Five Quick Fixes To Make Your Essay Better Right Now

February 1, 2018 § 27 Comments

patent diagram of a roller skateNot “feeling it,” but need to get some writing in? Don’t have time for a long sit at the coffee shop, but you might have fifteen minutes before carpool? Technical fixes are the way to go.

1. Check for “was verb-ing” constructions. In Microsoft Word, do a wildcard search:

  1. Open Advanced Find and Replace
  2. Check the box for Wildcards On
  3. Put this in Find, including the <> part: <was [a-z]@ing>
  4. Repeat with <were [a-z]@ing>
  5. Each time a “being verb-ing” construction pops up, ask “Is my intention here to communicate an ongoing state that is still happening?” If the answer is no, switch tenses. Was running=ran. Were talking=talked.

2. Remove most of “that.” Many writers use “that” as a tic rather than for deliberate emphasis or grammatical need. “That” adds a slight stiltedness to your natural writing voice. Again, use your trusty Find and Replace. Keep only the “thats” you need for sense.

I never considered that he would run away

I never considered he would run away.

3. Start and finish sentences with strong words. When possible, restructure sentences to begin and end with nouns or verbs rather than prepositions or filler words.

Besides all that, he was mean, kind of.

Pat was also kind of mean.

When you’re comfortable putting strong words in the anchor positions, start paying attention to the sounds. Sharp consonant sounds (d, g, k, p, etc.) make good emphatic sentences:

Pat was also kind of a dick. On Wednesdays, he threw rocks at his dog. 

For more flow, choose sounds that slide into the next sentence, like m, n and s:

Pat was mean. Everyone knew about the poor dog, and what happened on Wednesdays.  

4. Count prepositional phrases. Long sentences can be great. But when a sentence feels clunky, sometimes that’s due to too many prepositional phrases.

We walked down the hall on that afternoon, the birds diving into the water beneath the windows, where we’d sat last week pledging our love for one another.

Prepositional phrases navigate time and space. Each new phrase relocates the reader: down the hall, on that afternoon, into the water, beneath the window, where we’d sat, last week, for one another. It’s not just that the sentence is long–it’s that the reader mentally visits seven different locations.

5. Use a word cloud. Using an online tool like Wordle, copy-paste your whole document to create a picture of all the words you use. The words are sized according to their frequency. For over-used words (often that, just, got, around, felt, looked, like) do a search, and each time the word pops up, ask if it’s needed and if it’s the right word in that location. Edit ruthlessly. The big exception is “said” in dialogue–usually, “said” becomes a neutral word like “the,” and it’s better to use “said” than get fancy with dialogue tags.

Bonus thinking time: If there’s a “bad guy” in your story, or someone opposed to your objective, imagine the story from their POV. How are they acting heroically within their own worldview? What do they believe in? How are you thwarting them? Next time you revise, keep in mind there’s another version of the story in which your opponent is the hero. Give the reader little hints of that story, too.

Happy writing–with or without inspiration.

____________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

A Story for the Taking

June 19, 2017 § 19 Comments

Ksiddell

By Kathleen Siddell

You try but it’s not quite right.

You try again.

And again. You feel like it’s almost right but not quite.

It doesn’t feel difficult. At first, it’s fun. You delete a word here, add a different phrase there. You cut and paste and cut and paste whole paragraphs. You like puzzling a story together. You like how suddenly the image will emerge.

Unless it doesn’t.

Then you work slowly and deliberately. You force sentences together because they seem like they should go together. When you step back, you know something is wrong. The picture is unclear, fuzzy, or distorted. You move sentences around some more but they all seem like the same shade of blue. Dull and obvious. Writing is no longer fun.

 So you stop.

You try a different angle. You scroll down. Hit return over and over and over. In the endless white space, you start again, this time with the reds, splashing new ideas onto the page to see what splatters.

A mess.

You clean it up. Backspace.

Back in the white space. This time it feels empty and hopeless. Still, you try.

You find inspiration in black and white with someone else’s name on the cover, someone smarter, more talented. Someone who is not you. You read and read and get lost. You forget who is who and remember only the words. The words are more important than the names. The picture more important than the pieces.

You believe this so, you try again. You try while you drive to work, chewing words like gum to see what will stick and what must be spit out. You write a phrase on the scrap of paper you found in your purse at the red light. There is a stain on the paper but the words don’t care.

