This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears at our “News & Chat” blog each week, usually on Fridays. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.
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. Get to Know a Style Manual
Part III. Writing Nonfiction (seven chapters)
Chapter 12. The Feature Article
Chapter 13. The Structure of Features
Chapter 14. Telling the Story
Chapter 15. Journalistic Research
Chapter 16. The Joy of Facts
Chapter 17. Research Blues
Chapter 18. The Nonfiction Book
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.
Six Steps to Revising and Polishing
In my universe, revising consists of a half-dozen steps. It goes like this:
Now go away. Do something else. If possible, let the material sit for a day or so. If that’s not possible, go to lunch or get a cup of coffee and, for a short period, let it be. You need some transition between the process of putting words on paper and the process of thinking about those words.
If your work is coherent enough to present to another person, this is a good time to ask someone you trust—preferably not a spouse, unless it’s a very unusual spouse—to read and comment on it. More to come, in the next chapter, about how to get the most useful responses from a reader.
2. Returning to the Draft
At every step along the revision road, you need to listen to the prose. Reread what you have written. Preferably, read it aloud. If you are going to have someone else read it and comment, you may want them to read it here, or you may want to wait until you have done a preliminary revision—when the work is a little closer to presentable.
At this point, consider two things: what you have left out, and what you can get rid of. In other words, at this stage there are two kinds of revision you can do: revising by adding and revising by cutting.
3. Revising by Adding
As an editor and writing teacher, I’ve found that beginning writers, in particular, tend not to say enough. We tend to be abstract, to leave out specific details.
Have you said the forest was full of trees? What kind of trees were they? What did they look like? Were they leafed out? Were the leaves green or frosted orange and red? Were they young trees or old? Crowded so they blocked out all the sun from the forest floor, or logged out so that no two trees were close enough to string a hammock between them? What did they smell like? How did they feel? Who was there to see them? How did those people respond to them? When did this happen? What time of day? What time of year? What time of life? Where exactly was this forest? How high, how low? How far from civilization? Why were you there? Why are you telling us this? How did you get there? How do you expect to get out of there?
One way to get at these details is to ask yourself the classic journalist’s questions: who what when where why and how. The answers to those questions will usually contain the specifics you need to fill in the details that paint a vivid, accurate picture in the reader’s mind. You want to use language and details that allow the reader to visualize exactly what you’re talking about.
We’ve looked at Hayakawa’s abstraction ladder as a way of thinking about how writers clarify ideas in their readers’ minds. You should make a practice of running up and down the abstraction ladder—be sure to bring your reader as far down to earth as possible, particularly when you must explain a difficult or new concept.
So, one phase of revising is to look at your work and ask yourself what details you can add. Remember, though, that the details need to be significant. They really need to add to the reader’s understanding, and not to fill space with puffery or irrelevant chatter. They need to be relevant and meaningful. If you sense that the copy lacks solid content, go back to the library or Google to find some concrete, credible facts.
Usually, though, you can give examples that illustrate an assertion you’ve made. Ask yourself, too: Can you show how some abstract principle or procedure you’re explaining applies to the life of a real human being? Have you used the most specific term for the thing you’re talking about? Have you said how it looks? How it feels? How it smells? How it sounds? How it matters? Go through your work and add to clarify, as needed.
3.a. Digression! On the all-important verbs
One way is to produce more concrete, less abstract copy is by using strong verbs and nouns.
First, as we’ve seen in chapter 1, a good writer uses verbs that show action and that carry a lot of meaning. Often one word will do the job of two or three words. Consider a young woman who is perambulating, at her leisure, across a college campus. Your first impulse might be to say:
She walked slowly across the campus.
That’s all very nice, and…plain vanilla. It doesn’t tell us enough.
What single word means “walk slowly”? When a group of thirty people brainstorm for answers to this question, we find terms like these:
Notice the vivid difference between “she ambled across the campus” and “she trudged across the campus.” These more specific terms not only give us a clearer picture of how the subject looked as she proceeded, they even give us a clue to her state of mind. This is what is meant by the rule to use strong action verbs.
While we’re talking about verbs, let’s mention four principles remember about verb use:
1. Let your verbs and nouns carry the weight of your meaning. Many people are fond of hiding their verbs in long, wordy constructions:
Be simple: simplify
Use simplicity: simplify
As a teenager, I was barely cognizant of the Vietnam War: As a teenager, I barely knew about the Vietnam War.
2. Look for hidden verbs. Whenever you see a long wordy construction that appears where a verb should stand in the sentence, look for a single verb that will take its place. Chapter 1 describes this concept. Review it and keep it in mind while revising.
3. Avoid the passive voice. If you don’t recall the discussion in Chapter 1 or didn’t understand it, look up it up on Google.
4. Use action verbs, not verbs of being, whenever possible. Avoid, too, those verbose constructions like “there is and there are,” or “it is x that blah blah”
There are many hard-working adults enrolled at the Great Desert University.Many hard-working adults have enrolled at the Great Desert University.
Many hard-working adults attend the Great Desert University.
It was Oliver Boxankle who wrote our textbook.
Oliver Boxankle wrote our textbook.
When you’re adding details—and when you’re revising the material you’ve already put on paper—use these principles to strengthen your prose.
4. Revising by Cutting
You’d be amazed at how much immaterial stuff people put into their writing. One cause of this: the teacher or professor who asks you to write three pages or five pages or ten pages on whatever subject. What do you do when you’re assigned to write a ten-page report and you only come up with eight? Naturally, you pad, pad, pad! This trains you to fill space with inconsequential material, irrelevant remarks, and the like.
So—the first thing to do is get rid of that stuff. If necessary go back to the library or the Internet and find some material that is relevant.
Another source of unnecessary verbiage is redundancy. In conversation, we routinely repeat ourselves. But in writing, that’s unnecessary. Look over the entire piece and notice whether you’ve said the same thing twice. Often, writers will make a remark in the opening that gets repeated deeper in the story. Get rid of it. Sometimes a writer may introduce a quotation by writing, for example, Oliver Boxankle says things are tough all over. In the next sentence, Boxankle is quoted saying, “Things are getting very rough for everyone these days.” Let quotation carry the content, if you’re going to use it, and delete the redundant comment about it.
Some material may not be strictly relevant to the subject. Ask yourself: does the reader really need to know this?
You do not have to unload everything you know about a subject onto the reader. Indeed, you should not. Ideally, you should know a great deal more than you let on. In most instances, a piece of nonfiction will contain about a third of what the writer has learned in doing research on the subject.
Even in a piece of fiction: if you have fully visualized your characters, you have imagined each person’s childhood and the lives of his or her parents and the things that have molded the personality. But you don’t recite all this background to the reader: you simply show the fully thought-through character in action. Many of the character’s actions will be predicated on what you know of his or her background, but you don’t have to detail all the ancient history on paper.
Share with the reader what she needs to know, and stop at that. Do not unload a lot of irrelevant material that doesn’t help the person to understand your message.
On the sentence level, you can cut a surprising number of words. One way to do this is to change passive verbs to the active voice. Look for verbose constructions—search for hidden verbs, for example, and get rid of those “there is/it is” structures. Cut adverbs. You rarely need an -ly verb—let it stand only if you really need it. Words like “very,” “quite,” and “rather,” which modify adjectives and other adverbs, can almost always go. And often you can cut adjectives, too. If an adjective doesn’t add much to the message, get rid of it.
