Omit Needless Words: How I Learned to Write with Brevity

October 12, 2017 § 26 Comments

By Ryder S. Ziebarth

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., edited by E. B. White.

In 1974, my Journalism 101 professor gave only two pieces of required reading: the local city newspaper, and The Elements of Style.

One book. One daily.

What could be easier?

Turned out, a lot of things. Concise writing takes diligence, skill, and patience. Three things I lacked as a college sophomore. But I pecked away on my typewriter, practicing every day, until I finally scored a coveted reporter’s job, the first of many.

Thirty years later, resurrecting my writing career, I faced a no-nonsense adjunct teaching The Art of Flash Nonfiction. She required we start small—only 250 words written to prompts she provided the first week, 500 words the next week, then 750, until we reached a polished 1000-word essay by the end of the semester. Plus we would read a series of essays from a website called Brevity. We could email her brief questions only if absolutely necessary.

A thousand words. On-line reading.

What could be easier?

She passed out a Brevity essay, Debra Marquart’s Hochzeit.  “Read the essay to yourselves,” she said, “then tell me what’s different about it.”

The story swirled in front of my eyes in a whirlwind of colors, sounds, flavors and scents, as the author remembers a family wedding from her childhood. Thirty-nine sentences in seven meager paragraphs transported me to a Polka hall in the Midwest, the beat and bellow of pumping accordions, “whoops and yips” from spinning dancers in their flared skirts and beribboned finery, and the burning sweetness of “gold pools of wedding whiskey.”

Marquart’s writing was different from anything I’d read. It wasn’t your standard nonfiction piece, it wasn’t journalism—even if you could measure it in column inches, and it wasn’t the New Journalism the old me left behind decades ago. I needed to know why the piece left such a visceral impact on me.

When the instructor asked what we thought, my hand crept up. “The writer omitted needless words?”

“Yes. That’s one thing. Thank you, E.B. White. Anyone else?” The class tittered.

“The who, what, when, where, and sometimes why, are clearly up front,” I added, reaching back to the first rules I learned about newspaper reporting.

“Yes,” she said, “but what else. Anyone besides Ryder?”

I sunk back down in my hard plastic chair. What exactly was it about Marquart’s essay that had awakened me?

Our assignment for the week was to write two 250-word essays. If they were one word over, they would not be read or graded. We were given more essays from Brevity—Anne Panning’s Candy Cigarettes; Sarah Lin’s Devotion; Erika Dreifus’ Before Sunrise—to study for style, voice, metaphor, lyricism. Carefully. If we did not understand the terminology we were to email her—briefly—before the next class.

For seven long days, I slaved over my two pieces, editing and re-editing. I dissected the reading assignments like a frog in freshman biology, peeling back each story’s tiny skin layer by layer. First the story line, then the structure, finally the writer’s word choices. I searched for every metaphor, each simile, every omitted word. What was it about these little essays that left me with a feeling of such grandiosity in so few words?

It came to me on the seventh day—driving the twenty miles to campus alone, windows rolled down to bright September. My eyes took in the reds, golds and oranges of the maple leaves flickering across my windshield, backlit by a sky the color of the bluest sea. The sun shone on my arm resting on the open window, the last of summer falling onto my Shetland sweater. Finally, I understood. It was the smaller details that made the larger story.

After we handed in our assignments, the instructor asked what we’d learned reading and writing short prose. I shot up my hand.

“Yes?” she said, sighing a little.

“The words seemed hand-chosen, cherry-picked, then boiled down to extract only the most essential details. The writer shows the reader a dreamlike memory, crystal clear in the telling.”

“Bingo!” she said and smiled broadly.

Two semesters later, I entered a Brevity Blog contest and won second place. The first person I emailed was my instructor. Writing, I realized, is not just about following style books and memorizing classroom notes. When you omit the needless, you choose the necessary– and sometimes, that is one perfect ray of sun falling on the back of your hand.

