The 12 days of writing
Media | A season of tips for aspiring writers
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 12/02/17, 10:57 am
If you’re an aspiring writer celebrating the 12 days of Christmas later this month and into January, here are 12 tips that can serve as one-a-day vitamins:
1. The world suffers from overwriting more than under-writing. Make every word count by avoiding throat clearing (introductory paragraphs) and dress ups (lots of adjectives and adverbs).
Mark Twain’s advice: “When you catch adjectives, kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together; they give strength when they are wide apart.”
Twain (and others) also said, “Kill your darlings.” Delete expressions that seem precious to you. British poet F.L. Lucas: “Make clear connections between sentences. Be simple. Omit needless words. Write less; rewrite more.”
2. Write in the active voice: no passivity, please. Example: Change “The cemetery was stormed in protest” to “They stormed the cemetery.” Use of the active voice is a matter of ethics as well as style, since passivity often signals avoidance of responsibility. Classic example: “Mistakes were made.” Put statements in positive, emphatic form. Instead of, “He did not choose well,” write, “He chose poorly.”
George Orwell: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short word will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Never use the passive where you can use the active.”
3. Remember: No one has to read what we write. Every word has to sell the next word, every sentence the next sentence, every paragraph the next paragraph. Keep it moving. Varying sentence lengths helps pacing: The more complex the information, the simpler the sentence.
Critic William Zinsser: “Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Re-examine each sentence that you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful? Simplify. Simplify.”
4. Avoid particular phrases that are short on energy or evidence. Examples: Don’t start sentences with “there is” or “there are.” Use “evidently” or “apparently” or a similar expression when we don’t know for sure what people are feeling or thinking. Example: A WORLD article noted that although a crowd was singing a hymn, “This is hardly church, and no one is feeling worshipful.” While that statement may be true, we can’t be sure that “no one” in the crowd was feeling worshipful. Emphasize quality rather than quantity. Better to have one strong bit of specific detail than 12 nothings.
E.B. White: “Don’t write about Man, write about a man.”
5. Avoid using often-abused words. For example, go on a which-hunt by replacing “which” with “that” whenever a comma does not set off a statement. Don’t refer to a person as a “that,” as in “the lawyer that won the case.” Humans deserve the pronoun “who.” Do not use “finalize,” a pompous word associated primarily with bureaucracy. Words like “complete” or “finish” are much better. Remember that “unique” means one of a kind, so it does not take a modifier. Something cannot be “more unique” or “one of the most unique.” Do not say a real person was “legendary.” A legend is a tradition or story handed down from earlier times that we now do not accept as factual. Reality is not legendary.
6. Pay particular attention to words that convey worldviews or beliefs. For example, WORLD uses “abortion business” rather than “abortion clinic” and “abortionist” rather than “doctor” because true clinics and doctors heal and don’t kill. WORLD uses “unborn child,” “preborn child,” or “child” instead of “fetus,” unless we are quoting someone—in that case, we quote exactly. “Fortunately” is a theological term from ancient religion—Fortuna was the Roman goddess of luck and fortune—so WORLD uses the Biblical term “providentially.” WORLD also distinguishes among “compassion,” “empathy,” and “sympathy.” “Compassion” is a willingness to suffer with a person in need—active personal involvement, not just feeling sorry for someone. “Empathy” denotes a close, vicarious understanding of the feelings of another. “Sympathy” is feeling emotionally close to a person but not necessarily doing anything to help.
7. Avoid common grammatical errors, such as using “their” instead of “its” in relation to groups. For example, don’t have a band announcing “their breakup.” Even though a band, like a company or some other organization, is made up of more than one person, it’s still an “it.” Avoid sentence structures that imply an attribute was only present in the past. Example: “I interviewed her last week. She was smart.” Her intelligence didn’t disappear when the interview was over. Distinguish between “among” (three or more people or things) and “between” (two). Know how to use “fewer” and “less.” The first refers to a number of individual people or things (“because of automation, fewer workers are needed”) while “less” refers to a quantity or amount of one thing (“less rain has fallen this season than predicted”).
8. Avoid dangling participles, a common disease in bad writing. Example: “Standing on the hotel room balcony, the sun immediately made Carol feel warm.” This construction implies that the sun stood on the balcony. The sentence should read, “Standing on the hotel room balcony, Carol immediately felt the warmth of the sun.” Another example: “Completing the graduate theater studies program, David’s acting career began.” This sentence sounds as if the acting career actually completed the graduate program. The sentence should read, “Completing the graduate theater studies program, David began his acting career.”
9. Learn a publication’s editing shorthand. Here’s WORLD’s partial list:
UGH: Super awkward
TEK: This everybody knows
MORE: Needs explanation or additional detail
MEGO: Mine eyes glaze over (boring)
PAMO: Needs protagonist, antagonist, mission, obstacles
SCENE: Needs something reader can visualize
BW: Broken window (grammar, spelling, or punctuation error)
MBD: Man bites dog (not a dull, everyday event)
SD: Specific detail needed
LA: Ladder of abstraction (a story high up it needs SD)
PR: Public relations, to be avoided in journalism
SFUP: When we have sensational facts we should use understated prose
10. Seek out teachers and editors willing to tell the truth, even if it hurts. It’s fine to have friends who say “you’re great,” but young writers need true friends willing to make them cry. But such friends or instructors are hard to find in this age of inflating grades and emphasizing self-esteem.
One honest writing professor said when teaching a seminar, “Some of your fellow students will be nicer than they should be, but I won’t, because I’m the only one in this room who’s paid to tell you the truth.”
If you don’t have a good teacher, apply to your own work the general wisdom critics like Sheridan Baker offer: “Suspect yourself of wordiness whenever you see an of, a which or a that. Inspect all areas surrounding any form of to be.”
11. Keep your cool. Some young writers bristle when edited, but successful writers need to add temperament to talent.
Novelist Isaac Asimov, commenting on a classic editor’s statement—“We don’t reject writers; we reject pieces of paper with typing on them”—added, “Don’t stay mad and decide you are the victim of incompetence and stupidity. If you do, you’ll learn nothing and you’ll never become a writer. … Don’t make the opposite mistake and decide the story is worthless. Editors differ and so do tastes and so do magazines’ needs. Try the story somewhere else.”
Mark Twain suggested this way of discerning a calling: “Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years the candidate may look upon his circumstances with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.”
12. If in three years you are making progress, persevere. That also goes for making progress on an individual story. Sometimes when we’re stuck, we need to sit at our computer and grind it out. If we’re really stuck and suspect we have “writer’s block,” it’s probably because we have insufficient specific detail: Time to do more research and remember to show, not tell. That’s particularly good advice for Christians. God tells us to taste and eat, to see whether His teaching is good in practice. We should offer that invitation to readers as well.
Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.