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The Complete Writer
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life
Part I. Write Right
Chapter 1. The Essence of Good Writing
Chapter 2. Show, Don’t Tell: The Abstraction Ladder
Chapter 3. Verbs: Choose Your Weapon Carefully
Chapter 4. Overcapitalization
Chapter 5. Dogged Clichés
Part II. Making It Perfect (six chapters)
Chapter 6. The Importance of Revising and Editing
Chapter 7. Six Steps to Revising and Polishing
Chapter 8. Two Kinds of Revising
Chapter 9. Revising with Reader Feedback
Chapter 10. Working with a Professional Editor
Chapter 11. Getting to Know a Style Manual
Part III. Writing Nonfiction (seven chapters)
Part IV. Blogging (four chapters)
Part V. Writing Fiction (five chapters)
Part VI. Ethics and Legality (two chapters)
Part VII. Publishers and Self-Publishers (eleven chapters)
Part VIII. The Writing Life (three chapters)
Part IX. Creative Strategies (three chapters)
Who Is This Book For?
- Anyone who wants to write articles, books, or blogs at a professional level
- Business owners who need to create books or blogs for marketing or personal purposes
- Writers of nonfiction
- Writers of fiction
- Book authors deciding whether to self-publish or to seek a traditional publisher
- Individuals who hope to make a living as freelance writers or independent publishers
When I came up with the idea for The Complete Writer, the plan was to create a book that I could give to my editorial clients at The Copyeditor’s Desk. At the outset, most of my clientele consisted of academics, nonprofits, and small businesses who publish through scholarly or traditional presses. Over time, though, more people have asked me to help prepare books—fiction and nonfiction—for independent publication on Amazon and waypoints.
Many of my new clients secretly dream of making a living at writing. I’ve lived that dream myself, and I can assure you: it’s not wise to quit your day job. For most people it’s not the path to a middle-class lifestyle, especially if you don’t live in one of the big coastal cities that are publishing centers. But if you have a source of independent income that will support you—a job that’s not all-consuming, investments, a working spouse, Social Security—independent writing and publishing can be an interesting and fulfilling enterprise.
Other clients have more salient reasons to launch self-publishing enterprises, ranging from a simple ego boost to marketing strategies for their businesses.
Whatever you crave to do with your writing and publishing dreams, you must be able to write clearly. You need to understand what makes a publishable document, and you need to know how to edit and revise your work to make it publishable. Maybe even more than that, you need to understand that the only person who will market your product is you. This is true whether you write a blog or newspaper and magazine features or books or copy for some other business. I say “other” because all publishing activity is a business.
Over the years, I’ve published in many venues: magazines, newspapers, websites, academic journals, and books. I’ve helped innumerable authors and small businesses perfect websites, journal articles, and books. I’ve published my own and clients’ books through mainline publishers (The Life or Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester, Folger Shakespeare Library; The Essential Feature, Columbia University Press; Math Magic, with Scott Flansburg, William Morrow),: and out of curiosity, I’ve also self-published a few of my own squibs through Amazon and waypoints, under the Plain & Simple Press imprint (Slave Labor: The New Story of American Higher Education; Fire-Rider, a three-volume saga; and 30 Pounds, Four Months, a diet plan and cookbook for people who love to eat. Using a second imprint, Camptown Races Press, I published a series of adult romances emanated by a group of five writers under the Roberta Stuart pseudonym. And I have operated one of the top 100 personal finance blogs in the English language, plus a few other sites.
The Complete Writer brings twenty-five years of writing, publishing, and academic experience to bear on issues that most concern people who want to be writers:
- How to write better
- How to write articles, websites, and books
- How to write nonfiction
- How to write fiction
- What to do about writer’s block
- Whether to self-publish or to seek a traditional publisher
- How to prepare a book for publication
- How to market books
- How to manage a freelance writing business
Obviously, no book can answer all the questions or solve all the challenges that arise for every writer. But I hope this one will give you some insight into what you can expect if you decide to dive into the writing life, and how to go about it. If you have any specific questions, I invite you to explore Plain & Simple Press or The Copyeditor’s Desk and send them to me through either site’s Contacts page.
§ § §
Section I: Write Right
Writing Tips and Pointers
§ § §
The Essence of Good Writing
Clear, coherent writing style works in all professional settings. For professional, publishing writers, it’s required.
The principles described here apply to any kind of writing, fiction or nonfiction, as long as the document is adapted to the audience and its circumstances.
Good writing is clear writing.
Readers in all contexts are thrilled to find copy that is presented clearly, in concise, interesting, easy-to-follow language. This applies across the board, to all kinds of writing. It applies to technical writing, for example, where you may write a manual that explains how a computer program or a technical device works. It applies to business writing, from daily correspondence to the annual report. And it applies in fiction: a revelation made clear by Ernest Hemingway, who applied this style to the short story and the novel.
In business, being able to write clearly and well makes you look good. Even people who aren’t English majors notice confusing or clumsy writing. If you can’t write a simple sentence, they wonder what else you can’t do.
Writing a “simple sentence” (that’s a grammatical term for an utterance that has one subject and one predicate) doesn’t mean writing simple-mindedly. The Wall Street Journal, whose content is anything but simple-minded, is written at an eleventh-grade reading level. It conveys a great deal of sophisticated information in a style that is crisp and uncluttered, but not choppy. The length and structure of its sentences are varied, but every word counts.