One final fillip at this stage of revision: be sure you have the facts correct. If you’ve shot from the hip, look up the basis of your assertions in an encyclopedia, in a source at the library, or on Google Scholar. If you’ve used numbers, be sure they add up. Once, in writing about a hike through Aravaipa Canyon, I said, “The terrain has three types of paving: loose, polished river rocks in dry floodplain; loose, polished, slimy river rocks underwater; ankle-deep mud with the lubricating power of axle grease; and ankle-deep sand.” Add these up: 1) loose polished river rocks; 2) loose, polished slimy river rocks; 3) ankle-deep mud; 4) ankle-deep sand . . .
If you’ve said there are 4,831,244 people in Zambia and 4,910,003 people in the Congo for a total of 9,741,247 people, get out your calculator and double-check. If you’ve claimed that you can drive across Arizona from Prescott to Kingman on State Route 89A, look at the map to be sure you have it right. If you’ve remarked that the Pilgrims brought three copies of the King James Bible over to Plymouth Rock, be sure the King James Bible was in print when the Pilgrims crossed the ocean blue.
Now is an ideal time to get someone else to review your magnum opus, especially if it’s a book or a research document to be published in an academic journal. Chapter 9 describes some strategies for eliciting useful responses from volunteer readers, sometimes called “beta readers.” However, for short, informal pieces, that’s not always feasible. In the absence of a reader, you’ll need to give yourself some intelligent feedback.
Remember, the essence of professionalism is willingness to change and revise what you’ve written. Your words are not your babies. They are not graven in stone with a diamond stylus. Even after they go to print, they are not necessarily set into the collective consciousness for all eternity—indeed, they most likely are on their way to the recycling plant.
Don’t be shy or vain about recasting and revising your stuff, or even about throwing some of it out. After you’ve revised by cutting or adding, as appropriate, it’s again time to set the material aside and let it cool off. Go away. Do something else. Go to the state fair. Watch a baseball game. Have dinner. Deflect your consciousness in some way from the intense activity of focusing on the piece.
Come back to it later. Print out a hard copy—most people find it easier to recognize flaws in copy that’s on paper than in copy that’s on screen.
Now read it aloud. Listen to it. How does it sound? Does it sound like English? Is it coherent? Does it contain any redundancies or repetitiousness? Is it verbose? Does it paint a clear, concrete picture of what you’re trying to say? Is the point clear—if you were reading this for the first time, would you understand why its author thinks the material is important?
Look at its organization. Is it logical? Can the reader follow the argument from one point to another without getting lost? Have you left anything out? Have you left the reader with an opportunity to say, “Hey! What about this?” If so, fix it. Have you been fair?
Does the piece have an effective beginning and an effective ending? Is the material in between interesting and coherent? Does it carry the reader along?
Have you said anything inane? Out with it! Have you made a broad generalization that cannot be supported by facts? If so, either get rid of it or support it.
Are there any organizational redundancies? Have you said anything more than once? If so, tighten.
6. Editing for Grammar, Spelling, Style, and Syntax
The final step is to clean up the surface errors. Be sure it sounds like English and that you have written in the tightest possible style. Then run the spell-checker.
After that, proofread with the brain! This is a crucial step. Do not leave it out! Your brain is smarter than the computer, no matter what Bill Gates says. You can bet you’ll find something the computer missed in the final read-through.
Two Kinds of Revising
In his classic guide to nonfiction composition, Writing with Power, Peter Elbow describes four kinds of revision: quick revising, thorough revising, revising through feedback from a reader, and cutting-&-pasting. Let’s consider the techniques and merits of the first two, which you can do in the solitude of your garret, without anyone else’s help.
First: quick revising
- Consider the audience and your purpose in writing to the audience.
• Visualize the audience; strive to produce a piece of writing that is good for your purpose with this audience
- Go through the draft and find the good parts.
• Mark them in the margin. Don’t worry about criteria for choosing these—your assessment may be intuitive. If the passage feels good, mark it.
- Figure out the main point, and then arrange the best passages in the best order to support that point.
• For a short piece, you may be able to number the supporting passages in the margins.
• For a longer work, make an outline: express each of the points as a complete sentence with a verb.
- Write out a clean but not quite final draft of the whole piece, which may exclude the beginning.
• If you don’t yet see how to start, just begin writing with your first definite point. You can • even start with your second or third point.
• Do the same if you haven’t identified exactly what your main point is. The lead and the main point will probably come to you as you write the draft.
• As you’re writing, you should be led to think, “What I’m really trying to make clear to you is. . . .” That’s the main point.
- Now that you have a draft and a clear statement of the main idea, write whatever is needed for an introductory paragraph.
• This should almost surely give the reader a clear sense of where you are going—that is, of what the main point is.
- If don’t have it by now, write the wrap: a satisfactory conclusion that summarizes things with clarity and precision.
- Next, read the draft not as a writer but as a reader. Read it out loud. Clean up places that are unclear or awkward or lacking in life.
- Get rid of mistakes in grammar and usage.
This eight-step process is essentially an act of cutting. You leave out everything that isn’t already good or easily made good. You’re not creating a work of art: you’re building a product that contains the best of what you can produce on a deadline.
The first three steps are basically the same:
- Get your readers and purpose clearly in mind.
- Read over what you’ve drafted and mark the important parts.
- Identify the main point.
- Think more about who will read the words. Look not for a general point but for the best emphasis that will get through to those readers.
- Summarize each of the good points in one sentence, each of which asserts something. This may help clarify ideas.
- Write more draft content, as freewriting or timed writing.
- As a last resort, invent a “false” main point or take the opposite point of view. Make up an outline of assertions supporting this. Sometimes this kind of distorted summary will produce the idea you want.
- Take another vacation from the stuff.
- Make a draft. Sometimes you can cut and paste large chunks of the original draft; you usually have to write a fair amount of new material. Here, the goal is not perfect language but to get the thoughts out.
- If you have a mess, deal with it.
- Take a break
- Think of opposing arguments
- Write more material
- Pursue an apparent contradiction to its logical end
- Describe the apparent confusion and proceed with the essay.
- Tighten and clean up the language
Goals: precision and energy
• Look for correct words, and zero in on precise meaning.
• Energy is usually gained by cutting. This saves the reader’s energy and keeps her or him from giving up.
Read the copy aloud.
Cut through extra words or vagueness or digression. Listen for places where the words get boring.
- Say the sentence aloud. It must sound strong and energetic.
- Think in terms of energy. Cast sentences so the syntax emphasizes what is important or most interesting.
- Simplify. Break long sentences into shorter ones; make verbs active and lively; cut out extra words; keep sentences from dribbling to a flabby end.
- Use active verbs; avoid the passive verb and too much of the verb “to be.”
- Keep Strunk & White’s Elements of Style in mind.
- Get rid of mistakes in grammar and usage.
Obviously, the second strategy will be far more time-consuming. If you’re not tossing off a blog post or newspaper squib on a deadline, if you’re writing something that matters or that needs to impress someone, then you will need to factor in enough time to do the job right — which requires twice as many steps as the quickie approach.
The last two elements — reaching for precision and energy and reading the copy (listen to it!) — apply to any writing process, whether you’re cranking out hack copy or trying to write the Great Document of the Western World.
