Episode 15: Detangling Conversations

The art of writing conversations (i.e., dialogue) is an interesting balance. On one hand, you want your characters to seem convincing, but on the other, capturing the way people really talk can be bland. Do this experiment: go to a coffee shop or university library and listen to and write down some of the conversations you hear. When you’re done, look at what you’ve got. I would wager that it will mostly be small talk about so-and-so, school, jobs, weather, classes, bosses, events, etc. Some of this can be useful in fiction writing, but a great deal of it would simply bog the prose down. This is why dialogue in stories and novels can be tricky: you have to make real-sounding characters say things that keep the story moving or reveal something about themselves.

So, let’s take a look at some characteristics of real conversation and how you can use that in your writing.

Small talk: When people meet who haven’t seen each other in a while—or even if they have—they often start by asking about non-committal or easy topics, such as family, weather, jobs, classes, etc. This can lead to deeper subjects (e.g., emotional responses), but it doesn’t have to. Writing, on the other hand, tends to suppress most small talk. After all, you as the writer choose what scenes to highlight, and small talk rarely gets to the message you want to convey. Now, obviously, there’s no hard rule for this, as small talk can move the plot if used correctly. But for the most part, you’ll want to cut to the emotional aspects sooner.

Verbal tics: Umm . . . so . . . I’m not sure why people would use these. Verbal tics can really set off people you know. You know your Uncle Rob is going to say “eh” after every other phrase or your brother uses “man” every time he talks to you. So, shouldn’t characters have the same tics? Yes and no. If a character is known for a verbal tic, you might be able to get away with using it. However, such traits get old very quickly in writing because, unlike spoken words, they stay on the page in black and white. My suggestion is to describe the traits characters have in the description and not in the dialogue itself.

Graham often paused mid-sentence and repeated but or to until he got going again.

You can get away with some of that if the character is minor, but use it in your dialogue sparingly.

Dialect: I am guilty of wanting a character’s dialect come through on occasion. But the main problem is that colloquial grammar isn’t always easy to interpret and often traipses through stereotypes. It can also be tedious to the reader. Some writers get away with the down-home style of writing, and it becomes something of a trademark for them. However, readers often love it or hate it. It is much better, in my opinion, to simply tell that the person has an accent if it’s important—or leave it to the reader to discern based on the region the person is from.

The bottom line is that dialogue in fiction, while immitating real life in function, does not often immitate real life in practice. This, too, is an element of the art involved in sculpting words.

Episode 14: Weird Science

Scientific reporting is a field unto itself. Of all the writing I’ve done over the years, covering science can be the most challenging . . . and the most enjoyable. Here’s why:

Specialized concepts: As with technical writing, scientific articles tend to cover a specialized field (e.g., astrophysics, microbiology, paleontology, geothermic engineering) and also depend on industry lingo. This means that most of your source material and interviews will likely include a healthy dose of complicated concepts. Unlike technical writing, however, the audience is less likely to know the specialized terminology.

Research: When I’m working on an article on cosmology, for example, I tend to spend a great deal of time pawing through and sorting through some heavy stuff. You don’t need a PhD to report on a complicated subject, but you do need to understand the ideas more thoroughly than a typical reader would. Mainly, you need to know what the discovery/event/experiment means to the world, how it changes/impacts what was previously thought, and how the big picture looks. In most cases, you do not need to know everything about the topic, since you can rely on subject matter experts for the gory details.

Experts: You do need to be picky about your experts, however. Some are great at breaking down the concepts for a common reader; some are really not. If the best one you can find is not adept at bringing the language down, then get a quote, research the topic yourself, write something for a general audience, and have the expert approve your interpretation. That way, you have a dual-level article that caters both to those who know the subject and those who don’t.

Hooks: Science does not—and should not—be boring. In fact, scientific research is a fascinating topic that can really let you flex your creative muscles. One of the best ways to grab the reader’s attention is to begin your article with the most bizarre or unusual aspect of the story you’re covering. Are some claiming an experiment will destroy the earth? Then have some fun with it. Do the sub-atomic particles the physicists are researching have some “spooky” properties? Then give us a taste.

Ethics: As strange as it may seem, science writing can also be filled with pitfalls. For one thing, it is easy to overstate a case or stretch the evidence beyond what it really shows. Science is, after all, about using our imagination to find solutions to why something happens—backed up with data, of course. It’s easy for the imagination to run wild. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cover what some think the research may imply, but it does mean you have a responsibility to make sure that you present such things as speculation with counterpoint thrown in. After all, most readers will likely not research the topic beyond your coverage of it.