To make every word count is to “write tight.” The principles of tight writing are described in brief in William Strunk and E.B. White’s short and famous book, The Elements of Style. You should read it and come to know it well. If you plan on a career that requires a lot of writing—or if you’d just like to write for the fun of it—you should memorize this book. In particular, check out “Rule 17,” which says:
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 details and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Strunk and White wrote at a time when we didn’t worry about gender-based pronouns, and when people learned a great deal more about how language works than many of us encounter in school today. So, in case some of their discussions seem mysterious, let’s review a few methods that will help you accomplish what they advise.
Mechanical tricks to help keep it short
Certain devices, although no substitute for thoughtful composition, can help. Keep these hints in mind.
Cut adverbs and adjectives.
The words very, quite, a little, a lot, a bit, somewhat, rather, and really can usually go. So can many—perhaps even most—words ending in -ly. Ask yourself if you need that adverb, or if you can find a verb that carries the meaning of two words.
For example, what does “talk very fast” mean? Without even thinking about it, we can list a half-dozen single words that may mean that: chatter, jabber, babble, blurt, prattle, chit-chat, gab. A little thought will certainly lead to more and maybe better terms. Notice that each verb adds meaning and vividness to the idea of fast talk—they all have slightly different senses. The strong verb, when preferred to a weaker verb plus an adverb or two, gives strength and meaning to your language.
Watch for wordy habits.
I nearly said, “Keep your eye out for. . . .” These verbose constructions are everywhere, and we can always find one or two words to take their place:
- has the capability to (can)
- is capable of (can)
- is able to (can)
- can be compared to (resembles)
- are forced to (must)
- is a product of Japan (comes from Japan)
Look for the hidden verb.
Some verbosities are long constructions hiding a verb that, when uncovered, can be made to pull the sentence’s weight. For example:
- she has a great influence on (influences)
she has a lack of (lacks)
- I am of the opinion that
- they carried out a review of
- please make payment of the amount
please pay the amount
- we should make an adjustment in
we should adjust
- they made an announcement
Beware the “there is/there are” construction.
This idiom is a blot upon our language, because it is so universally overused. Consider, for example, the following:
- There has been an increasing number of court cases
about. . . .
If you take the thing that “there has been” (in this case, number) and make it the subject of the sentence, and then come up with a verb that has some meaning, such as concern, you create a decent sentence that gets straight to the point:
- An increasing number of court cases concern. . . .
Delete relative pronouns, where possible.
Sometimes you can delete certain subordinators, such as that, who, and which, creating tighter phrasing:
- the foods that people eat. . . .
the foods people eat. . . .
- Sgt. Preston, who is a Vietnam veteran, said. . . .
Sgt. Preston, a Vietnam veteran, said. . . .
- The canyon, which is a wildlife sanctuary, runs north and south.
The canyon, a wildlife sanctuary, runs north and south.
Get rid of as many prepositional phrases as you can.
You can often replace prepositional phrases with possessives (my aunt’s pen, not the pen of my aunt) or with noun phrases (a coffee cup, not a cup for coffee):
- The laughter of children
- A spokeswoman for Honeywell
A Honeywell spokeswoman
But be careful not to get tangled up in noun phrases: A phrase like “victims of violent crime” ceases to make sense when it’s put as “violent crime victims.”
Techniques of economical composition and style
Some devices require a little more thought than the knee-jerk mechanical tricks we’ve just reviewed. These are compositional principles that you should internalize as you internalize the spelling of your own name.
Before we proceed to the first trick, let’s make a side trip to visit our friend Joe, a fellow who likes to hike in the mountains. Being a kind of a cowboyish dude, he likes to take his blunderbuss for a walk, too. So one bright day Joe is way out in the sticks when he hears a rustling in the brush.
What should come bounding out of the chaparral but a gigantic, angry bear! Joe, calling upon his nerves of steel, grabs his long gun and blows the bear away!
Now he’s feeling pretty pleased with himself, pounding his chest and hollering, “Kreegah! Joe Bundolo!” and contemplating how he’s going to get the thee-hundred-pound trophy five miles down the trail to his pick-up.
Pretty quick he hears another rustling in the bush. No fool, he slides the gun under the shrubbery and stands there looking innocent, for now what should come striding out of the shrubbery but the game warden.
Joe, being a cheapskate, would never think of buying a hunting license, but that wouldn’t matter, because it’s out of bear season, anyway.
“Goodness gracious!” the warden exclaims. “What happened here?”
“Officer,” Joe says, “this bear was shot.” Joe, a career bureaucrat, is a past master of passing the buck.
We, being tree-huggers, happen to have been hiding in the jojoba bushes. Outraged, we now leap out and holler, “Officer, this bear was shot by Joe!”
Okay. Now we have some action, and in the course of describing it we’ve disobeyed a cardinal rule of tight writing not once, but twice:
Avoid the passive voice.
Verbs are words that express action. They come in two voices, “active” and “passive.”
In the active voice, the action moves directly from the subject to the object of the action (the thing that is receiving the action). In our examples, we’ll make subjects bold-face, verbs boldface italic, and (when they exist) objects plain italic:
Joe shot the bear.