Revising with Reader Feedback
Many professional and would-be professional authors work with a beta reader: a nonprofessional reader who agrees to review and comment on a work, for little or no pay. Ideally, the beta reader should represent a fairly typical member of the work’s audience: she or he should share cultural values, interests, and socioeconomic status with the kind of people who could be expected to read the story or book.
One advantage of using a beta-reader or friend—as opposed to an editor or a teacher—is that you can control the amount of feedback you get and when you get it. If you have plenty of time and you have the temperament for it, recruiting someone to read and comment on your work early on can be very useful; it also provides you with comments during several stages of the process, as you work through your thinking on a subject.
You don’t have to restrict yourself to one reader—Peter Elbow recommends two or even three people. It’s important to bear in mind, though, that you may have to coach your reader by asking very specific questions, and sometimes by interrupting him or her at set points in the reading and asking for certain responses as they proceed. This is time-consuming.
Who can these readers be? Some people would never allow their spouses to read their work; others would never let anyone other than a spouse read an early draft.
A writer’s workshop can be a source of beta readers—people who are committed to writing have enough interest in the process to enjoy reading and replying to you.
If you take writing courses, classmates may be helpful, since they allegedly understand an assignment; if you find willing readers in a college course, make friends now and don’t lose track of these folks! Adult children, if they’re far enough beyond adolescence to see you as a human being, may be helpful. And you might consider trusted friends, co-workers, or brothers and sisters, assuming the subject doesn’t treat certain issues in a way that might blindside or hurt them.
Parents are a lot like spouses—too close to you, and you have to keep on living with them.
Whomever you select, the advantage of talking the story over with someone else is that it gives you an opportunity to re-envision the subject and its treatment in a new light—to see it through someone else’s eyes.
Your needs, your temperament, and the time available to you determine how much feedback you will seek:
Minimal feedback: At the very least, get some help in eliminating errors in grammar and usage from a final draft that needs to be very polished.
A little feedback: You don’t have much time, or for whatever reason you don’t need a thorough critique You ask the reader to look for spelling, grammar, and usage errors, and for any awkward or unclear sentences. Though you don’t want to involve yourself in ornate discussions, you’d like to know if there are any places where you sound like an idiot. You get one round of feedback at the end, and that’s it. In spite of this determination, you can still benefit:
This kind of feedback can help you revise clumsy language or language, restructure ideas, clarify or explain points; change tone of voice; insert transitions or introductions to help retain the reader’s attention.
Medium feedback: You don’t want to rethink your whole position, but you’re willing to consider major revisions of structure and strategy. You take the opportunity to understand what is confusing or bothersome to a reader and revise accordingly.
Lots of feedback: Everything is open for discussion, from start to finish.
Decide how much of this process you want to buy into.
Working with a reader who is a friend and not, like a teacher or editor, an imagined “adversary,” can build confidence and clarity, and help you cut through the abstraction.
Elbow describes two kinds of reader feedback: what he calls “criterion-based” and “reader-based.” Let’s review the high points of these
This is the schoolmarm stuff: basic qualities of content, organization, language, and usage. Solicit comments in these four basic categories:
- The content of the writing: Ask the reader about quality of the ideas, the perceptions, and the point of view. Is your basic idea or insight valid? Do you support your point by logical reasoning and valid argument? Does the reader feel your support includes evidence and examples, and are you’re really making good points ?
- The organization. Ask about the work’s unity, whether the parts are arranged in a coherent or logical way, whether the beginning, middle, and end hold together, and whether paragraphs seem coherent and logical.
- Effectiveness of the language: Ask whether the sentences are clear and readable, and whether the word usage seems correct. Does it sound like correct English?
- The correctness and appropriateness of the usage: How are the grammar, usage, spelling, typing, and style?
In Elbow’s world, eliciting a response to writing boils down to three basic questions designed to test how your words affect the person who reads them:
- What happened to you, moment by moment, as you were reading the writing?
- Summarize the writing: what does it say or what happened in it?
- Make some images for the writing and the transaction it creates with readers.
It’s important to know what is going on inside the reader’s mind and heart. Some people have enough insight to recognize and articulate their reactions as they read a work. But many people find it difficult to describe what’s going on in their minds as they’re reading.
So, you need to elicit these reactions by careful questioning. To find out what was happening to the reader, ask him or her to read just a couple of paragraphs. Elbow posits these questions:
- What was happening as you read the opening passages?
- What words struck you most?
- What impression did you get of the writer?
Have the person continue reading, maybe marking the manuscript with notes or lines. Half or three-quarters of the way through the piece, ask again what is happening with the reader, with questions like these:
- Please narrate your response to everything in detail, even if it seems irrelevant.
- Has your attitude has changed since you began reading—for example, were with the writer at the start and now opposed? Why?
- Please point out passages that you liked and ones you didn’t understand or resisted.
- What do you think will happen next?
After the reader has finished the document, again ask what is happening:
- What is your reaction?
- What seems the most important thing about the piece?
- How would you describe the ending—is it abrupt, warm? unnoticeable? other?
- What aspects of the reader does the piece bring out—a contemplative side? curiosity? helpfulness? other?
Finally, ask the person to reflect on the piece and talk about its implications. If you can, get the person to read it again and report the differences between what happens on the second and the first reading.
Ask the person to give a very quick, informal summary, and then to summarize what she thinks the writer is trying to say but not quite succeeding. A reader’s summary of the writing gives you a lot of insight into how well your meaning is understood.
A third useful exercise is to ask the reader to devise some images for the writing and for the way it affects him or her. Don’t push the person too hard to explain or interpret the imagery; take it instead as a clue to the direction and effect of the writing.
A variety of questions can elicit this kind of response. Ask the person what other writing it reminds you of—what forms of writing: film? departmental memo? journal entry? love letter? Ask the person how someone else might respond to it—how would his mother like it, or some mutual acquaintance. How does the person view the relationship between writer and reader—familiar? distant? reading from a stage? shaking his fist? Is the writing trying to do something to the reader, like beat her over the head or trick her or make her like the writer? Ask the reader to describe the tone or voice—is it intimate, shouting, jokey, tense, other? Try asking the person to describe the writing in terms of other media—does the camera move in, fade back, create foreground or background, other? Draw a picture of what you see or think.
Working with a beta reader has a number of advantages:
- Because you have to give the reader time to think about the copy, it forces you to start on the work well in advance of the deadline.
- It makes you slow down and think about your work carefully before you consider it “finished.”
- It lets you see how well your message is understood by a real reader.
- It allows you to think of your work as open to change.
- It gives you new insights.
Working with a Professional Editor
An experienced editor knows language and knows how to produce a publishable work. Professional editors also know the requirements of the various style manuals that govern publication in various disciplines and marketplaces: they know how a manuscript must be prepared before it can be published. They know how to operate the software to create the desired final product.
Most editors work with a specific constituency. There are, for example, technical editors, business editors, medical editors, science editors, and the like. They know the style and content requirements of certain types of publications, such as scholarly journals, popular periodicals, trade books, or textbooks.
Some editors will do a degree of writing coaching, if that’s what’s desired. Before hiring someone to advise on your approach to your subject and your content, be sure to check the person’s qualifications. This is a different skill from preparing a manuscript for print or e-publication. Ask for references; then get in touch and ask how the project went and what was its outcome. You might try googling the proposed editor, too, to see whether any comments about his or her performance appear online.