When the words start to drain from your fingertips, you vow not to stop. You will not stop to look at the picture you are forming.

Until you do.

It’s not so bad. You take a step back. You think more critically. Maybe it is so bad. The page is filled. Maybe this is all that matters. But you know it’s not. A page can be so full, it blurs grey.

But this page is clear. Black and white letters you hope will read in color.

You’re not sure, so you try again. You try and believe, try and believe, and somewhere in the cycle, you believe you have formed a picture that tells a story. You believe you have created depth without sacrificing clarity.

You stop and submit because you forgot it doesn’t matter if anyone sees what you’ve done.

But you don’t really believe that. Why else would you spend your time agonizing over all these letters? You forget that you write because you can’t not.

“Unfortunately, we are overwhelmed by the quality of submissions.”

An opposite of submission is resistance. There is a resistance between the story you want to tell and the story you have told. But was it almost good enough? How much resistance is there? You’ll never know.

But maybe you do know.

Because you keep trying and believing.

You believe the picture is one people might like. You remember it doesn’t matter if people like it. You ask yourself if you like it.

You do.

But you’d like it more if other people also liked it. Because part of what drives your fingers to the keyboard is other people.

Why is that?

Why does it matter? You know you keep saying it doesn’t when really it does. You feel resistance between what you say and how you feel.

You try to release this tension onto the page; the page that is black and white and full of color.

You don’t know if they’ll see what you see. Maybe it was never really your story in the first place. Maybe it wasn’t your story but A story. Their story. The story. But here it is.

For the taking.

 ____

Kathleen Siddell is a sometimes writer and high school teacher. She, her husband, and their two boys have spent the past 4 years living in Asia. You can find her essays on The Washington Post, Mamalode, The Write Life and elsewhere.

To Be or Not To Be? Every. Single. Verb.

October 14, 2016 § 27 Comments

zz-gummereBy Rebecca Gummere

To clarify, I am not making an existential argument here. I am talking about the very survival of your darlings – those stories you pour yourself out for, at the keyboard or the typewriter. The ones you spill onto blue-lined notebook paper. You know, your heart on the page.

If your writing goes anything like mine, sometimes you create something that, no matter what you do, insists on lying there pale and wan, devoid of life. You dash water on its face, exhale powerfully into what you hope is its mouth, apply pressure to its heart, and still the danged thing refuses to thrive.

Case in point: I worked and worked for several months on an essay that read as sooooo boringggggg and flat, and it absolutely shouldn’t have, because it was about the amazing pilgrimage I made to Geneva to tour CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, where the God Particle (or Higgs boson) was discovered; where one hundred meters below ground particles hurtle toward each other at 99.999% of the speed of light, colliding and disintegrating into “generations” of other particles that thousands of scientists around the world track and study and then spin into ever more exotic theories about the universe and everything in it.

Really big stuff was happening! Why, then, was my writing so tepid?

I looked at the essay every way I knew, but I could not figure out what I was missing. I cut the pages into sections and taped the whole thing back together in several different forms. I wrote key sections on index cards, then shuffled and dealt them out onto the floor like a round of poker, trying to see if re-visioning the structure could give me a winning hand. I taped the entire essay up on my wall and used highlighters to color code scenes, characters, themes, taking careful notes as if I were a detective at the scene of a crime.

In desperation, I even broke up with it – “That’s it, you ass, we’re done” – only to come crawling back, lovesick and penitent.

But still the essay remained dull and lifeless and did not want to go anywhere. Apparently it just wanted to sit at home in its ratty underwear and never make anything of itself at all.

I finally had to admit, the essay was a bust. All writers know, hard as it is, sometimes you just have to let a thing go.

*

Then one day, after a long spell of “It’s not me, it’s you” distance, I picked up the piece again, began reading, and noticed something new, namely the embarrassing glut of “to be” verb forms on just the first page. The following pages revealed more of the same. How had I missed that?

Red-faced, I decided to sit down and make a list of every verb in the essay.

Every.

Single.

Verb.

A total of 558, to be exact, out of ten pages of nearly 4,300 words. And of those 558 verbs, 112 were some form of “to be.” That means that for around 20% of the action I opted for a static verb that doesn’t really say anything more than something “is.”

Yawn.

