape the slipstream of its sentences. This is especially handy for people who are not native speakers of English; it slows the game down, which improves one’s sense of control over the text.

This technique is very useful for spotting doubled words (the the) and typos. It will find things that spellcheck (and writing apps) miss. Lawyers use this technique when going over legal documents.

Things you missed while reading forward will jump out when read backward. It’s like you’re sneaking up on them. Go backwards not word by word but in bursts of five or six words. 

The larger question is how the brain processes written words. In 2003 there was an item making the rounds, doubtless by email back then, that said:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Matt Davis, a Cambridge University brain scientist who studies reading comprehension, later wrote that the above argument was only partly true. Prof. Davis noted that according to research by psycholinguists, jumbled letters slow down your reading time by 11 per cent. He said the jumble-letters experiment above appeared to have begun with Graham Rawlinson, who used it in his PhD thesis at Nottingham University and found that “randomising letters in the middle of words had little or no effect on the ability of skilled readers to understand the text”.

Davis pointed out that the text of the 2003 email often transposed adjacent letters rather than truly randomising them (eg, it uses “istlef” rather than, say, “ieltsf”; and “Uinervtisy” rather than, “Usritneivy”). A variant on this is that according to one model of how we read, our eyes split the job in half — left eye takes the first half, right eye takes the secnod half — and the brain then knits them together. The 2003 email tends to leave letters in the half of the word to which they belong, so again, not random.

LEARN: Read Matt Davis’s paper at mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt.davis/cmabridge/

USE: There’s a typo near the end of this text. If you missed it, read backwards. Also try reading a page of your recent writing backwards, and write down what you notice.