Most editors work in Microsoft Word, and so your manuscript should be submitted in .doc or .docx format.
Corrections, deletions, or additions are done in Word’s “track changes” function. Queries or brief explanations are added in marginal “comments” balloons. The result, if it’s heavily edited, looks something like figure 1:
The editor should also provide a version in which all edits have been “accepted,” so you can see what the final version would look like and see the comments only, without the confusing bric-a-brac. Alternatively, when Word’s “track changes” function is on, you should see a drop-down menu titled “Show.” To hide all the static, unclick everything in that menu except “comments.” Then you will see edited copy with only the comments visible. After you’ve read and made a decision about each comment or query, you can delete it by clicking the X in the upper right-hand corner of the comment balloon.
A “clean” edited version of the example above, then, would look like figure 2:
Copyeditors are also intimately familiar with the specific style manuals required by specific publishers, such as Chicago, Oxford, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, Council of Science Editors, and the like. References, tables, graphs, and a number of other details must be formatted correctly according to the manual that the publisher specifies. A typical edited version of a reference list, for example, might end up looking like figure 3:
Most authors prefer writing to filling their heads with worries about ditzy details like these. Therein lies the value of a hired professional editor.
Get to Know a Style Manual
Even if you hire a professional editor—which you should, if you’re self-publishing and want your writing to look professional—you still should familiarize yourself with the style manual relevant to your type of writing.
The standards are The Chicago Manual of Style, the American Psychological Association Style Manual, the Associated Press Style-book, and Modern Language Association style, outlined in the MLA Handbook. There are also specialized style manuals for the sciences and the professions, among them the American Medical Association Manual of Style; The Blue-book: A Uniform System of Citation and the Association of Legal Writing Directors Citation Manual; and the Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format. There are others.
Each of these serves a different purpose and a different market. Chicago, for example, is the standard for the book publishing industry. Almost all publishers of fiction and nonfiction follow Chicago style. APA (American Psychological Association) is used by writers in business, education, psychology, and the social sciences and is the standard for scholarly journals in those disciplines. MLA style is used almost exclusively by journals in English and foreign languages; most college students learn to use it because research writing is taught in freshman composition courses, which are based in English departments and taught by English faculty. AP (Associated Press) style is used by newspapers, magazines, and public relations professionals. And obviously, AMA, Blue-book, and CSE style are used by doctors, lawyers, and scientists. AP is not APA is not MLA is not AMA . . .
They’re all different from each other!
For that reason, the MLA style you learned in college will not suffice for the book you hope to self-publish. Nor will it do for a manuscript to be submitted to a traditional publisher, since typesetting and formatting are now foisted on the author: your book will be typeset from the manuscript you submitted, and so your copy will need to be correctly formatted, no matter who publishes it.
Consider a passage describing research done by the eminent Professor Boxankle. APA style would format first the passage and then the reference to its source like this:
Boxankle (2017) found that the salinity of water in which baskets were woven “is the critical factor in determining outcome” (p. 143).
Boxankle, O. Q. (2017). “Underwater basketweaving: Key components for success.” Journal of Comparative Basketry 11(2), 140–50.
In Chicago’s author-date system, the same information would look like this:
Oliver Boxankle (2017) found that the salinity of water in which baskets were woven “is the critical factor in determining outcome” (143).
Boxankle, Oliver Q. 2017. “Underwater Basketweaving: Key Components for Success.” Journal of Comparative Basketry 11 (January): 140–50.
Chicago’s notes-and-bibliography system would elicit these:
In a 2017 study, Oliver Boxankle found that the salinity of water in which baskets were woven “is the critical factor in determining outcome.”3
- Oliver Q. Boxankle, “Underwater Basketweaving: Key Components for Success,” Journal of Comparative Basketry 11 no. 4 (2017): 140–50.
Alternatively, after the first reference or if the full references were listed in a bibliography at the end:
Second end- or footnote:
- Boxankle, p. 143
And that, let me re-emphasize, is from just two of the many manuals in use.
Few authors come to know these manuals in exquisite detail—research and writing are quite enough to take up one’s time and attention. That’s why authors and publishers hire copyeditors.
However, it’s wise to have at least a working knowledge of the manual your publisher wants you to use. First, obviously an acquisitions editor will be more impressed by a manuscript that looks reasonably clean than by an amateur production.
Second and less obvious is that a sincere effort at formatting your work according to the desired style can save you money. Editors set their rates to account for the difficulty of the job.
Some editors charge by the hour. Clearly, a task that takes six hours because the editor has to do extensive reformatting will cost you more than a job that takes four.
Others charge a page rate based on the editor’s estimate of the copy’s difficulty. This is especially true if English is your second language, since the challenge of editing ESL copy varies wildly according to the author’s facility with the language. My rates, for example, range from $4.50 to $15 per page. If the client asks for an hourly rate (some business executives prefer this), it will range upwards of $40 an hour, depending on how complex and demanding the job will be.
So, even though you needn’t be an expert in every style manual on the market, it’s in your interest to build a working acquaintance with the manual your publisher uses. If you’re self-publishing, get a current edition of the Chicago Manual and use it.
Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
§ § §
Journalistic Nonfiction: The Feature Article
A feature article is a piece of journalistic writing whose purpose is to entertain and to inform.
Sir Philip Sidney, famed as an Elizabethan courtier and poet who, among other things, wrote the first novel in the English language, was also a literary critic. He remarked that the purpose of literature is “to entertain and inform.” By entertain, he didn’t have in mind a soft-shoe on a vaudeville stage. He meant that literature should draw the reader into the author’s message and keep the person engaged by entertaining as well as informing. This idea applies fully to the modern-day feature article. Entertaining and informing is what the feature exists to do.
If you were to read a feature out loud, how would it sound? In most instances, the language would sound informal and conversational. Style would follow the Associated Press Style Manual. Sources, for example, would be acknowledged in the flow of the narrative, not in devices like footnotes and references. Numbers under 10 would be spelled out; all others would appear as numerals. The content would fit the purposes and audience of the publication in which the article appears.
Features that appear in newspapers often differ from those that appear in magazines. A newspaper feature is usually shorter, and, because the newspaper reporter works against a tight deadline, newspaper features are often less thoroughly researched than magazine features. The newspaper reporter attempts to take an objective tone and stance, avoiding loaded language and trying to present facts in an unbiased way. Magazine articles may be longer—a typical length is around 800 to 1,500 words, but sometimes they run very long, indeed. Magazine writers use the techniques of fiction to achieve the “entertainment” objective; that is, to engage the reader and carry the reader’s attention through a long and sometimes complex story. These techniques include plot, characterization, setting, and the like. And in many cases the magazine writer is not expected to maintain a façade of objectivity. Depending on the publication, writing may be openly opinionated or biased.
We can picture the feature article in silhouette to consider all the things a feature article is not.
For example, it’s not a hard news report—the sort of thing that used to populate the front page of your daily newspaper. A classic news story presents the facts in the so-called “inverted pyramid” structure. The most important facts, generally the five W’s and an H (who, what, when, where, why, and how) appear in the first paragraph. The remaining information is presented in descending order of importance, finally petering out in the last graf. The inverted pyramid structure allowed the editor on the copy desk to cut the copy to fit space available. Knowing the last paragraph or two contained little of lasting importance, the editor simply lopped off paragraphs from the end to fit the article into the paper.
