Episode 66: Seven Ways to Do More with Less

  1. Cut the that: One of the simplest ways to make your writing seem more polished is by cutting out any extraneous that from relative clauses. Relative clauses contain a subject and a verb and begin with a relative pronoun, such as who, whom, whosewhich, or that (the pronoun itself can be the subject), or a relative adverb, such as where, when, or why. For example, “that you know the final score” and “who played violin” are both relative clauses. Most of the time, if there’s another subject besides that, you can cut the that right out. Instead of “I heard that you know the final score,” use “I heard you know the final score.”
  2. Be direct: There are some phrases in English that are big on presence and small on meaning. While they may seem impressive, they actually dilute the sentence. Here are some examples: in order that, for the purpose of, for all intents and purposes. Even in technical or formal writing, these phrases get in the way. There are much simpler ways of saying the same thing: in order that = to, so that; for the purpose of = because, to; for all intents and purposes = [nothing—you can usually cut]. The context dictates what the replacement is.
  3. Zap adverbs with verbs: Not all adverbs are useless. Some can convey a meaning that a verb alone can’t quite capture. But using a more descriptive verb thrusts an image more clearly into the readers mind. “I ran fast across the field” is not nearly as piquant as “I zipped across the field.”
  4. Get words:  The right word can save you three—or more. For example, “spindrift” creates more interest and conveys more meaning than “spray blown from waves during a gale.” Creating word pictures requires reaching into your brain and pulling out the right phrasing from the vocabulary you have. Never stop seeking out new ways to communicate.
  5. Become active: Passive sentences require more words to say the same thing, and they add a layer of disconnect between the reader and the prose. Sometimes passive is unavoidable (and sometimes it’s useful), but active is usually better.
  6. Don’t think: Well, you should think, of course, but don’t tell the reader you are. If you’re writing an opinion piece, the reader knows it’s your opinion. So, there’s no need to say “I think” or “in my opinion.”
  7. Keep it simple: Most of the time, you should avoid present continuous/present progressive verbs. You’ll usually know these by the following format: form of to be (is, are, am) + [verb]ing. For example, avoid “I am hiking” or “he is moonwalking” and stick with the simple present: “I hike” or “he moonwalks.” The same is true with past tense verbs. Eschew “they were traveling” for “they traveled.”

Episode 63: Doubt

No matter how long I’ve been slogging through articles, papers, stories, novels, and marketing copy; no matter how many other writers’ works I’ve contorted, massaged, and gutted; no matter how many times I’ve improved my craft with writing classes, seminars, and groups, I still have moments in which I wonder if any of it is any good and contemplate stopping.

Doubt has invaded.

Although I do not know the source, the best definition of doubt I’ve come across is “fear projected outward.” What started as a nagging feeling has now become manifest in the world outside your mind.

First come the fears:

People are going to hate my work.

There’s no way I can finish this project.

The editor has no choice but to reject my article.

No publisher will take a chance on my book.

Doubt happens when those fears impact your mindset and your actions. They cripple your writing, slow you down, and perhaps make you give up on a project.

But you don’t have to let doubt conquer you.

The first thing to remember is that there’s a fine line between fear and instinct. Your writing instincts show you what works and what doesn’t. Not liking the current draft and worrying that it might not work out doesn’t make a failure of it. In fact, your instincts are simply being honed, sharpened for future writing. This draft didn’t work. You knew it. That’s a sign of progress.

Second, doubt has warning signs. Long before you feel like burning your computer, notes, and everything else associated with the written word, you’ll have moments of intense emotional stress, indecision, and uncertainty. When those come, make sure that you deal with them. Remind yourself that writing is not an easy task, and it takes a lot out of a person. You can’t turn off those feelings, but you can use them to drive you to improve.

Next, blunt doubt before it starts. Writing on a consistent basis dulls a great deal of doubt. You may have 99 drafts that don’t work, but you know a new one will be finished soon. Beyond that, actively seek ways to enrich your knowledge and skills. Progress is a doubt killer—through supportive writing groups, classes, reading for research (or pleasure), writing conferences, or trips to see places where writing and history collide.

Finally, and this is a big one, examine what influences you. Surrounding yourself with people who mock you and your writing will inevitably drag you down. You need support and understanding as a writer. Conversely, not reaching out to other writers (or a personal community) can just as easily make you feel unchallenged and uninspired.

Doubt comes to us all–what makes us successful writers is the way we deal with it.

You can do this.

Episode 43: Query Letters and Popcorn

There have been two things on my mind quite a bit lately: query letters and popcorn. Since it would be tough to make popcorn into a metaphor for writing (not impossible), I’ll stick with eating it and writing about queries.

First, let’s give a definition to keep things tidy. According to About.com, a query letter is

A letter or email sent to an editor or agent which details an idea for a magazine, newspaper, book or other publication, along with an attempt to sell this particular idea, along with yourself as the potential writer.

In some ways, this is like your book’s (and your) resumé, your shot to get a foot in the door for an interview (i.e., the agent/publisher reading your work).

Since I am definitely no expert in writing queries (having only succeeded in getting interest via magazine queries so far), I’ve chronicled some of the interesting resources I’ve found, and I’m sharing them here with you. (If you have successful queries on your blog or website, please leave a link in the comments.)

  • One recent Twitter experiment that produced some excellent advice for writers was “Query Day.” Basically, literary agents ganged up and sent out more information than one human could possibly absorb. However, Rachelle Gardner (one of the agents participating) published her advice for the sake of posterity—and sanity. [Update: She also recently posted about what makes a winning query.]
  • Nathan Bransford (an agent who gave me more traffic with one link than I could have thought possible) has a series of posts that document the format and basic information of a query letter: format, anatomy 1, anatomy 2, and how to mess it up.
  • And yet another agent, Colleen Lindsay, has a succinct post on why she may have rejected your query letter (or would if you sent it to her with some of the problems she points out—and consider yourself warned on the language).

Mainly, the biggest points that I’ve picked up so far are as follows:

  • Make sure you get to know the agent/publisher before submitting (check out their site/blog).
  • Provide the information they request.
  • Be humble—but not groveling.
  • Don’t tell them it’s going to win an award, be made into a movie, or be the best thing they’ve ever read.
  • Let the creativity you have as a writer come through in the query.

As for some examples of good queries, I’ve dug up a few.

  • Even if you don’t like Nicholas Sparks’s writing (I do, but that’s me), you should still check out his query letter for The Notebook that he graciously put out there for the world to see.
  • Nelson literary agency has several good query letters linked from their site.

That should be enough to get you started. If you have some web resources that you rely on (or have something you’ve used), please share.