Notice that the receiver of the action here appears as the object of the verb, and the thing that is doing the action is the verb’s subject. The active voice is straight and direct. It doesn’t beat around the bush, and it doesn’t waste words. It is economical, and that is why we prefer it.
In the passive voice, the action moves in the opposite direction: the thing that receives the action suddenly appears as the verb’s subject, and the doer of the action is hidden in a prepositional phrase starting with “by,” which may or may not be explicitly stated.
The bear was shot [by Joe].
When Joe says “the bear was shot,” he passes the buck. Anyone could have shot the bear. Surely not Joe, eh?
Because the passive voice always contains a past participle (a verbal that looks like it’s in the past tense, such as “shot”), many writers confuse it with the past tense. Remember, the way to tell whether a verb is in the passive voice is asking whether you can say the action was done by someone or something. If the phrase “by zombies” makes sense, then the verb is in the passive voice.
In most circumstances, the passive voice is indirect and verbose— that’s why it’s a classic feature of bureaucratese. Fix it by converting it to the active voice, unless you’re using the passive voice for a specific reason. Take the doer of the action and make that the subject of the sentence.
- Passive: Mistakes were made.
Active: We made mistakes.
- Passive: Money was spent on unnecessary travel.
Active: Management spent money on unnecessary travel.
- Passive: The bear was shot.
Active: Joe shot the bear.
Now I’m going to tell you something that you’re not supposed to know: there are times when the passive voice is a good thing. Not many, but they do exist. One legitimate reason to use the passive voice, obviously, is to pass the buck. Sometimes you want to obfuscate. The passive voice is a formidable tool for that purpose.
But sometimes you can use the passive voice to do exactly the opposite. When we leap out of the brush and say to the game warden, “That bear was shot by Joe,” we point the finger at Joe and emphasize his agency in the crime.
This happens because in English, the most emphatic position is at the end of an utterance or a paragraph or a story. Because of that, when you put the “by _____” part of the passive voice into words, you lay the stress on the doer of the action. And sometimes, as in the episode with Joe, that’s exactly what you want to do.
But most of the time: not so much. Use the passive voice when you know what you’re doing. Otherwise, prefer the active to the passive.
Use verbs conveying action, not verbs of being.
These are the verbs of being:
am is are was were be being been
They’re perfectly fine words, and you can’t get around using them now and again. But they lack punch. Good writers make their verbs carry the weight of their sentences— and a verb of being doesn’t carry much weight. Instead of having the subject of a sentence just “be,” have it “do.”
Here’s a sentence by a real journalist:
Energetic and stimulating, Rios is a favorite among students.
It conveys a little meaning, but overall, it’s a big Z, dull as white rice. What on earth does “stimulating” mean, anyway? And that fellow Rios is buried in the middle of the sentence.
We could rewrite it:
Students love the energetic and stimulating Rios.
A little better—though insipid. The word “love” sounds lame: it’s one of those words that have lost meaning from overuse. And the sentence still doesn’t show Rios in action; it doesn’t show how the words “energetic” and “stimulating” define him.
My edited version of this—and I was perhaps guilty of going after our scribe with a heavy hand—read like this when it finally went to print:
Rios projects a sense of excitement and energy that charms his students.
Does it improve on the original? Maybe so; maybe not. As you can see, though, an insipid sentence inspires an insipid response in the reader, something you decidedly do not want to inspire.
Write in complete sentences . Most of the time.
A complete sentence has a subject and a verb. It will not harm your style or bore your reader if you include a subject and a verb in every sentence.
Beginning writers seem to think it’s arty to cast their thoughts in fragments. Maybe they think it sounds dramatic.
In fact, though, sentence fragments have a function: fragments are like exclamation points. They’re emphatic. Too many exclamation points make your copy sound like you’re panting. Good writers use sentence fragments in the same way the use exclamation points: sparingly. To pepper a piece of writing with a lot of fragments or exclamation points is bad style.
Use Anglo-Saxon instead of Latinate words.
Prefer the short word to the long one. Some folks apparently believe that the more syllables a word has, the more important it sounds. Not so. Think about the most common mouth-fillers, and consider their plain-English alternatives:
- numerous (many)
- donation (gift)
- illustrate (show)
- accountability (duty)
- merchandise (stock)
- acquiesce (agree)
- communicate (say)
- conference (meeting)
- indicate (say, imply)
- knowledgeable (trained)
- optimal (best)
- restructure (change)
- institute (start)
This is what happens when you lard your language with important-sounding, Latinate words:
Members of the species homo sapiens who maintain an abode within a permanent or semipermanent structure composed at least partially or wholly of vitreous, transparent material would find it sagacious to refrain from hurling projectiles of natural material.
Figured out what this means yet?
People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Cut the jargon.
Of AIDS, a high-ranking bureaucrat once said, “The disease has heterosexualized, proletarianized, and ruralized.” So has the plague of gobbledygook.
Jargon is mishmash language. It obscures meaning while it implies that the speaker is an insider. Don’t confuse this term with “shop talk.” Some terms that are current in specific trades and industries have real meaning and need not be translated into verbose alternatives. Doctors and nurses, for example, know what an “EMT” is, and they know what has happened when someone has administered CPR. No—we’re talking about phony shop talk, fake insider language, ersatz sophistication.
You can learn to recognize jargon, which, like computer viruses, evolves constantly. For example, suspect any word that ends in -ize or -ate:
- . . .even concertize!