I also noticed a number of verbs in the passive voice, a sure action killer, as well as several distancing phrases like “seem to” and “try to” and “began to,” words that elongate the action and invite one’s attention to wander elsewhere (like maybe I should make tacos for dinner, and also I can’t wait to get back to watching the last few episodes of Stranger Things).

Curious to see if the verbs would show the bare bones of the narrative, I read the list of them straight through, out loud, as if I were reading a completed story. I hoped to get a feel for the action, its rise and fall, the intensity and the ebb, where energy surged and where it pulled back. The pulse, if you will.

And guess what? To my surprise, in this big story I was trying to tell, of a trip I had wanted to make for years, that I had felt profound butterflies-in-the-stomach anticipation about, nothing actually happened. Instead I had indulged in a lot of interior pondering, which is really not much help to a reader hungering to be told about the next interesting thing and the important thing after that and the really earthshaking thing that follows, and how the story ends, and how the way it ends makes the reader’s life just a tad more bearable or puts the reader back in touch with necessary feelings long buried, or causes the reader’s heart to leap with a thing very much like delight.

That is when I had to acknowledge the story I had been holding at arm’s length that is about so much more than a trip to a world-class particle physics laboratory where world-changing experiments take place. The story about the big questions I had brought with me, the ones I take everywhere – about meaning and despair, about loss and deep grief, about the pain that lives in my marrow. I had to confess my overuse of the “to be” verb forms as my way of freezing the action, of not going deeper, of avoiding my own struggles with Death – that of my sister, my son, my father, my mother – and Life – my profound loneliness as a sixty-something single woman and my complex emotions with regard to my aging body – and Spirit – the hard, embarrassing truth that I’m a formerly ordained pastor who’s utterly lost her faith but still hungers for evidence of Something or Someone.

I took the easy way, the path of least resistance, and sidestepped the real story that took place so many layers down, where the wounds of loss are still raw and seeping, and where too many doubts rattle their chains in the dark.

I’ve since gone back – not to CERN but to the memory of my journey there – and am now letting the full saga unfold, telling the truth about what collided and what collapsed, and about what hope looks like now. In revision I’ve taken those verbs and pushed the throttle to maximum power. Moving from static to fully accelerated, a brand new thing now churns, boils, sparks, and leaps off the page.

___

Rebecca Gummere’s work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, The Gettysburg Review, Alimentum, Crack the Spine, The Rumpus, and the New South Journal. She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and is currently at work on a book-length essay collection.

Lightning and the Lightning Bug: A Revision Checklist

July 3, 2014 § 6 Comments

Geneva ConferenceSusan Tiberghien, author of One Year to a Writing Life, Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft, responded to yesterday’s post where Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore revealed that revision brings him absolute joy, with this very useful excerpt from her craft  book, and an equally useful checklist for revision:

Susan M. Tiberghien’s Lesson on Rewriting

“The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.” This wonderful quote is from Mark Twain. In this workshop we will go after the lightning.

When asked about rewriting, Ernest Hemingway said that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. Vladimir Nabokov in a self-interview wrote that spontaneous eloquence seemed like miracle and that he rewrote every word he ever published, often several times. And Mark Strand, former poet laureate, said that each poem of his sometimes goes through forty to fifty drafts before it is finished. “I like rewriting and don’t trust anything that comes spontaneously. It’s just my way.”

Checklist for Rewriting   

1) Leads and Endings

—Does first paragraph (first line) capture reader’s attention?

—Is the piece well framed? Does it begin too early, too late? End too early, too late?

—Are the lead and the ending compatible? Is there foreshadowing?

—Is there a feeling of resolution (does protagonist change / is there new meaning)?

—Closed or open-ended: Wrapped up but still alive?

A_writing_life_-2102) Description (characterization and setting) and Dialogue

—Does each setting contribute to story?

—Show! Is description vivid, intimate? Does it touch the senses?

—Are characters alive?

—Is there dialogue? Does the dialogue advance characterization and story?

—Is each character’s voice unique?

 

3) Action, Tension/Conflict

—Build tension through opposites in settings, characters, dialogue.

—Develop narrative tug, ‘profluence’ (Gardner).

—Is conflict important? Is the struggle worth the story?

 

4) Images, Similes, Metaphors, Symbols

—Which are the central (controlling) images?

—Expand language through comparisons (similes/metaphors).

—Go farther through associations (symbols).