Tone in a hard news story is unbiased and objective. Unlike writers for certain types of magazines, newspaper journalists strive to maintain an objective stance when reporting news.
Paragraph structure is rudimentary. Newspaper editors believe readers’ attention spans are so short they can’t get through more than about one sentence at a time, and so hard news reports consist of strings of short, one- or two-sentence paragraphs.
The feature is not an interview. Interviews appear in question-and-answer format. Although the content may be edited and manipulated, the interview structure resembles a transcript of a taped interview. It is not intended to resemble a story.
A feature is not a newspaper column, which is generally an editorial or a ramble that reflects the author’s opinion or expertise. Newspaper columnists, like bloggers, often engage some of the characteristics of a feature, such as a strong lead, a good wrap, and an engaging story line, but they are not writing features per se.
A feature is not a piece of literary criticism or a review. A few visits to an eatery do not a feature article make. Reviewers often use the feature writer’s tools to produce an engaging article, but a review does not have the same purpose as a feature. A review’s purpose is to recommend (or not recommend) a work of art, a product, or a restaurant. A feature’s purpose is to report news or ideas using the tools of literary nonfiction.
Sometimes blog posts are structured exactly like features; sometimes not. A blog post can be anything from a diary entry to a photo essay to a news article to a feature. Blogs are much looser and less subject to the constraints of a publisher’s interests. An important difference between a blogger and a journalist is that few bloggers have the advantage of an editor or a lawyer. No extra pairs of eyes read a blogger’s articles or advise on content, factuality, and legalities.
The essay is a literary genre in which the author expresses a subjective view of the world. It is highly personal and not meant to be a piece of journalistic reporting. In contrast, the feature article is journalism; its main purpose is reporting.
A “brite” is an ultra-short squib often used to fill space between ads or to populate departments, those regularly recurring sections that appear in the front or at the back of magazines. Some editors regard the brite as a type of very short feature, but it lacks the sophistication and structure of the longer piece.
An advertorial is a paid article designed to mimic a real feature, but its sole purpose is to sell you something. Ethical publications set these apart by using a special font, by marking them with a tag like “Advertisement,” or by printing them on slightly different paper stock.
The feature is generally a fully researched, structured article based on interviews, observation, and legwork. Length ranges upwards of 800 words—long-form features such as the ones you find in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, or at sites like Longreads.com and Medium.com can be several thousand words. The feature engages certain elements of fiction, such as a plot-like structure, narrative, setting, characterization, and dialogue, to draw the reader in and tell its story. Not all news writing, obviously, is feature writing, and not all features are, strictly speaking, news stories.
The Structure of Feature Articles
Like a work of fiction, an article has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Accomplished writers organize their material up front. Before they sit down at the keyboard, they know how the story will begin, how it will conclude, and what path it will take to reach the end.
If you look closely at published feature stories and at most journalistic blog posts, you’ll see they follow a fairly standard format.
- The lead, which opens the story with a person, an anecdote, a set scene, or—rarely—dialogue.
- The transition, often called the capsule statement, bridge, nut paragraph, or “nut graf.” It tells the reader why you’re writing about this subject. The nut graf has its equivalent in the “thesis sentence” of freshman composition.
- A strong ending, a real gem saved for the last paragraph.
The way the writer develops these elements depends on his or her purpose and material. An effective story is shaped logically to fit its substance.
The story’s architecture
The typical news story is shaped like an inverted pyramid. It starts with a lead that concentrates the so-called “5 W’s and an H” of classical journalistic style: who, what, when, where, why and how. The facts of the event are then presented, as objectively as possible, in descending order of importance.
This structure made it easy for the reporter to call in or submit a typescript that disgorged whatever happened on the scene, and for the copy desk to shorten the story to fit the space available simply by cutting from the bottom—the closer to the end, the less important was the content.
The feature story, in contrast, can take on any of several shapes. The basic structure is what I like to call the “paper doll”:
Here the story opens with an attention grabber. A transition between the striking image or statement of the lead bridges the gap between the lead and the main part of the story, which develops facts and observations in a coherent way. Finally, a strong ending wraps up the narrative.
Without the transitional plateau of the nut paragraph, you get a footed bowl, also a useful structure:
Some feature stories are circular: the ending brings the reader back to the lead.
Others may be Y- or menorah-shaped. In this fairly complex structure, several distinct strands or parallel substories are braided to form a narrative that come together in a rousing conclusion.
The best writers understand the importance of structure. William Howarth, in his introduction to The John McPhee Reader, notes that McPhee, a master craftsman, seeks “to create a form [for a given story] that is logical but so unobtrusive that judgments of its content will seem to arise only in the reader’s mind.” In designing a structure, Howarth observes, McPhee may “either find an idea for order in the material or impose one upon it, selecting what Coleridge called the ‘organic’ or ‘mechanic’ principles of structure.” Levels of the Game, a study of Arthur Ashe and Clarke Graebner’s September 8, 1968, Forest Hills semifinals match, takes up the back-and-forth action of a tennis game, deriving the story’s form from the material at hand.
The structure you choose for your story must give it unity, balance, and coherence. You can point out the facts’ meaning simply by the order in which you present them, sometimes by setting two telling items side-by-side without editorial comment. Search for a structure that complements your story’s theme. You might, for example, write a human-interest piece about someone caught in a bureaucratic runaround: the story could have a circular structure, taking your subject from Point A right back to Point A. This would effectively underscore theme with structure, conveying the victim’s frustration or bemusement without ever preaching or explicitly criticizing.
The lead’s purpose is to grab the reader’s attention, provide the central idea, and persuade the person to read on. It need not state the story’s point or most important facts. Feature leads are less formulaic than a hard news lead; they give you more room to be creative.
Feature leads for newspapers are necessarily short and to the point. This is true of leads for blog posts, where brevity is often the point in itself. Newspaper and blog editors invariably prefer a punchy opening over the impressionistic lead that may appeal to a magazine editor. Try a magazine lead on a newspaper editor and you’ll hear that you’re “backing into the story.”
In any event, the lead’s information must be related to the story’s main point. Don’t open a piece with a colorful descriptive passage that has little to do with your message. If a catchy anecdote illuminates the story’s point, fine: use it. Otherwise, find a better lead.
Many writers will start a story by focusing on a person whose experience underscores what the story is about, and they’ll try to put a good quote near the top. Bloomberg News focuses on entrepreneur Richard Branson to open this story:
In 2014, disaster struck Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The company’s experimental spaceship tore apart and crashed during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot. The crash added tragedy to a string of delays and disappointments for the company, which Branson founded in 2004 to make space tourism routine. This year, Virgin Galactic came back with the unveiling of the beautiful SpaceShipTwo.
Hello World’s Ashlee Vance went to the desert to attend the SpaceShipTwo press event at the Mojave, Calif., airport and to find out how much resolve Branson has left. With his typical flair, Branson brought the spaceship out amid a sea of champagne and celebrities and huge helpings of optimism. Flashing his brilliant smile, he said that the world’s wealthiest people will be able to travel to space soon. Some more of us will follow, someday.
Some of the most effective leads are anecdotal. An anecdote is a ministory with its own opening, middle, and end. When you use it as a lead, its ending should tie into the rest of the story by making a transition into the capsule statement or body of the story, by making a strong point that underscores your story’s subject, or by serving as a capsule statement itself.