Nouns and adjectives usually convert to jargon when they surface as brand-new verbs. Thus, the word “conference” becomes jargon when it’s used as a verb: “They conferenced about the computer program.” We’ve all heard these words several times too often:
- to parent
- to office
- to network
- to obsolete
- to impact
Some jargon slithers into the language from baleful sources like admanese, educationese, political doublethink, and shop talk. They buzz interestingly but don’t mean much:
- fast track
- dog and pony show
- world class
- meaningful dialogue
- revolution (as in “a marketing revolution”)
- experience (as in “a dining experience”)
The word “multiple”—meaning “many” or “more than one”—one day cropped up as suddenly as chicken pox on a six-year-old’s belly. There is nothing wrong with the word “many.” And “more than one” is far preferable to the mumbly “multiple.”
To impact is similarly vile. Teeth are impacted. People, politics, the history of humanity, the future of the universe are affected, changed, damaged, improved, transformed, exploded, crushed, or whatever it is that you think you mean.
Avoid clichés like the plague. . .
Clichés are aging quips that have worn thin with overuse. You can usually tell if a golden phrase is hackneyed by saying the first few words aloud. If the last few follow automatically, you’ve got a cliché.
- Raining cats and . . . .
- Filled to the . . . .
- Fit as a . . . .
- Sell like. . . .
Use specific terms, not mush words.
Everyday language is awash in words devoid of solid meaning—such as “area” and “field.” That’s not my area; he’s an expert in the field. What do these things mean? Discipline? Concern? Meadow? Say what you mean!
Watch out for words like thing, idea, situation, experience, and group, the latter of which may mean anything from the Boy Scouts to a witches’ coven.
Use the right word.
Some words sound as though they mean something other than what they do mean.
- fortuitous does not mean fortunate
- appraised is not apprised
- revenge is not to avenge
- award is not to reward
- verbal is not quite the same as oral
Euphemism is prettified speech that supposedly softens blunt reality (“she passed away”) or replaces frank words with allegedly acceptable language (“little girls’ room”).
Don’t be crude, but don’t be nicey-nice, either. A task force is a committee, a recreation facility is a gym, and an environmental engineer in education is a school janitor.
Any unnecessary word is redundant. In the patter of every day speech, we repeat ourselves all the time. For example:
- hot water heater (if the water’s hot, why do you need a heater?)
- close proximity (= “close closeness”!)
- one and only (if there’s one, it is only)
- more and more (and on and on?)
- single most (cf. one and only)
- free gift (admanese: if it’s a gift, it is free)
- sworn affidavit (affidavits by their nature are sworn)
- completely surrounded (if you’re partly surrounded, then you’re…well…not surrounded)
- future plans (as opposed to past plans?)
- return again (“re” means “again”)
- completely unable (much like completely pregnant…)
This may be O.K. when you’re talking, but don’t do it in writing. You can edit the written word—and you should.
Sometimes writers indulge in larger kinds of redundancy. We may accidentally repeat a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that appeared earlier in the document. Or we may have been taught a particularly pernicious method of composition, the “Tell them what you’re going to say; say it; and tell them what you said” approach. This is plain bad writing—don’t do it. In writing (as opposed to public speaking), you need say it just once.
Avoid portmanteau sentences.
This term was coined by James Kilpatrick, after Lewis Carroll. It compares an overburdened sentence to a stuffed suitcase. Consider, for example, this astonishing example from Editor & Publisher, the trade journal of the newspaper industry—and ironically, a repository of bad writing:
Achorn suggested that women set the ground rules early and stick to them, not underestimate themselves or set their goals too low, be prepared for a certain amount of loneliness as they get to the top (it goes with the job), not carry a chip on their shoulders, take advantage of every educational and training opportunity, make sure their company has a sound policy against sexual harassment, not assume all women working with them are for them, be optimistic and not expect the workplace to solve all the problems and change cultural attitudes that have built up over the centuries.
Amazing. There was no need to recite every hackneyed aphorism the speaker uttered. But even if the advice were not trite, the sentence would still be overstuffed.
Use correct punctuation.
It’s does not mean its, and there’s no such thing as its’. Sentences slopped together with a comma instead of a conjunction or a semicolon just look . . . well, sloppy.
Learn the difference between the plural and the possessive, and distinguish between the plural possessive and the singular possessive. Know what a comma splice is and how to avoid it. You can learn these things. It’s easy to find grammar and style guides online, or just visit any community college or university bookstore and pick up a freshman comp text.
Remember to run the spellchecker as the second-to-last step in revising your work. But after that, always proofread with the brain! We’re still smarter than our computers.
§ § §
Show, Don’t Tell: The Abstraction Ladder
Effective writing is concrete writing. Concrete writing is specific. You’ve probably heard this in many variations; the most common is “show, don’t tell.”
Teachers, writing coaches, and editors say this over and over because it’s one of the hardest tricks for writers to master. It’s so easy to say, for example, “the beautiful sunset” or “the attractive woman.” And it’s easy to lapse into jargon: “we maximized the data.”
But what do these things mean? When someone says he saw a pretty woman riding the light rail, can you picture the lady? Probably only in your own terms—that is, in terms of what you personally think makes for a good-looking woman. What does a “beautiful sunset” look like? Is it cloudy? Clear? Red? Orange? Yellow? Blue? Green? How long does this sunset last, anyway? “It’s a nice day”—personally, I’ve been known to say a 100-degree day was “nice”; my buddy from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula thinks it’s “nice” when snow is falling.