 

5) Genre, Whose Story, Point of View, Style, Rhythm, Voice

—Does the shape fit the story? Is it the right genre (for both story and author)?

—Whose story is it?

—In what point-of-view?

—Is the style appropriate to the subject (poetic, didactic, humorous…)?

—Read it aloud for rhythm (scanning, word sounds, repetition)

—Is author’s voice full-bodied and consistent?

 

6) Theme and Meaning

—What is the subject (theme)?

—Is there clutter? Are the writer’s ideas clear?

—Is there a moment of new awareness (“epiphany”, Joyce)?

—Why is story important?

 

7) Editing (when the writing is revised)

—title (does it fit, does it grab attention?)

—length (too short? too long? strengthen, prune)

—sentences and paragraphs (varied, monotonous)

—verbs (active? passive? avoid verbs of being)

—unnecessary words (adverbs, adjectives, clichés, pet words, dialogue tags)

—visual effect (placement of paragraphs, space, dialogue)

—faulty rhythm

—proofread for consistency, punctuation, spelling

The Pure Joy of Revision

July 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

CaptureThe Fourth River Literary Journal features an interview with Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore, on curiosity, truth, and the joys of revision.  Here is an excerpt with a link to the entire interview at the bottom.

Revision is so necessary, so crucial and for me [perhaps I am odd this way], the most fun in writing. It’s where you get to be articulate, where the artistry comes in. The blank page terrifies me, but sifting and trying to improve through pages and pages of half-formed thoughts is pure joy.

Here is what to eliminate: anything that doesn’t make your essay better, or anything that you’ve said elsewhere in the essay in a better way. You know you are done when you can read the entire essay aloud to yourself and not stumble over a single sentence or idea; when you read it all the way through and honestly feel a completeness.

Read the entire interview at The Fourth River Literary Journal

Revision and Instinct

October 24, 2013 § 3 Comments

A guest blog from Melissa Cronin: 

atlasThis past weekend, in between browsing from one book vendor to the next at the Boston Book Festival, gathering swag, and schmoozing with writers of various genres, I attended a couple of workshops. Because I’ve been writing, adding to, deleting from, and restructuring my memoir for the past four years, one in particular resonated with me: “Revision and Instinct,” led by Holly LeCraw, author of the novel The Swimming Pool. Of course, there’s no magic formula for revision, otherwise I would not have attended the workshop, nor would LeCraw have had reason to lead it.

But what is the definition of revision? When LeCraw asked the audience to answer, people called out: “Hell,” “surgery,” “re-imagine,” “re-create.” LeCraw’s addition to the list: “Bravery.” Revision isn’t about the technical stuff: where to place a comma, semicolon, or quotation marks. As LeCraw said, “It’s a lot about psychology.”  She then scribbled a sentence on the white board: You need to get out of your own way. In other words, during the first draft, just dump the words onto the page, don’t think too hard, “be a child,” she said, “lower your standards.” Easier said than done. If only I could stop the judging part of my brain: Why are you using the word walk instead of stroll? Why are you putting a hyphen there?

LeCraw then jotted the word prisoners on the board I squinted at my husband sitting next to me, thinking, what is she talking about? Maybe I’m in the wrong workshop.  I had to be patient. She clarified: “Michelangelo’s Prisoners.” Years ago, when visiting Florence, she noticed unfinished marble blocks of figures trying to emerge from the stone. The metaphor: the first draft is the gathering of the clay to prepare for creation. “The middle is revision,” she said, which come from “instinct.” Ugh. That means trusting yourself, knowing what you’re doing. I sighed, whispered to my husband, “How does she do it?”

“Energy,” LeCraw said. I leaned forward in my chair, attentive. “The energy is not in the marble or in the prisoners trying to get out,” she continued. To explain this, she shared a scene from a short story she submitted to a journal years earlier, where the grandmother throws dishes to the floor.  The journal didn’t accept it, but the editor wrote to her to say that the grandmother scene intrigued him. Others said the same, too. What was it about the scene that captured readers’ attention? Honesty.  It was the first time the Grandmother was being herself.

