Friday, September 11, 2009

Back to Basics

As often happens, I find myself speechless with nothing to post. Friday has been popular for many to post a flash fiction story...alas, anything that sits in my files is either earmarked for somewhere or is in dire need of an edit and I would be embarrassed to post it.

So I'm thinking that it's again time to flip through the ever-useful class notes for fine pieces of advice from the experts. One hand-out was from Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay by Lederer & Dowis and offered up some useful points.

  • Cut the Verbal Clutter. Train yourself to write with fewer words. Your readers will love you for it. If you can make twenty-five words do the work of fifty, you have reduced by half the amount of material the reader must assimilate to get the intended message.
  • Keep it Simple. Contrary to what some people seem to believe, simple writing is not the product of simple minds. A simple, unpretentious style has both grace and power. By not calling attention to itself it allows the reader to focus on the message.
  • Don't Overstuff Your Sentences. As a general rule, a sentence should have no more than one main idea. We emphasize general because this rule, like so many others, is violated by some good writers.
  • Train the Ear. Writing is at once a visual and aural medium. Although not all writing is intended to be read aloud, most good writing can be read aloud with no detrimental effect. It is important, therefore, for anyone who wants to write well to train the ear to recognize the good and bad aural qualities.
  • Help the Reader. An often-repeated axiom is that communication is a two-way street. But clear communication is the responsibility of the writer, not the reader. The writer must therefore give the reader all possible help in understanding what is written.
  • Watch Your Language. Words mean things. You can no more write well without using words well than a composer can create a symphony without understanding rhythm and harmony. Good writers know that connotations are often more important than definitions, and that the true meaning of a word or phrase is the effect it has on readers.
  • Set Your Work in Concrete. If the purpose of writing is to convey ideas and information, then unnecessary or unintended abstraction defeats the purpose. The more concrete the writing, the more precise the message it conveys.

I can hold up my hand and say, "Guilty as charged" on many of those points. On the odd occasion that I get off my lazy arse and write something, I find that I dwell too much on the sentences I am writing, as I am writing them. My last instructor was a big fan of 'Just Get the Information Down on Paper.' Write for an hour, don't correct anything. Just let the information flow. A good and useful point. When I am being productive, I'm worrying too much about the final product. The feedback I get most often is "Good prose, but a bit too flowery."

As Lederer & Dowis noted in the points above, I think that I'm going to have to work on sticking to my message and present it more clearly. I can't help but feel this would be of great help to me if I am to participate in NaNoWriMo this year (umm...jury is still out on that).


K.C. Shaw said...

Good advice! My mom likes reading Newbery award winning/nominated books because they tend to have clean, simple writing. I need to keep that in mind; lately I've gotten self-indulgent about adding adjectives.

Anton Gully said...

Jeeze, last thing you want to do in NaNo is use twenty five words instead of fifty. You aim to use a hundred words instead of fifty. Trains the writing muscle and of course most of my heroes wrote for pulps where they were paid by the word.

Natalie L. Sin said...

My issue is going TOO lean in some of my stories. But that's what second drafts are for!

Jameson T. Caine said...

I am a notorious over writer. Several pieces have come back from editors for approval and I smack my head at some of the edits I missed. I have a feeling that when I do tackle my first novel, hitting 80k words won't be a problem.

Jarmara Falconer said...

Thank you for some great advice. I shall be using it as I finish the first draft of my rewritten novel.

Good luck with all your writing

Aaron Polson said...

"Train the ear"

I always read my stories aloud, to myself, to hear them. I love the sound of language, the properly placed comma. I'm such a geek.

Laura Eno said...

I'm with Aaron. I read what I've written out loud. If it sounds unnatural to speak it, then it isn't written well. That flow has to be on the page, since most people sound out the words in their mind as they read.

Great post!

Alan W. Davidson said...

KC-I'm beginning to become a fan of that clean,simple writing myself.

Anton-I suppose that you're right on that count. One wants a certain amount of wordiness when trying to achieve 50k words in 30 days.

Natalie-Or perhaps 3rd drafts...or 4th...

Jameson-I would prefer to err on the side of wordiness, then trim the fat off later.

Jarmara-Many thanks. And best of luck on the first draft of that rewrite!

Aaron-I agree. I think that the reading aloud is the strongest weapon a writer has got. Your love of the sound of language is obvious in the audio versions of your stories that you recorded.

Laura-The flow is another thing that I struggle with...perhaps dwell on too much. Thanks, glad that you enjoyed the post.

katey said...

All exceedingly good points, and definitely some of my worst habits exposed. I struggle in particular with cutting clutter. I like to just lay down the info and go back to do the descriptive bits or whatever-- otherwise I tend to just ramble and the scene falls apart. :/

I think I might need to bookmark this for Nano myself!

Carrie Harris said...

Yeah, I'm a sentence stuffer. I admit it. Guilty as charged.

At least we're all in good company, though.

Danielle Ferries said...

I'm an over explainer, always learning to writer tighter. As usual, I see it in other people's work but not in mine.

Alan W. Davidson said...

Katey-I would sure prefer to cut the clutter later than have to fill in the blanks. Perhaps I can cry on your shoulder during Nano?

Carrie-Fine company, indeed!

Danielle-I enjoy reading complex passages that flow poetically. But have difficulty writing them. Perhaps I need to turn over a new leaf and adopt a 'simpler is better policy'.