The trouble with these vague terms is that they are high on the abstraction ladder.
A linguist named S.I. Hayakawa, some years ago, came up with a way of thinking about abstract and concrete language. He pictured a ladder on which a speaker moves up and down between relatively concrete or specific terms and abstract words.
To understand his vision, take a look at this:
This is Jake.
Well, no. Actually, this picture of Jake is in itself an abstraction. You understand: It’s not Jake! It’s a representation of Jake.
Like pictures, all words are representations. That is, any word is necessarily an abstraction. The interesting thing about words is that they display degrees of abstraction, just as an abstract painting might portray Jake in more or less jumbled ways.
So, try to imagine the real thing: These days, he’s no longer a cute little puppy. He’s large; he has long shiny blond hair that sheds all over everything. He’s very friendly and happy. He stinks—he has a superb doggy aroma. He drools. He occasionally barks. He attempts to talk to humans with a strange ooking noise. And he is, all in all, very concrete. File this dog away in your mind for a minute.
Now, to get back to the subject: Hayakawa posited that all language is abstract. That is, a word is necessarily not the thing that it represents. All words in all languages are necessarily abstractions—they’re just representations of the real object. The word table or mesa is not the same as a physical wooden contraption to hold dishes and homework.
Thus. . .
This is not a rose…
And this is not a rose:
Intuitively, we sense that some words are somehow closer to the object than others—that is, some words evoke a more specific image of the object than others. For example, “rose” is more specific—less abstract—than “flower” or “bush.”
Hayakawa thought of picturing these levels of abstraction by ranging words along an imaginary ladder, which he called “The Abstraction Ladder.”
Such a ladder might look like this, with its feet on the ground and its most abstract rung somewhere out there where no one has gone before.
So, QUICK: what’s the most concrete term you can think of for this critter:
About 80 percent of us automatically say “dog.” But in fact, that doesn’t say much about the occupant of our photo.
For most people, “dog” means their dog, and the picture the word conjures in their minds may be of a poodle or a cocker spaniel or a shih-tzu or a Heinz-57. Chances are, the word “dog” won’t make your reader think of anything that looks much like Jake.
Between us—because we share some very specific information—the word that will conjure up that dog is “Jake.” So, if we were to draw a ladder along which we would range all the words that indicate what’s in our picture from least to most abstract, the word “Jake” would appear on the bottom rung.
Consider, then, the words that are more abstract than “Jake” but less abstract than “dog”: we can imagine quite a few. Jake is a golden retriever, which is a variety of hunting dog, which is a variety of working dog, and so forth:
For writers, it’s another way of saying show, don’t tell. Or, as all your teachers, readers, and editors will nag you, be specific.
To create clarity in your writing—that is, to make the window of your writing spot-free—you need to come down the abstraction ladder.
Good writers move up and down the abstraction ladder. They clarify abstract concepts and terms by providing concrete, clearly described examples and by giving readers anecdotes that show how the abstract applies to real life.
For example, once I went up Mt. Graham with a Forest Service biologist who was an expert on the endangered Mt. Graham red squirrel. My friend was writing a story on the same, and she was driving us up through several life zones when all of a sudden a mountain lion jumped onto the road ahead of us. Then it disappeared into the forest. What kind of forest do you picture?
Does your forest look like this?
Maybe it looks like this…
This is my kinda forest!
The point is, the reader can’t know what kind of landscape the mountain lion was in unless we tell what it looked like . . . by using specific terms.
Mt. Graham rises 7,000 feet, through several distinct life zones—all of which are in the National Forest. It starts with low desert chaparral; the road passes through juniper, oak, and piñon forest, then ponderosa, Douglas fir, then aspen, white fir, and finally blue spruce.
What kind of “forest” did you imagine the mountain lion disappeared into?
It means you need to use concrete, picture nouns—the actual name for something, not just the vague word for it. In placing the reader in a forest, you must say what kind of forest it is—broad-leafed? coniferous? juniper-oak?—and what kind of trees appear—maples? pine? fir? aspen? other? What do they look like? smell like? sound like?
Otherwise, each reader sees his or her personal version of the forest, not the one you’re talking about.
Verbs: Choose Your Weapon Carefully
With permission from the author, I’m going to share a few phrases by one of my favorite clients. This material comes from a chapter of a novel set in the Antebellum South.
• Spring was on the verge of turning into summer in East Georgia.
• The sun was changing from pale yellow to a more intense incandescent hue . . .
• The sky was changing from a pale blue to a deeper shade.
• Life seemed more vibrant and pulsating . . .
• . . . sounds and scents grew stronger.
• Hawks floated silently in the sky, . . . searching the earth below for dinner.
• Dogs could be heard, some near, some in the distance, barking and yelping, adding their measure to nature’s strange cacophony . . .
• . . . cats, like the hawks aloft, simply moved about stealthily, preferring not to announce their presence but rather to strike by surprise . . .
A lot could be said about these fragments of description. But let’s focus on one aspect of the copy—possibly the crucial aspect: its verbs.