The letter arrived on a spring day. It had flown across the Great Lakes, over cornfields, across the Rockies, and out over the Pacific—8,000 miles across the briny deep and up into a satellite somewhere in orbit that flicks emails from one end of the earth to the other. It zipped through the stratosphere above the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, over the sprawl of Guangdong and the rice paddies beyond, to the foothills of the Himalayas. And finally to Kunming, a city of seven million people in southern China. The day it arrived, Jessica was sitting at home, eating dinner with a friend from school.
When she saw the words “Northeastern University” on the subject line, Jessica almost didn’t want to open it. It was clear outside, “but I was afraid of raining in my heart” if the college refused her, she said. Jessica was a high school senior at the time, in 2013. She had grown up in Yunnan, the Chinese province edging on Tibet, Myanmar, and Laos, but her dreams rested in a distant land, the United States. Slowly, she scanned each line of the letter, carefully. Then she turned to her friend with a huge smile and said: “I did it!”
Similar to the anecdote is the single example or series of briefly stated examples. These are often short case histories illustrating a problem the story will address. They are popular in women’s magazines, especially for health-oriented stories.
“Pop had to be put in a nursing home at a cost to my mother of about $2,400 per month,” a man from Cicero, Ill., wrote to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare,” and neither Medicare nor Medicaid could help because my parents had a nest egg. The law is without pity. Had my father lived for just two more years in a nursing home, my mother would have had to spend the rest of her life in poverty, but God called Pop to his eternal rest in one year, instead of two. My mother and I can never forget the terrible feeling of relief we had when Pop died. We can only live with it in shame. We loved him.”
This lead, which appeared in a newspaper’s magazine, begins with a quote. Many editors, especially those with a newspaper background, dislike a lead that opens with dialogue. Although they sometimes go with it if the lead works exceptionally well, beginning writers should avoid leading with a quote.
Similarly, many editors disapprove of leading with a rhetorical question. This approach has become more common, though. The problem with the rhetorical question—posed so the writer can provide the answer—is that it may appear patronizing. Also, it can lead your reader to provide a different answer from the one you’re trying to elicit.
Which freshwater fish weighs an average of between 12 and 20 pounds, slams your lure with a hair-raising jolt, screams line off your reel with alarming speed, splits the air with slashing, leaping runs, and shucks free about three out of five time to leave you with nothing but a memory of it?
The answer is Skamania, a very special steelhead found almost exclusively in Indiana.
The narrative lead opens the story with a chain of events unfolded in a dramatic, chronological way. First this happened, then this, then we get to the substance of the story. Long form nonfiction pieces, such as this one by Siddartha Mukherjee for The New Yorker, often open with a narrative lead.
On a Saturday morning in April of 2014, Nenad Macesic, a thirty-one-year-old doctor-in-training, received an urgent phone call from the emergency room of Austin Hospital, just outside Melbourne, Australia. Lean and taut, with a swirl of dark hair, Macesic resembles an aspiring urban d.j. In fact, by night he spun electronica in clubs around Melbourne; by day he was a fellow in infectious diseases. The call concerned a woman in her late forties who had come to the hospital complaining of a fever, headaches, and an unusual rash.
Travel-related illnesses may be an Australian obsession: foreign contagions brought into the country can spread like, well, rabbits. The woman in the E.R. had just returned from the Cook Islands, an isolated spray of atolls in the South Pacific, where she and her husband had been attending a family funeral. Other people at the funeral had been sick with mysterious fevers, but she hadn’t made much of it. Now that she was home, though, a mild headache had progressed to a full, persistent throb. Migratory pains appeared in her joints, and an angry, blanching rash—the kind that pales when you press it—was now blooming across her torso.
When Macesic entered her hospital room, the woman, a textile worker, looked more medically stable than he had expected she would. She spoke in measured sentences, with no sign of confusion or delirium. But Macesic was struck by her strange rash—vivid raised red dots coalescing into islands—and the color of her eyes (pink, with streaks of vermillion), which was indicative of conjunctivitis, a symptom of certain viral infections.
Was it dengue? Macesic wondered. Dengue—colloquially known as breakbone fever, because of the intense corkscrews of pain that can occur in the bones, muscles, and joints—is caused by a mosquito-borne virus and was endemic in the Cook Islands. But the woman’s symptoms seemed too mild for dengue: the disease can cause catastrophic drops in white blood cells and platelets, but her blood counts were nearly normal. Could it be chikungunya? Another mosquito-transmitted viral fever, chikungunya can leave its victims with months, or even years, of wracking joint pains. But this woman’s joint pains and swellings weren’t severe. It was as if she had acquired a milder variant of those diseases—a more temperate cousin. And the conjunctivitis was a tipoff: neither chikungunya nor dengue is usually accompanied by those blood-tinged eyes.
Macesic decided to consult an online reporting system called ProMED, which tracks infectious diseases around the world. Even surfing the site casually takes a fair amount of fortitude: one day this month, there were eleven new reports on the site, including an undiagnosed measles-like disease that killed forty children in rural Myanmar; anthrax outbreaks among deer in Siberia; food poisoning from cyclospora at a Mexican resort; and a form of strep, normally found in horses, that sickened a woman in Washington State and killed her mother.
As Macesic went through previous entries in ProMED’s database—malaria in Oman, Lassa fever in Nigeria—he found a cluster of cases in French Polynesia, some six hundred miles east of the Cook Islands, that seemed remarkably similar to the woman’s condition: a dengue-like, mosquito-borne viral syndrome, but with a milder course. Those cases had been attributed to a little-known virus called Zika, a member of a family of RNA viruses that includes dengue, West Nile, and yellow fever. (Zika gets its name from the Ugandan forest where the virus was first found, in a monkey, in the nineteen-forties.) Macesic sent the woman’s blood to a specialized laboratory for viral analysis.
The next morning, the woman’s husband arrived at the hospital, enveloped in the same diffuse, blanching rash. By the end of the week, the woman’s blood test had come back positive for the Zika virus. The husband, however, had no detectable virus in his blood: he had seemingly cleared the infection almost completely. In both cases, Macesic noted, the symptoms had also begun to resolve on their own. He figured that the man and the woman had been bitten by Zika-carrying mosquitoes. (The sexual transmission of Zika had been described in one prior case report, but Macesic did not know about it.) Macesic wrote the case up as an abstruse curiosity—a medical “quiz”—for an infectious-diseases journal. “The illness is typically mild and self-limited, with resolution over 1 week,” he noted. “In a previous outbreak with 49 confirmed cases of Zika, no deaths, hospitalizations, or hemorrhagic complications were reported, but neurological complications . . . have been described.”
Medical students are often taught a piece of diagnostic wisdom: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” But this case, a rare illness that closely resembled common ones, was a classic zebra. Macesic didn’t expect to encounter it again—at least, not anytime soon.
Setting the scene can also be exceptionally effective. To do this, the writer establishes the story’s locale or circumstances and puts the players in place. This gut-wrenching investigation begins in the most ominous way:
It was a joke among members of the ragtag maintenance crew at the Section 8 housing project, as well as a convenient answer for local fire marshals who sometimes inquired: “Blacks frying chicken with grease, they keep burning down these apartments!”
