Archive for the ‘Writing Tips’ Category


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If you’ve seen the second Toy Story movie, you’ll remember the ancient repairer of toys who sews Woody’s arm back on and who touches up the paint on his hair and the bottoms of his shoes. You’ll remember the funny glasses he puts on, fitted with multiple hinged lenses he can flip on or off at will. That pair of glasses is a useful metaphor when you want to improve a piece of writing. Viewing the work through different lenses will allow you to see the errors–not just typos or grammar mistakes, but also lazy pronouns that confuse the reader, subtle shifts away from the topic you’ve promised to explore, and tiny, outright lies.

A good editor switches lenses a lot. She’ll go microscopic, choosing one word to look for throughout a text–a word like “as,” for example, or all the verbs. Suddenly a problem will come into focus: the writer is relying too heavily on conditional clauses to open her sentences, or he’s pounding us with so many active verbs that we can’t catch our breath and want to quit reading. A good editor will also use a macroscopic view, holding the whole work in his hands and asking, so what? or what is the thrust of the argument here?

Like a three-dimensional, much-loved, artificially crafted cowboy doll, a piece of writing can be handled, ripped apart, and repaired. And like Woody, our writing needs a second pair of eyes to make it better.

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I’m sitting next to my husband, who is blogging (sportsandfaith) and ragging on me for not crediting him as the one who got me thinking about randomness and the way it can help writing. He’s been reading a book on quirky mathematical theories, one of which posits that if you can get enough monkeys to type randomly, eventually they will type the works of Shakespeare.  This theory explores the idea that randomness can lead to order. 

But what if what you need is not more order in your writing, but less? What if you need to shake things up a little, and the freewriting I talked about in the last post just isn’t your thing?  I have two suggestions: visualthesaurus.com and bananaslug.  The first site is just what it sounds like, but cooler, and the second is an ingenious twist on the recent invention of the internet search engine.  Check it out!

And consider yourself credited, Kevin.

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I can’t write about writing without quoting Annie Dillard.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.  Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.  The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.  Something more will arise for later, something better.  These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.  Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive.  Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.  You open your safe and find ashes.”

This is from Dillard’s book The Writing Life, a slim volume I am happy not to have had to live without.  The above words are good advice for life in general, of course, and are not new.  Carpe diem, Just Do It, the parable of the buried talent–it’s in the present that life happens. 

So what makes this hard to grab hold of in the act of writing?  Why is getting words down on paper or screen–any words–often the hardest part of the process?  Dillard suggests it’s an impulse to hoard: we fear we have only a limited number of words.  I think it’s also the impulse to cling to the known, the safe.  It’s as if we’re standing on a ledge in the wall of a great cliff or cave.  Hard rock supports our back and feet.  The blank page is the void in front of us; to put words on it is to leap off.  Leap off.

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The Sock

One of the best ways to improve a piece of writing is to look at how it’s organized.  Like the government, like your dresser drawers, like the fleeting hours of your day, writing functions better when its parts–words and sentences and paragraphs–adhere to a clear structure.  A muddled piece of writing can take a great leap forward when you locate in the mass of sentences you’ve tossed on paper the best beginning, best ending, and best connections between them. 

Years of looking at writing both student and professional have yielded this truth: your best beginning is never in the sentences you wrote first.  The sentences you wrote first are almost always rather weak: a warmup.  Often it’s best to discard them.  Often you can find a gem of an opener buried in the middle of your draft, and sometimes at the very end.  Nothing pleases me as an editor more than plunging my hand deep into a text, pulling it inside out like a sock and saying, “What about starting it this way?”

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One of my favorite writers on writing is Peter Elbow.  He says this:

Encourage conflicts or contradictions in your thinking.  We are usually taught to avoid them; and we cooperate in this teaching because it is confusing or frustrating to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time.  It feels like a dead end or a trap but really it is the most fruitful situation to be in.  Unless you can get yourself into a contradiction, you may be stuck with no power to have any thoughts other than the ones you are already thinking.

I am one of those people who were taught to avoid conflict and to root out contradictions in my thought, my words, and in the words of anyone around me with whom I didn’t immediately agree.  So when I started seriously learning to write, I had to find ways to nourish a new habit of fruitful contrariness.  How?  Journal like crazy.

If engaging contradictions is in fact a requirement for the production of strong, interesting language, and if argument makes you feel trapped or stalled, then you need a place to write where you can hyperventilate in private.  In the pages or on the screen of your journal, no one is watching you or grading you or paying you or refusing to pay you for what you are writing.  You are free to look like an idiot while you learn to argue with yourself and with ideas:

You might start by writing a page of sentences starting with “I think.”  Then write an equal number of rejoinders: how do you know? what about this? what if that? and the ultimate argumentative conjunction, BUT…

But you do not have to be so formal about it.  The very act of pushing pen across paper will generate contradictions.  All you have to do is give yourself permission to welcome them.

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