As you know, a verb is a part of speech that expresses the action going on in an utterance. In daily speech, we tend to be fairly loose with our verbs: we use verbs of being to form unnecessarily verbose turns of phrase (“she was of the opinion that” when “she thought” would do the job faster and better); we cling to the passive voice (“mistakes were made”); we use vague or bland or squishy terms when a stronger verb would get the idea across more directly, more clearly, and more memorably . . . we could go on and on.
None of those misdemeanors is ungrammatical or unidiomatic. But as writers, we get to edit our language before the reader has to “listen” to it. And so, we can do better.
Here are six strategies to accomplish that goal:
1. Whenever possible, use action verbs, not verbs of being (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been)
2. Avoid analogues to verbs of being, such as seem or ap-pear, unless there’s a good reason to use one.
3. Instead of a verb + an adverb (a word ending in -ly), try to pick a verb that carries the meaning of the action plus the adverb. For example: instead of “she walked slowly across the campus,” try “she ambled, she strolled, she meandered, she plodded, she wandered, she dawdled. . . .”
4. Prefer strong, expressive verbs to wishy-washy ones.
5. Avoid the passive voice unless there’s a good reason to use it.
6. Use the simple present (he goes) or the simple past (he went) rather than the progressive tenses (he is going; he was going), unless there’s a good reason for it.
Let’s try applying these principles to Author’s gilded words. With a little alchemy and those six tips, we can turn that chapter from gold-plate to 14-carat.
Spring was on the verge of turning into summer. . . .
Why is this sentence such a snoozer? Because Author missed his chance to engage a vivid, strong verb. Instead, he brazenly flouted Rule 1 and inserted a bland, Pablumesque verb of being (was) plus a verbose prepositional phrase (on the verge) plus another verbose prep phrase (of turning) plus yet a THIRD prep phrase (into summer).
What does on the verge of mean? Maybe “about to”? Spring was about to turn into summer. That’s a little bit better. But it’s boring.
We’ve gotta get rid of that verb of being! How can we express the idea that summer is y-cumen in with a single, expressive action word?
• Spring was merging into summer
• Spring was shifting into summer…
• Spring was blending into summer…
• Spring was bleeding into summer…
• Spring was melting into summer…
• Spring was verging into summer…
Some of these possibilities are better than others. “Spring was bleeding, . . .” for example, might work despite its whiff of the purple because this chapter portrays people in slavery. “To verge” is a little rarified—I personally would avoid it. To my ear, “was shifting” sounds like a Ford Fairlane with four on the floor: jarring in the context. “Merge,” “blend,” “melt”: any of those might work, and any would improve on “was” + prep phrase + prep phrase + prep phrase.
Now what if we apply Rule 6 (prefer simple to progressive tenses)?
• Spring merged into summer in East Georgia .
• Spring bled into summer in East Georgia.
• Spring blended into summer in East Georgia.
This is looking better. Two minor edits—pick a strong verb and put it in a simple instead of a progressive tense—and now we have a pretty arresting opening sentence. And I like the “bleed” verb a lot better. Since this is the first sentence of the book’s first chapter, we tentatively add a second propositional phrase, “in East Georgia,” to ground the reader in the scene’s place. On second thought, though, we might be improve it by turning that prep phrase into a noun phrase:
• An East Georgia spring bled into summer.
In the interest of economical writing, try to avoid strings of prepositional phrases. Our author did so at the outset, but simply placed the “in East Georgia” phrase deeper in the first page. Write tight, and get to the point.
Here are two sentences that appear in the same paragraph:
The sun was changing from pale yellow to a more intense incandescent hue. . . .
The sky was changing from a pale blue to a deeper shade.
Let’s remember de Maupassant’s rule: never use the same word twice on the same page. So: we’d like to get rid of at least one of those changings, without getting too “elegant” about it. And as we can see, we have a Rule 6 issue, too: was changing is in the past progressive.
The “changing” choice is painfully bland. Vanilla’s nice in ice cream, but we ain’t makin’ ice cream here! How was it changing? What result did the change effect?
• The sun’s pale yellow began to heat into an incandescent glare.
• The sun’s winter yellow flared into incandescence.
• Sunlight intensified, pale yellow brightening toward a furnace-like incandescence.
• The sun’s disk brightened, winter’s pale yellow shifting into summer’s full incandescence.
• The sun shed its pallid winter yellow and took on a burning incandescent glare.
• The sun shed its pallid winter yellow and assumed a burning incandescent glare.
Any of these would likely do. The second has brevity to recommend it. The third strikes me as fairly evocative; so does the second. The last three choices strike me as overly erudite, even verbose; for that reason I would reject them.
Testing the process on the second example:
• The sky shed its wintry pallor and deepened toward azure.
• The pale winter sky deepened into a richer, darker blue.
• Winter’s pale blue sky grew deeper, as if to make the sun look more brilliant.
• Winter’s pale blue sky deepened, as if to make the sun look more brilliant.
Moving on . . .
Life seemed more vibrant and pulsating . . .
. . . sounds and scents grew stronger.
“Pulsating?” Like an electric guitar, maybe? Georgia had rock bands in 1855? Probably not. What can we do with this?
For starters, let’s get rid of the quasi-verb of being, seemed. Then let’s convert the adjective and the adjectival participle into verbs:
• Life vibrated and pulsed.