Review: With scientific writing, it is important that you allow someone knowledgeable in a particular field review your work. Your editor may have someone in mind for after you submit your article, but I suggest you allow someone to review it prior to submission.

Episode 13: Slimming Down

Like a good diet, writing benefits from cutting out the excess. This is true regardless of the type of writing, but I mainly want to focus on a few key areas: description, dialogue, and poetry.

Let’s make a few things clear first, however. Cutting out extraneous material in any of these areas does not mean that the writing has to be short—pithy, yes, but not necessarily short. Second, there are times that the writing does need to be more complex. I am certainly not implying that we should all be Hemingway here, and writers have their own styles. Finally, there are certain characters in a story or screenplay, for example, whose nature requires some superfluity, and that’s okay (but keep it to one such character).

Slimming down the writing is not about making it threadbare. Instead, it’s about making the writing concise and poignant.

Description: In a novel, long description can be flowing and beautiful. But that doesn’t mean it’s all necessary. My rule of thumb is this: if what I’m describing doesn’t either promote the plot, prepare for an event, or define a character, I surgically remove it. This is a judgment call, and there may be disagreement over the function of specific elements. However, beautiful prose does not guarantee utility. This can easily be true of whole scenes. You can wax eloquent about the city, suburb, or country—just make sure that it has purpose.

Dialogue: Now this is a tricky topic, and we’ll talk more about it later. For this episode, let’s just say that dialogue in most forms of writing does not exactly imitate the rhythm and flow of real life. For one, the more “ums” and verbal ticks you include, the more tedious it becomes. Yes, we all use those in our day-to-day conversations, but that does not make for the best writing.

Most writing also dispenses with small talk. The function of human speech (or animal or computer speech for those so inclined) is to further the story. You would not expect a discussion about the day’s weather in a news article (unless it is the weather), and in most cases, small talk is superfluous to fiction. Make sure that every conversation or quote serves a purpose in your writing. Anything that doesn’t should be edited or taken out.

This is the bottom line: dialogue moves the story.

Poetry: While poetry is about words, using more words is not necessarily more poetic. Poetry, in fact, relies the most on careful word choice, and I recommend that all writers—no matter what the genre—take the time to pen a poem or two on occasion. The more careful you are about crafting poetry, the more you’ll see how word choice can make a huge impact on all forms of writing. Your poetry doesn’t have to be good, and you don’t have to share it with anyone. However, notice how one word, one connotation, can transform the entire poem.

Episode 12: Make the Edit, Part 2

If this were a cheesy ‘80s TV show, this is the part of the show where the announcer would say, “Last week on MNbtW . . . .” But instead, let’s just say that last week we talked about looking at the big picture while editing. The reason that we do that first is to make sure that the main questions are answered and that there is cohesion. For more, take a look.

This week, we’re going to talk about what to do once you’ve assessed and are ready to tackle the problems. I may sound a bit like an iconoclast, but the main point of editing is not merely grammar. That is important, yes, and you aren’t likely to be published if the work is full of errors. However, editing is much more about polishing. The grammar errors are usually something I catch along the way.

Here is the process I use. Feel free to modify.

1. Assess problems. First, I review the writing to see if there are repeated category mistakes. For example, the writer may have repeatedly left out important details, used logical fallacies, or overused expressions. This is generally where I begin marking up the text—whether with a pen or with digital comments.

2. Research. Once I have a handle on the big issues—and depending on how much editing I need to do—I tend to spend some time researching the topic. For technical articles, this may involve a great deal of time reading and processing. But this is important: if I don’t understand what I’m working with, then I cannot be an effective editor. This isn’t to say that I need a PhD in order to edit, but a few moments in the library or on the Internet or with a subject matter expert can really help reveal flaws in the paper. Even fiction often relies on characters with special skills or knowledge. Knowing what those characters know can help you make the writing more authentic.

3. Plot it out. Once I understand more, I sometimes work up an outline or a mind map of the piece I’m editing. This allows me to see how the work flows and to rearrange things more easily. If it’s my work, then hopefully I already have an outline, but I can still see if the finished product follows my conception.

4. Scramble. Depending on how much say I have, this is the part where I begin slicing and dicing. I may, in fact, move whole sections if the flow is better. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the structure. A move or two could do wonders for the cohesion.

5. Chip away. Once I’ve taken care of the heavy lifting, I turn to refining the details. This can vary a great deal depending on the type of work, but there are some basic guidelines.

  • Keep in mind the overall picture of what the work is doing and where it’s going.
  • Stick with the tone.
  • A thesaurus is not always your best friend (picking witty synonyms can make the work feel overwrought).
  • Be bold and take a risk or two.
  • And remember this: editing is just as much a creative expression as is the original writing.