Monday, October 17, 2011

Six Writing Tips

I once was a writer (entertaining examples). Nine books as author, coauthor, or contributor, columns for Newsday and NY Press (back when it was good!), frequent contributor to Newsweek, Bloomberg News Radio, and many others.

My writing here on the Slog sometimes springs from the writerly part of my mind, but usually is more personal - ideas and observations offered informally, without particular care taken in their expression. The following are hard-won writing tips for occasions when you need to take particular care. Many are actually editing tips rather than writing tips. But writing is 75% editing (in fact, that's the best tip of all!).


1. Keep Switching Formats to Edit

After editing out all the obvious problems on your computer, print it out. You'll be shocked by the number of new problems you find. Then try reading it out loud, noting problems (there will be plenty) as you go. Print it out with a different font and line spacings to uncover still more issues. Another trick: have someone read and offer their general impression. Then return to the writing, and you'll view it in a new light - and spot even more flaws.


2. Time Lends Perspective

If at all possible, put the writing aside for a few days (or, at least, a few hours). And pity theater critics, who must always get their reviews in the next day's paper. I honestly don't know how they do it.


3. Close Shave

Now, at this point, pass through looking to relentlessly cut every single unnecessary word (as if you were aiming to trim it to fit an arbitrary word count). You need to do this as dispassionately as possible, because we all have habits of using certain extra words, so they can seem perfectly ok at your first glance. But you'll find that if you remove them, the writing gets sleek and easier for people to read.

Better:

Now, at this point, pass through looking to relentlessly cut cutting every single unnecessary word (as if you were aiming to trim it to fit an arbitrary word count). You need to Do this as dispassionately as possible, because we all have habits of using certain extra words, so they can seem perfectly ok at your first glance. But you'll find that if you remove them, the writing gets sleek and easier for people to read.


4. Butcher Your Favorite Children

Every creative person, without exception, has had the unenviable experience of cutting out their favorite material because it failed to serve the greater good of a given piece of work. Join the ranks of The Miserable, and get used to the idea that literally anything's fair game.


5. Change the More Changeable

It's very common for inexperienced writers to fix the wrong instance.

For example, this:
I decided to move to suburbia, but, boy, was that ever the wrong move!
gets corrected to this:
I decided to move to suburbia, but, boy, was that ever the wrong action!
rather than this:
I decided to relocate to suburbia, but, boy, was that ever the wrong move!

6. Fix the Thinking, not the Writing

When you get stuck, you may feel certain the idea itself is well-formed and the problem is in the expression. You'd be wrong. Well-composed thoughts always express fluidly. If you can't express something, you haven't fully fleshed out the idea. So stop writing, mull over the subject, tighten up your understanding, and then return to writing. You'll find that it flows easily.

(Anecdote: I used to play in a big band alongside a trombonist who was a great player but couldn't improvise. He often complained that he had really great solos in his head, but could never seem to get them out on his horn. I finally asked him to hum one of those great solos. What came out were just vague, unspecific shapes and gestures.)


Finally, see the "Audition" portion of "The Times Everything Worked Out" for a taste of the commitment required to really excel.

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