Well. I suppose. Or maybe not: brings to mind some sort of alien blob, doesn’t it? It Came from Outer Space! But it does boil three words into one: seemed more vibrant to vibrated; [seemed more] pulsating to pulsed. None too felicitous, though.
• Life, vibrant and pulsating, emanated new sounds and scents.
Love those sesquipedalian words! But . . . unless you have a good reason to emit them, maybe you shouldn’t.
The narrator here speaks in the voice of a highly educated Black man. He can get away with the adjectival participles, and he surely would have the word “emanate” at his fingertips. So . . . maybe. But would anyone really say that? Maybe not.
• Life, vibrant and pulsating, filled the air with new sounds and scents.
Better. Moving on.
Hawks floated silently in the sky, . . . searching the earth below for dinner.
All right. I mean, sort of OK. “Floated silently” demands two words when one will do. “Searching the earth below” feels like a dull way to anthropomorphize a raptor. And hawks do not have breakfast, lunch, and dinner; they grab what they can get and bolt it down when they can get it.
My favorite image for a raptor or avian scavenger “floating in the sky” is “riding a cold column of air.” I don’t recall where I stole that turn of phrase: probably from Wallace or Page Stegner or maybe from Scott Momaday. Whatever: don’t use it. It’s red-hot.
Can we try to come up with an image of our own? At the very least let’s look for something that means “floated silently.”
• Hawks brooded overhead, searching the earth for an unwary meal.
• Silent hawks gazed down from the sky, searching . . .
• Quiet as owls, hawks hovered above, searching . . .
• Quiet as gentle death, hawks hovered above . . .
Enough of that. Don’t just sit there: come up with something of your own.
Dogs could be heard, some near, some in the distance, barking and yelping, adding their measure to nature’s strange cacophony. . . .
Passive voice! Plus a convoluted series of participles, plus a sesquipedalianism. Oh Lord, spare us, thy hapless readers . . .
Let’s apply Rule 5 and then also try to empty the marbles out of Author’s mouth:
• Dogs, some near and some distant, barked and yelped, adding their measure to Nature’s steel-drum beat.
• Dogs near and far barked and yelped, adding . . .
• Barking dogs harmonized in a raucous chorus, sending up a sociable racket that no ears could evade.
Note the infelicitous rhyme here: raucous chorus. In a real revision, it would disqualify this effort. The image of the evasive ears is a little weird, too. Remember: it’s usually better to kill than to add words. Thus . . . “Barking dogs near and far sent up a sociable racket that no one could evade.”
Or some such.
. . . cats, like the hawks aloft, simply moved about stealthily, preferring not to announce their presence but rather to strike by surprise . . .
Tacking adverbs onto a feeble verb does not make the feeble verb any less feeble.
• Cats, hunters like the hawks aloft, slunk through the grass…
• Cats, hunters like the hawks aloft, stalked their prey through grass and shrubs…
Of these, only “stalked” strikes me as reasonably pleasing. In a single word, it evokes “moved about stealthily,” and it also takes an object (prey), reinforcing the hunter simile between the cats and the hawks.
Notice that often one’s attempts to revise will yield something almost as terrible (maybe we mean “even worse”?) than the first effort. The business with the raucous chorus and the ambulatory ears is probably the most laugh-inducing example here. This is why the writer plans on revising and editing several times, not just as the work progresses but in at least one go-through (preferably two or three) from beginning to end.
Specifically on the subject of verbs, though, here’s the take-home message:
The verb is the most powerful weapon in your writer’s arsenal. Some verbs are .22s, some are .38s, some are .45s . . . and so on. Pick the weapon that fits your purpose.
In general, try to use something stronger than a BB, but to avoid purple prose, don’t pull out a cannonball until it’s called for. When writing description, select some mid-range caliber, so it sounds like you’re speaking plain English even though the verbs are carrying their full weight in meaning and imagery.
Do not shoot yourself in the foot with the passive voice. Align the verb’s sights with your target and do not imagine a bevy of adverbs will shotgun your meaning into the bull’s-eye. Use the plainest, simplest weapon that will get the job done. And shoot straight.
—E. B. White
Not the corporate kind of overcapitalization! The writerly kind of overcapitalization.
This happens every time we at The Copyeditor’s Desk have to edit a set of author bios for an issue of one of our client scholarly journals. The journal’s senior editors ask contributors to toot their own horns in short squibs that are collected at the back of the book. And my, they do toot. In majuscule!
Olivia Boxankle is an Associate Professor of Cultural and Linguistic Studies in the Department of English at the Great Desert University. She earned her PhD in Postmodern Babble at Erewhon College, after which she spent ten years as Adjunct Instructor of Early Unemployability Studies at Podunk Community College, before joining GDU in 1999 as an Assistant Professor.
The tenure track does not confer divinity upon its members. Therefore, titles such as assistant professor, associate professor, or even full professor are not capitalized unless they are used as part of the person’s name.
- Olivia Boxankle is an associate professor.
- We saw Professor Olivia Boxankle’s outstanding presentation at last winter’s Modern Language Association conference.
Now let’s consider Prof. Harvey Wallbanger, who is president of the Great Desert University:
- The newspaper mentioned the university President’s salary in an article reporting next semester’s 25 percent tuition increase.
The only person who gets to have his or her title as president capitalized is the President of the United States. Period. Well . . . unless you’re writing in and for some other country, in which case the title is lower-cased like those of other mortals.