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Ryder S. Ziebarth runs the Cedar Ridge Writers Series and blogs for Proximity. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and served as an Associate editor of Tiferet Journal. Her work has appeared in Brevity, N Magazine, The New York Times, The Writer’s Circle, Tiferet, and many other other blogs, newspapers and online journals.

Make Space

October 3, 2017 § 10 Comments

A small red shrine in front of a wall covered in massage advertisementsI’m in Malaysia. As I write, it’s already tomorrow, which feels a little like magic–twelve hours ahead and not watching the hotel TV unless it’s accidentally (surprise CNN, tragedy leaving me  sad and shocked but unsurprised). Offline as much as possible, to make room for my brain to wander and wonder and my hands to scribble. It’s easier to do that on vacation–it’s like I have permission from the God of Accomplishment to relax away from home.

It’s harder to make room for thinking at home. To make room for anything, really. My friend the relationship advice guru says if you’re single but ready, start sleeping on one side of the bed. Clear some space on the bathroom counter and in the closet. Make a place for what you want in your life. That sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. It’s hard to get rid of stuff that’s “OK” and open up a big fat nothing, trusting you’ll find something new. But new people, new ideas, even new clothes in the closet need open space before they show up.

I think about what I make room for at home: books in an actual bookshelf instead of closet piles, because I respect books. Sharp knives and a cast-iron pan because I love good food (it hurt to toss those perfectly good knives that weren’t actually very good). Time in a busy schedule to vacuum and do laundry and bring an after-work juice to a man loosening his tie because I’m finally able to value and make room for a good relationship.

In Batu Ferenghi in Penang, Malayia, I make room for ridiculously cheap foot massages, about US$7.50 for thirty minutes of sheer bliss. Turn the phone off, make a few polite comments and discover I do not speak enough Malaysian to do more than nod and smile, then lie back and think. Make room for thinking in a room full of armchairs and ottomans and other people lying back to be reflexology-ed. Outside the front window, there’s a shrine. A little red slant-roofed temple, just tall enough for a statue of Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, and shelf space for offerings. A bunch of bananas. A sweet drink. At the massage room, spiritual connection is here on purpose. For this goddess, they have made room. Prayers, genuflections on the way into and out of work, an opening for reverence, for appeal, for gratitude.

Back home, I finally moved my desk downstairs, put up a good light, put the books I read most in arm’s length. It was still hard to write. Making an Instagram-ready space wasn’t enough. I returned (as I always do) to appointments. To making writing a scheduled job. A four-hour shift with two writer buddies and a table at the coffee shop, because it’s easier to show up for someone else than to show up for myself. Technically, I would argue as a Buddhist, we are all gods. Practically, I can make it to the altar when it’s a date with another being.

Ritual gets things done. Going to the gym every day or every other day is easier than once a week. Writing every day–even for Instagram for five minutes–keeps me in the religion of making art, sharing the good news. Ritual is refuge when we are sad and shocked and unsurprised.

Maybe it’s a desk or a nice laptop or an appointment with a friend. Maybe it’s a conference or a retreat or a deadline. Whatever it is, do it–pray it–as often as you can. Make time, make space, clear out room for your own gods. Invite them in.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and writes travel micro-essays at Instagram.

Fear of Flying: Inside the Memoir-on-Submission Wind Tunnel

September 5, 2017 § 17 Comments

By Cameron Dezen Hammon

“What is it Mama?” my daughter asked, her so voice so hushed I could barely hear her. “What did they say? Mama?”

My daughter is not a quiet person. When she speaks, she’s usually heard. Maybe she was afraid of my answer. Or maybe I couldn’t hear her over the rush of blood in my ears, the slap of my palms on the hot steering wheel, the tepid air conditioner in my ancient Honda, barely keeping out the one-hundred-degree Texas heat.