LeCraw asked us to think about where the energy is in our own work. I closed my eyes, recalled a section of my memoir: Through the crowd of shoppers and maze of colors, I saw the peaches stacked in a pyramid. I touched a perfectly round one, picked it up. Recently tilled earth, summertime, wafted toward me. The downy flesh tickled my palm. I couldn’t wait to take the first bite – the squirt, the juices, the sugar. I heard a pop. The sound of a gunshot. The peach was in my hand then it was not.  Why did my mind focus on this excerpt? Because there is action, like LeCraw’s throwing of the dishes?  But energy doesn’t necessarily mean action. Like LeCraw’s marble, you “need to shave away the stuff that’s weighing you down, the stuff that bores you,” she said. What’s left is energy. I closed my eyes again, imagined shaving layers of marble from the prisoners, as if I were scrubbing dead skin from my own body, working to expose my inner self. Suddenly, I realized, for me at least, the energy is in the senses: tilled earth, downy flesh, the pop.

The challenging part, though, is how to avoid the boring stuff: over-explaining or when not enough is happening. After you cut out the part that has less energy, “think about he smallest thing that can fill the hole,” LeCraw said. For me, it’s the senses. What is it for you? Maybe it’s a precise verb or adjective.

Once you’ve finished revising, you need to do what LeCraw calls “polishing,” when the narrative becomes “rigid, ossified,” and it’s difficult to discard material. But, even then, she said, “You might find yourself in first draft mode,” if you’ve forgotten, say, a scene and have to go back and write it into the rest of the narrative. So, the truth is, writing means multitasking: writing, revising, and polishing at the same time. But what if you’re like me and you’re not good at multitasking? There’s still hope: As LeCraw said, though the start is “fuzzy, what matters is that at the end it’s yours.”

So, I leave you with an exercise LeCraw left us with: take the places in your own writing that are pregnant with energy, put them together, then delete everything else. Next, fill in the holes. Of course, you need to trust your instinct. But, if you keep scraping away at the marble, you’re bound to find the story.

Melissa Cronin received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Brevity and Hunger Mountain Journal. In addition to working on a memoir, she is a contributing writer for a local newspaper in South Burlington, VT where she lives with her husband, John.

When Essayists Do Less

August 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

Some sharp thoughts on revision from Aaron Gilbreath:

Some people would disagree with the idea that writing is revision. There’s a popular notion that art is about inspiration, and the challenge of the artist is to capture a spontaneous outpouring as it happens, without spilling any of that molten magic while it’s hot. I don’t know where this idea came from. Maybe it stems from the human tendency to relax rather than work; maybe it’s as ancient as the Greeks. What I do know is that the idea can encourage laziness. By presenting the core mechanisms of creation as something extemporaneous rather than labor-intensive, revision comes to resemble a kind of ruination, a process of tinkering that dilutes the original potency of the spontaneous composition. The message is: “the less you mess with it the better.” I can’t speak for all disciplines, but for essay writers, I think that idea is damaging. When essayists do less, their essays contain less. Even the term “discipline” implies labor, practice.

The essays I like to read and try to write don’t spring to life as the proverbial lightning bolt delivered by magic or the gods. They accrue, developed through protracted effort to build, shape and layer. In tea terms: revision is the process of steeping to develop character. Those who resist it on the grounds that it lessens the raw life force of revelation not only fall prey to a clichéd, romantic notion of writing (the frenzied poet, scribbling fast enough to capture the words as they come), they often fail to fully tap all the meaning and power that their subjects and they as writers contain. Maybe that sounds smug, but in my experience, more work = better essay. For me, telling a story isn’t enough. Instead of an awesome anecdote, I want meaning, nuance, theme, dazzling sentences, interesting narrative architecture, little if any of which arrives when you first sit down to tap computer keys. If we could speak sentence as incredible as the ones we write, then writing would just be the act of transcribing words spoken into a digital recorder.

I might think I know what an essay is about when I start writing it, but I don’t really know. Oh, I think, this is about Googie architecture in my home town, or, This is about this one Miles Davis song where Miles pissed off Red Garland and had to play piano on the recording after Red stormed out of the studio. But that’s just one thread of the story, often the surface-level subject, what you might call the “ostensible subject,” which functions as a window into other component stories. Those other stories often reveal the essay’s theme: loss, regret, longing, failed hopes. They can also be the ones that readers connect to on an emotional or psychological level. More often, they’re the ones that address the question of meaning, or at least tries to chase meaning down. Ok, Googie, but what does it mean? In essays, meaning and theme are vital. I have yet to start an essay with either of them in mind. I find them through revision.

More here, though you need to scroll down a bit to find it.

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