The London Square apartment complex where the crew worked was an aging misfit in the midst of a well-established middle-class neighborhood in Tulsa, in central Oklahoma. When it was built in 1965, the sprawling complex was considered a jewel in the midtown community, boasting seven private in-ground swimming pools and immaculate landscaping. Fifty years later, neighbors see it as a tinderbox—its aging wooden roofs, dilapidated stairs, and boarded windows a testament to neglect. Numerous fires through the years served to evacuate unlucky tenants, along with the colonies of bedbugs hiding in mattresses of previously burned-out units.
One of those occurred on November 18, 2013.
For Miashah Moses, it began with a plume of black smoke. She saw it rising from her building as she crossed the parking lot. She broke into a run. Her two small nieces were inside.
Sometimes you can lead with a bit of striking, well-written description:
Before me is what looks like a small, serene idol. It is in fact a beautiful child, eyes outlined in black ointments, dark hair gleaming with mustard oil, relieving herself in the street. I try to move but bump into a businessman’s briefcase. Nudging right, I’m nudged back by a bull wearing a necklace of marigolds. Pressed from behind by a piping flute seller, I step over the child as a bus blares up the narrow brick canyon, missing us all by inches. Within its coils of exhaust a man painted orange, carrying a snake-headed staff, takes form, nods at me, then vanishes behind a jostle of teenagers with stereo headphones working out their rock-n-roll moves. Pagodas that writhe with erotic carvings thrust roof upon roof above the trees, where big bats hang like fruit. and above the rooftops pure white snow peaks reach upward toward the stratosphere. At the moment all I’m looking for is the local computer club—somewhere in the magic confusion of modern Kathmandu.
With this tapestry-like imagery, National Geographic writer Douglas Chadwick introduces us to the sights, sounds, smells, and people of an almost unimaginably exotic locale.
Occasionally, you can use some odd, unusual, or outrageous statement:
Hendricks County, Ind.—Detective Michael Nelson is walking a beat with one foot in the Twilight Zone.
So a Wall Street Journal piece led into a story about a cop on the witchcraft beat.
These aren’t all the possibilities, but they should be enough to get you going. Read a lot of the kind of stories you enjoy, and observe how each one opens. Decide which ones work best, and then go forth and do likewise.
The nut graf or transitional capsule statement, often called the “bridge” by newspaper writers, moves the reader smoothly from the lead, which may be startling, into the body of the story. It explains what the piece is to be about and how the opening ties into the subject.
Many writers compose a one- or two-sentence thesis statement before they begin the story. Some version of this can often fit into the nut graf, but whether or not it does, the habit helps organize and focus one’s thoughts.
In a story about the AT&T break-up, Wall Street Journal reporter Francine Schwadel introduced a customer in the lead, showing him making a snap decision to sign up for the company’s long-distance service. She continued:
Millions of Americans have made the same call. In the big wave of balloting that started two years ago and ends Sept. 1, roughly 75% of the voters so far have chosen AT&T to provide long-distance service to the home or business. And a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll indicates that feelings like Mr. Seitz’s are largely responsible for the outcome: half of the 1565 respondents who expressed a preference for one of the phone firms cited familiarity with AT&T as the most influential element in their choice.
Though the next paragraph concedes that the then-monolithic telecommunications giant was seeing some inroads from its new competition, the gist of the story is summarized in the nut graf: AT&T was still beating the dickens out of its rivals.
In the body of a feature story, you make your points or discuss the issues at hand. These details must come in a logical order, one leading reasonably to the next. Most writers accomplish this by outlining the information they plan to present, whether on paper, in a computer file, or mentally.
A newspaper or magazine story may be organized along the lines of any of the standard rhetorical approaches. You may compare and contrast issues. You may develop an argument inductively, working from particular facts to a general conclusion, or deductively, reasoning from the general to the specific or from a familiar principle to the unfamiliar. You can build a chronological narrative, presenting events in the order they occurred. You can show cause and effect, or write a story that is an extended definition of some abstract concept.
Your approach to your story’s organization should fit your purpose. Chronological ordering works effectively with how-to stories and straight reports. Deduction—leading the reader from something familiar to new, unfamiliar concepts—is especially useful in science writing, where you may have to present bizarre, difficult ideas. Induction—drawing general conclusions from specific, concrete facts—helps clarify economics, sociology, and business issues, and it also works well in writing profiles. Cause-and-effect and comparison-and-contrast are useful approaches to the report.
One dramatic variety of development involves abutting a series of peaceful or pleasing events against an ironic fact or a stunning change in fortune. A writer discussing feral horses, for example, described the beauty and grace of a wild stallion that eluded capture for many ears. She wrapped up this idyllic passage with a bald statement: “The next year the big black and five of his mares were gutshot in cold blood by vandals and left to die in a meadow where once they peacefully grazed.” This can be a forceful way to make a point.
However you decide to develop your facts, they should hang together coherently. Short but smooth transitions should tie each paragraph with the ones that come before and after it. You can accomplish this by repeating key words and phrases and by using transitional words such as but, and, however, so, or nevertheless. Schwadel leads almost every paragraph of her AT&T story with some transitional device. The story’s second developmental paragraph begins, “AT&T’s success in the balloting,” echoing “impressive victory” in a preceding paragraph. This paragraph ends with “The theory was that people would desert AT&T in droves once federally mandated “equal access” enabled them to enjoy cheaper service without having to dial extra digits.”
Next graf begins, “But the results indicate. . . .” Now we see a steady progression of transitional function words heading paragraph after paragraph:
“Another reason for AT&T’s strong showing. . . .”
“But AT&T didn’t succeed solely. . . ”
“Still, some people didn’t buy. . .
“AT&T’s efforts, however, were clearly. . . ”
“AT&T describes such defectors. . .
“Indeed, of the customers that AT&T’s rivals . . .”
“In some parts of the country, meanwhile, . . .”
Although this approach seems mechanical when shown out of context, it demonstrates the importance of everyday transition words. They help your reader follow your train of thought.
Careful, logical ordering of your points so that the reader’s thought moves easily from one paragraph to the next will do the job, although you’ll need an occasional assist from those mechanical transition words. To succeed with this, you lay out a meticulously organized outline before you start to write. If the outline flows logically and the writing is coherent, the article should move logically, too.
The Last Word
Save a strong quote or a striking observation for the ending. It may or may not hark back directly to the lead, but it should summarize what you’ve said in a powerful, colorful, or succinct way. Sometimes you can use an ironic or telling quote for this purpose.
As a prosodic note, some writers try to end a story on an accented beat. That is, the last syllable in the last sentence is stressed, rather than unstressed. About Indiana’s steelheads, Homer Circle concludes,
The dictionary defines mania as “a form of insanity characterized by great excitement.” After you do battle with your first one, you’ll see why Skamaniacs are well named.
Because English usually stresses the first syllable, this reversal subtly catches the readers attention and, like the final flourish in a song, it ends the piece on an emphatic note. It’s not necessary to do this—it’s not always possible—but it’s a nice touch.
 Bloomberg News, “Virgin Galactic’s Next Big Bet,” July 29, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-29/virgin-galactic-s-next-big-bet?cmpid=google&google_editors_picks=true
 Caitlin Dwyer, “Escaping the Gaokao,” September 17, 2015, The Big Roundtable. http://www.thebigroundtable.com/stories/escaping-the-gaokao/
 Daniel Holzman, “Endless Care with Costs to Match,” December 28, 1987, Insight.