I was in a Starbucks drive-through, my 11-year-old watching slime videos on her phone in the backseat. We’d just come from iFly, an indoor skydiving place on the Interstate 10 feeder road. My agent had sent my memoir out in early July to 45 editors, and since then I’d become an expert at choosing activities–like indoor skydiving—that prevented me from obsessively checking my email. I’d taken a two-day road trip through the desert with no cell service. I’d made a vision board (ok, I made three.) It’s hard to check email with glue on your fingertips. And I discovered flying. iFly offers two minute “flights” in a 90 mile-per-hour wind tunnel. Two-minute intervals during which I couldn’t do anything but focus on keeping my body steady, my mouth closed (no one wants wind-tunnel cheeks), and chin up. What better metaphor for the process I was in.

“Mama?” my daughter asked again from the backseat.

“They said no, baby,” I replied, surprised by the catch in my voice.

When my agent first sent my memoir out, a couple of editors reacted almost immediately with good news. They were taking it to editorial boards, getting additional reads. My book, This Is My Body, is about my conversion from the Jewish agnosticism of my New York upbringing to the Southern evangelicalism of my husband’s. It’s about the romantic and political turmoil that followed (hello, Trump,) causing me to strip my beliefs to the studs and re-build from the ground up. Because it’s a book about love that also deals heavily with the evangelical subculture and what it means for women, I knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Spirituality isn’t exactly the bread and butter of New York publishing. But I dared to hope.

Idling in the drive-through, full of post-flying false confidence, I unwisely checked my email. “It was a classic editorial vs. publicity stand-off,” my agent wrote. “Publicity won… There’s a lot of consensus about your writing… but there’s a disconnect with the business brass about how to reach readers.” This was one of the few progressive religious publishers brave enough to take on books dealing with controversial, too-often ignored issues in the evangelical church. Their mission statement read like the mission statement for my life. And the editor had loved my book, loved my writing. They were—my agent thought, I thought—the perfect fit.

I felt a tide of emotions when that email came in. Shame. Anger. Fear. Embarrassment. I’m a writer; I know rejections by the boatload are part of this life. I’ve had rejections by the boatload. But I’d developed—or so I thought—a way to avoid being paralyzed by them. This one hit me with the force of the iFly wind tunnel. It took my breath away.

No one knows what goes into writing our books quite like our children, our lovers, our partners. Our butts get numb and our health suffers, maybe we lose our hair, keys, minds—while glued to the computer screen. But they lose us. Or mine did, at least for a time. For six months last year while juggling three jobs and somehow managing to not tank my marriage, I’d taken a collection of fragmented essays and turned them into a book, a book I’m proud of. My daughter—in her last year of elementary school, her last year of being a kid before entering that netherworld of pre-teen—patiently withstood my divided attention. She pulled me back—to her after school activities, her latest math test, her plans for the weekend—when I got that far-off look in my eyes that meant I was solving some timeline, dialogue or structure puzzle in my mind. But she also celebrated with me. We jumped up and down in our socks, sliding on the wood floor when I found out I’d placed an essay with a dream publication. We toasted with Sprite at our favorite neighborhood restaurant when I finally finished the first draft of the book, and secured representation with a fancy New York literary agent. What took my breath away was not only the loss of this and other opportunities to see my book born into the world (35 more publishers had also passed, my agent included in the email) but that my daughter, my cheerleader, nervously sipping her black tea lemonade as we pulled into traffic, was also experiencing that loss.

It’s true that it would been nice to impress the “business brass,” those people with the power to write checks that could potentially replace the crumbling siding on my garage, or upgrade the ancient Honda. But that’s not why I started writing. I started writing because the terror of not writing was greater than the terror of writing. Because the joy of writing something new, of applying ass-to-chair and performing the mystical alchemy of revision, of seeing a project—like this essay—from start to finish, that joy is better than almost any other I’ve known.

“All is not lost, baby,” I said a few minutes later when I caught my breath between traffic lights.

I know that,” she said, with her characteristic half eye-roll. As if nothing could be more obvious.

I choose to believe the right editor for my book is still out there. In the meantime, I’m writing. That’s what my daughter sees. And for now, that’s enough.