- Barack Obama was President of the United States.
Back to the bios: The name of an academic subject is lower-cased, unless it happens to be a proper name or place name.
- She is a professor of geology.
- She is a professor of ethnic studies.
- She is a professor of Spanish.
- She is a professor of English.
However, if we cite the name of an academic subject as part of a department’s name, it may be capitalized in that context:
- She is a professor in the Department of Cultural and Linguistic Studies.
- She teaches cultural and linguistic studies.
- She teaches in the Ethnic Studies Department.
- She teaches ethnic studies.
It seems so self-evident, no? Then why do people write things like a Professor of Ethnic Studies?
Because . . . in the corporate world, people’s titles are often capitalized because the boss said so. Or because the marketing department said so. Companies, like journals, magazines, and newspapers, have their own in-house style based on a standard style manual (Associated Press style, in the case of businesses) but with its own embellishments. One such embellishment is capitalization of the Honored Leaders’ titles, even though in the real world that would be . . . well, wrong:
- Joe Blow is Chief Executive Officer of the Blowhard Corporation.
But books and scholarly journals generally follow Chicago style or the style manual appropriate to research articles for their discipline (such as the American Psychological Association or the Modern Language Association manuals). These tend to inveigh against pointless capitalization. You may have to glorify your current boss with capital letters. But once you’re no longer working at that company, knock it off!
And don’t do it at all for faculty members and their generic academic disciplines. It peeves the editor.
The other day I had to apologize to blog readers for not posting regularly because, I explained feebly, I’d been sick as a dog. And of course, that brought to mind the issue of clichés. In specific, dog clichés!
In teaching, I often use the “raining cats and dogs” snoozer to help students figure out how to recognize a cliché: if you can say the first few words and the rest fall into line as the night the ____, you can be pretty sure it’s a cliché. So . . .
“It’s raining . . . “
“CATS AND DOGS,” they all chorus.
Harder it is to explain to them why we try to avoid cliché. They think of these bons mots as part of the language . . . and of course, when you’re eighteen a lot of old chestnuts are new to you, so you think they’re pretty catchy. Hard, too, at that age to know the difference is between cliché and jargon and between a literary allusion and a cliché (Death, where’s thy sting?).
In a larger context, the use of clichés in speaking or writing reflects a tendency to clichéd thinking. We see that in the political discourse of our time, and the effect has been exceptionally malign.
Politicians, business leaders, journalists, celebrities, and — most important — ordinary citizens no longer discern truth for lie, accident from plot, patriotism from cant, even crook from hero because we frame everything in Twittery, shallow clichés. These are short-cuts to thought: branding a statement, an idea, or a person a “lib” or a “repugnican,” “extremist” or “elitist,” “radical” or “ideologue” and on and on.
The problem with cliché is that it reflects lazy thought — or none at all.
Nothing is ever all cats or all dogs, all black or all white, all true or all false. We need to engage discourse to persuade our readers (or listeners) and to engage our audience in real, shared thought. To do that, you have to go the long way around: listen to the other side, and respond to the underlying, valid concerns that are expressed. Respond in depth, not with Tweet-lingo.
Cute turns of phrase quickly become superannuated metaphors and similes. Similarly, buzzy claims and thoughtless passion quickly turn into cant.
It’s thinking gone to the dogs…
Making it Perfect
§ § §
The Importance of Revising and Editing
Reviewing, revising, editing, and polishing your work form a huge part of the process of writing. In fact, revision and editing are key to successful writing. A glance at the steps in the writing process reveals the large part revision plays. Everything above the §§§ section break §§§ represents the initial drafting. Everything below it represents the steps successful writers take to produce good copy.
Fact and content gathering
- May entail research, interviewing, exploring, observing, remembering, thinking, reflecting, imagining
Considering the facts
- Checking your facts for accuracy
- Organizing them, listing or placing them in some reasonably logical order
- Considering the audience, debating what is of interest or importance to readers
- Reflecting on the tone, organization, language appropriate to audience and subject
- Putting the material into words
§§§ Cooling-off Time §§§
- Rereading the document
- May involve discussion with an advisor or editor; may be interior discussion
- Taking notes, marginal notations, etc.
- You may want to do a “quick revision” here and then have a trustworthy reader review and comment on the draft at this point.
Returning to the draft: Revising
- Rewriting the material with the reconsideration and discussion in mind.
- Recasting language to make it more understandable, more appropriate, or more engaging
- Adding material
- Deleting material
Reconsideration and discussion II
- Reviewing the draft again
- Discussing it with a trusted reader, if you have not already done so
- Revising the organization and making changes suggested by reader
Returning to the draft: Revising
- Rereading and listening to the composition
- Incorporating new ideas from discussion, reflection
- Polishing language, style, organization
- Polishing, getting grammar, spelling, punctuation right
- Sometimes minor reorganizing
As you can see, gathering or inventing material for the content and drafting the basic composition amounts to about half—at the most—of the whole job of writing. In other words, at least half and often more than half of the job involves revision and polishing!
Most people find it easier and more workable to separate the revision and editing processes, since they require two different kinds of thinking. Let’s start with revising, then. I will share with you some of my techniques, and then I’ll offer some ideas described by Peter Elbow in his book, Writing with Power.¹ If you are seriously interested in writing, you should read this work.
¹Peter Elbow, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.