 

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Cameron Dezen Hammon is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Brooklyn Review, The Rumpus, Ecotone, Guernica’s “The Kiss” series, The Literary Review, Houston Chronicle, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University, and is at work on a memoir about religious and romantic obsession.

A Little Is Enough

August 24, 2017 § 19 Comments

He’ll work on his book after this shot

At the Postgraduate Writing Conference at the Vermont College of Fine Arts earlier this month, Andre Dubus III talked about his writing practice after his three children were born, when he was writing House of Sand and Fog. He and his wife both worked full time, and the hours outside work focused on parenting. He taught as an adjunct at several schools and picked up construction work on the side. How did he write?

Seventeen minutes at a time.

Each morning, he started his morning commute twenty minutes early. Each night, he came home twenty minutes late. At first he pulled into an apartment complex parking lot and wrote in the car, but after ten days someone called the police to check on him. Fortunately, he knew the officer. Dubus relocated to a nearby cemetery. It was quiet. Usually empty of people, especially at 5AM and 6PM. Every morning, and every night, seventeen minutes at a time, writing in pencil in a notebook. In summer, sweating with the car windows down; in winter, with the heat on until he got a carbon monoxide headache and had to stop. All the way to the end of the book.

True, some writers work best with large swaths of time. Writing residencies, the privileges of a spouse able to support the entire family, household help, co-working spaces–all grant us the luxury of time. But most of us have more things in our day than our artistic time, particularly if we’re not making a living (yet) at our art. And it’s hard to carve out substantial time in a busy family and/or professional life.

It’s hard to wrap our heads around this method–“Oh yes, I wrote four words a day for twelve years and then I had a book” is kind of what it sounds like, and it sounds a little ridiculous. For most of us, it’s re-thinking the writing process. There’s no settling-in time, no getting sucked down a research rabbithole that somehow led to Facebook.

But there’s value in touching the manuscript more often, even for shorter periods of time. Just like the atmosphere of a retreat, when our brain knows “I’ll be back at the page in a few hours,” we can find ourselves working through a plot line or suddenly realizing why a character did that awful thing while we’re moving through the world. Commuting with a song associated with our story on repeat, or with silent earbuds playing nothing while we think on the bus.

The first week of short writing bursts usually sucks, because it really is establishing a new habit, which takes time. But after ten days or so, the flow will be triggered by sitting down. You won’t have to work your way in any more.

Maybe it’ll work for you. Maybe it won’t. But there’s only one way to find out. This is a shorter-than-usual Brevity blog: why not take the extra minutes and write?

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be speaking at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference Sept. 8-10 in Lancaster, PA. Want a registration discount code to sign up for a pre-conference workshop? Tweet her!

Brevity Podcast Episode #5 Dinty W. Moore

August 15, 2017 § 7 Comments

Dinty W. Moore has always stood out

It’s time once again for the intermittent Brevity Podcast! Listen right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.

Episode #5 features an interview with Dinty W. Moore, our very own Editor in Chief and founder of Brevity. Dinty will be keynote speaking at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Donna Talarico-Beerman, Editor in Chief at Hippocampus and the Hippocampus Press.

Show Notes: Episode #5 People and Books

We’re guessing you already know who Dinty is if you’re here, but you can find out more about the author of The Story Cure at his website, and follow him on Facebook.

The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, American Style

Joan Didion’s books

Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss

It’s the wrong time of year for Peeps, but catch them around Easter. If you’re looking for Samuel Pepys, find out more here. You can also read his exhaustive diary, one of the great records of 17th-Century London, including eyewitness reports of the Plague and the Great Fire of London.

Sarah Manguso’s books

Judith Kitchen’s books

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Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast. She’ll also be appearing at Hippocamp for an intensive workshop on Self-Editing and consultations on your pages.

In Defense of Platform

August 11, 2017 § 28 Comments

He’s got 11.5K followers

I heard it yesterday, and I’ve heard it before. At conferences. In workshops. In podcast interviews. Always from a reasonably famous, multiply published writer. The workshop leader. The big visiting cheese.

“Don’t even think about platform.”
“Don’t worry about platform.”
“F*ck platform.”

I know they genuinely want what’s best for their students. They want us to focus on words, not clicks. Want us to make great work before thinking about the market, not let what’s selling this week influence the book of our heart.

They are wrong.

They are näive, out-of-touch, factually incorrect and a little bit condescending. Darling little writers–first make a book! Don’t put the cart before the horse!

Of course we want to write a good book. That’s why we paid to take your class. But you know why else we paid to be here? Because we’re hoping (mostly in vain) that you will slam down your pencil, announce “this is the greatest work I’ve ever seen!” then end class immediately and lead us by the hand directly into your agent’s office, shouting “Marlene! You gotta rep this one!”

That’s not going to happen.

You know what else isn’t going to happen? My memoir won’t be magically plucked from slush by an agent who says, “Nobody knows who you are, but you’re so brilliant, don’t even worry about it! Sure, the memoir market is glutted right now, but you–you’re totally different than every other author and the glistening diamonds of your words will bring the world to your door!”

What I see on #MSWL–that’s Manuscript Wish List for those who scorn hashtags–and on websites and in interviews is agent after agent after agent looking for “Memoir/self-help with strong platform.” Sometimes they switch it up: “Memoir/self-help with existing platform.” Novelists have it a bit easier–it’s more about the words, but platform doesn’t hurt. Platform can be why the agent requests the full manuscript instead of saying no to the query, because they know you on Twitter and you’ve been cool. Platform doesn’t get you the book deal (famous-person books are a different category), but it can get you in the door.

The social-media slammers genuinely don’t understand social media. Now, I’ve got a horse in this race–I am, as you probably know, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. I give talks on using social media to practice writing craft. I am invested. But as a person who cares about effective and genuine social media, I also know this:

Platform is not clicks, or follower numbers, or multiple posts a day, or going viral.

Platform is the ability to directly connect with potential book buyers. And my wonderful, brilliant, famous teachers, there’s a reason you don’t think much about platform:

You’re already standing on it.

Platform = fame+genuine, personal connection. That notable book award? The reviews you got in the New York Times? Your Oscar nomination? The conference I just paid $900 to hear you speak at? Your adoring, book-purchasing, word-of-mouth-generating students across the country? That’s platform.

Platform is getting your name out there, yes, but it’s also about genuinely connecting with other people. Social media helps build supportive writing communities. There’s YA Twitter and #5AMWritersClub Twitter and Black Twitter. Places we can hear our idols speak for free, even ask them questions about their work. Places we can meet future readers, people who enjoy interacting with us and will later evangelize for our books. Places we can share our ideas and be challenged, and find out who else is interested in what we have to say.

Social media can waste our writing time, sure. But we can also use it to practice and improve. Write image-inspired micro-essays on Instagram. Editorials on Facebook–Anne Lamott’s doing pretty well there. Rock Tumblr like Roxane Gay. Use Twitter to make every word count, pack endless meaning into a single sentence, and take that craft back to our essays and stories and poems.

My brilliant and beloved platform-hating teachers already have books out in the world, published before Twitter existed. Before agents counted followers before offering representation. My teachers’ publishers are already invested in them, so it’s easy to tell a room of baby writers, “Publicity is the publisher’s job! Not the writer’s!”

Not any more.

I’m in a memoirists’ group on Facebook. More than 100 of the members have traditionally published books in the last five years. They’re doing just as much self-promotion, book-tour-arranging, press-release-writing and word-of-mouth-creating as the self-publishers. They have to, so their sales will justify book #2.

Would I like to be purely writing, unsullied by social media? Sure. It would save a bunch of time. I genuinely enjoy Instagram and blogging here, but yeah, there’s a sense of duty in some of my “platform-building.” But the chances of my being taken on by an agent who is blinded by the beauty of my creative nonfiction and cares not at all for the clickbait of this world is somewhere between being struck by lightning and winning a scratch-off for more than $50.

So please, dear famous teachers: Stop bashing platform. The way we build it is different than the way you did. Not easier, not harder–just different. And we are expected to do it in order to begin to approach the success you’ve already earned, the success that means you don’t have to be on Twitter.

If you want to walk me into your agent’s office, I’m up for it. I’m writing the best book I can write and practicing my craft and protecting my time and I am ready when you are. But until then, pass the hammer, because I’ve got platform to build.

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Allison K Williams is teaching Writing Better With Social Media at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster, PA Sept 8-10.

Hack Your Essay

July 25, 2017 § 12 Comments

Your problem’s in the third paragraph. And let’s tighten that closing while you’re here.

Sometimes writing is a glorious creative flow, images tumbling out in perfect sequence and in the exact right words to express them. Other times, it’s a slog.

I know this isn’t quite working but I don’t know why.

When it happened, the experience wasn’t this…blah.

Where the heck do I start the next draft?

One door in to a difficult draft is to focus on the technical. Word choices, parts of speech, sentence lengths, paragraph constructions. Our medium is words, and just as an oil painting is unlike a watercolor or a graphic design, the mechanics of language can shape our story, sometimes even leading the creative process rather than reflecting it.

Over at Poetry Foundation, Carmen Giménez Smith has Twenty-Two Poem Hacks for addressing a poem technically. Most of the twenty-two are also terrific tools for working on an essay or short story. Some choice bits:

1. Lose that first stanza: The first stanza is often the path to a poem, and it provides scaffolding for us, but our reader doesn’t need it as much as we do. Read the poem without the first stanza, and see how much is missing. Consider how quickly the first stanza situates the reader in the poem.

Replace stanza with “paragraph.” Sometimes even with “page.” A novelist I’m editing heard an agent say, “Many manuscripts, the story actually begins 50 pages in. Cut the first 50 and see where you are.” The novelist (bravely) did, and the book immediately leapt to life, starting the reader in the action. From those first pages, only a few pieces of information were still needed, and the writer wove them in later.

8. Assess your use of cognitive handles: Language like “I feel,” “I remember,” “I think,” etc. often points to the obvious work of cognition. We rarely need them, and more importantly, they offset the potential for a dynamic subject-predicate engagement. Remove them whenever possible, then move the subsequent language into the spotlight.

This language is also called “filtering,” and filtering reminds the reader, “You are not this narrator. The narrator is a separate person who did something that happened somewhere/somewhen else.”

I looked across the room at Bob vs. Bob stood across the room.

By removing the filters, the reader sees through the eyes of the character, steps into their shoes. The reader can be immersed in the story and feel their own reactions to events.

13. Clauses and fragments: Fragments can serve us well in a poem, but if we have a conventional clause (subject-predicate) divided by a period, we should ask why break up that engagement with energy and momentum.

In prose, this energy interruption is also seen in long sentences full of prepositional phrases. Prepositions often denote location in space or time, and every time a new phrase shows up, the reader’s sense of location jumps. A rough-draft sentence:

She went into the store on the corner and looked on the shelf for the familiar red packet she’d eaten from so long ago at her mother’s table in the blue house where she’d felt so alone, as alone as she felt this morning at her own table.

It’s not just that this sentence is overly long (long can be great when it’s a choice). It’s that it contains 10 prepositional phrases, each of which takes the reader to a different time, physical location, or state of being.

And beautifully, Giménez Smith points out the technical work of vulnerability:

21. Revise toward strangeness: The poem should make you uncomfortable and it should challenge you. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” –Robert Frost

It’s not an accident that our essays become raw and riveting and compelling. It’s the writer receiving that moment of You can’t tell that or But what if everyone finds out or Maybe I’m the only one who feels like this and writing into it instead of away from it.

Check out all Twenty-Two Poem Hacks here–and dive into that next draft, OK?

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.

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