 Homer Circle, “Skamania: Indiana’s Super Steelhead,” January 1985, Sports Afield.
 Siddartha Mukherjee, “The Race for a Zika Vaccine,” August 22, 2016, The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/the-race-for-a-zika-vaccine
 Carol Mersch, “A Trial by Fire,” May 26, 2016, The Big Roundtable, http://www.thebigroundtable.com/stories/a-trial-by-fire/
 Douglas H. Chadwick, “New Forces Challenge the Gods at the Crossroads of Kathmandu,” July 1987, National Geographic.
 Alex Kotlowitz, January 7, 1988.
 August 22, 1986.
Telling the Story
My boss, grumbling unhappily, handed me an article we’d assigned to a freelance writer. Reading through it, I thought it seemed competent enough: the language was clear and literate, the facts were decently organized, and the writer had covered the subject comprehensively.
“This story looks all right,” I said. “What’s wrong with it?”
“It is all right, he returned. “That’s what’s wrong with it: I don’t want a story that’s just ‘all right.’ I want a piece that makes me sit up and shout wow!”
What makes an editor sit up and shout “wow”? One sure bet is a nonfiction piece that shares some attributes with good fiction.
Accomplished storytellers never bore the listener by unloading the bare facts, by divulging the punch line before the joke is over, or by revealing the key to the plot before the story’s climax. Instead, they unveil the story a piece at a time, by drawing a series of word pictures full of engaging details. The storyteller introduces people, makes them seem real, and involves them in emotions and predicaments that move the listeners. A strong nonfiction writer uses fictional techniques for the same purpose: to hold the reader’s interest.
The elements of fiction are plot, point of view, characterization, theme, and setting (for more on these, see this book’s section on writing fiction). Each corresponds to a nonfictional technique.
Plot is roughly the same as structure, which we examined in the last chapter. You’ll recall the feature article’s classic architecture: a lead, often containing a capsule statement or nut paragraph; development of the facts; and a wrap-up.
Most fictional plots have a similar shape. Think of a movie or television show: if the story hasn’t caught your interest within the first five or ten minutes, you’ll probably leave the theater or turn off your device. A piece of short fiction must win over the reader in the first third of the story. After this equivalent of the lead, the fiction builds toward a climax or resolution of its problem and then falls off in a dénouement.
Plot involves conflict. Not all nonfiction stories lend themselves to this—the only conflict in a new-product roundup, for example, may take place between the editorial and the advertising departments. But many articles do contain this element. Conflict may occur between human beings, between a person and an obstacle or handicap, between an individual and Nature or an animal, between large groups, or within a single person’s mind. Anyone who faces a problem is engaged in a conflict.
You often can set up a kind of opposition within a nonfiction piece that will move the action forward to a resolution, just as a fictional story builds toward a climax that resolves the plot’s conflict.
For example, you might write about a coalition of your city’s small neighborhood associations. Such groups usually form to fight city hall. Leaders may say they exist for local beautification or to sponsor block parties. But sooner or later, they involve themselves in zoning questions, highway development, taxation, crime-stopping programs, or whatever. Knowing this, you would focus on some problem the local groups took on, and you would use that conflict to show members in action. The story’s body would move toward the disposition of the issue, and in doing so, would cover the coalition’s history, function, and methods. For a “dénouement,” the story might wind up with a quote or two on the group’s effectiveness or a mention of plans for the future. An approach like this allows you to hold forth on the issues while you show how they affect real people.
Even when no conflict is inherent in your story, you should present your facts so that they build to a logical, satisfying conclusion. In other words, you should avoid either dumping all your information in a single pile or stringing the facts out at random so they go nowhere. The story should open on a captivating note, move toward some meaningful high point, and leave its readers feeling they have caught its significance.
Point of view, in nonfiction as in fiction, has to do with the perspective from which the story is told. The most obvious approach to nonfiction is to report the facts from the journalist’s equivalent of the omniscient point of view. But that’s not always the most desirable choice. Sometimes it’s better to tell the story through the eyes of one of the people involved, even if that person is yourself.
The trick to relating a story from a specific point of view is to maintain the same perspective throughout. Once you’ve begun to narrate the story from one person’s viewpoint, do not waver by inserting someone else’s observations or your own comments.
Note the difference between point of view and the grammatical term person. By first person, we mean the subject of a verb is “I” or “we.” In the second person, the verb’s subject is “you,” and in the third person, “he, “she,” or “they.” Narrative is most often written in the first or third person.
Marguerite Reiss, in a Reader’s Digest story, reported a bear attack from the victim’s point of view, but writes Rollin Braden’s story in the third person: “Rollin didn’t relish crossing tracks with [an Alaskan brown bear]. . . . The only sound he heard. . . . He knew. . . .” Although she never uses the first-person “I,” the story is told from a single perspective: Rollin’s. Everything that takes place is experienced through him: we hear, see, and feel what he hears, sees, and feels as the events happen to him. We never see any of the story from the bear’s viewpoint, nor through the eyes of his companions on the hunting trip. Had Reiss allowed the focus to slip, the story would have lost its impact.
Good characterization presents a believable word picture of a human being. As soon as you introduce an individual into a story, you should describe and characterize him or her.
Whether the person is real or imaginary, any ink-on-paper portrait is an abstraction. You can never present another human being as he or she actually is; the best you can do is show how you perceive someone. For this reason, John McPhee’s Thomas Hoving is as much a literary character as John Updike’s Roger Lambert. The fiction writer must provide enough detail to convince readers that the characters act as they do for believable reasons. As a nonfiction writer, you have an added problem: you cannot manipulate or re-imagine a real person’s motives or words to make them fit the story.
We perceive a person on several levels. One is superficial: we see her clothes, her physique, the color of her hair and eyes; we observe her mannerisms and hear the cadence of her speech; we sense the mood of the moment. As we come to know her better, we discover a second level of her reality: what she does for a living; where she grew up; how she was educated; what her parents, spouse, and children are like. The deepest level is psychological. She feels; she thinks; she responds to her environment in special ways. Key factors in her life have changed her: divorced parents, perhaps, or an accident, an abortion, a lost lover. These elements need not be dark—they might include a chance to study art coming at a moment of indecision, a special teacher, or a meeting with an admired role model.
Writers draw people just so. A one-dimensional or flat character is lightly sketched—usually with one or two physical characteristics or an allusion to some habit. In describing a courtroom scene, for example, you would fill the spectator’s gallery with one-dimensional characters. The danger in picking out a single trait, of course, is the lurking cliché. Try not to populate your story with good-old-boy businessmen, liberated grandmothers, macho truck drivers, and similar stage figures.
Two-dimensional characters are more carefully drawn, with allusions to their personal background, tastes, and aspirations. You often find them in the standard 1,000- to 1,500-word magazine profile. We meet a young tycoon who at the age of 17 decided he could buy fast cars sooner by selling houses than by attending college, and voilà! Now he heads a multistate real estate empire. The story may interest the reader in passing, but it offers little real insight into the subject’s personality.
Three-dimensional characters result from fleshed-out, fully rounded portraits. They happen when a writer knows a subject intimately, the result of long conversations and much time spent together. This picture tells us what the person looks like, where he grew up and went to school, who are the most important people in her life, and whether in an Italian restaurant she’ll choose spaghetti over veal saltimbocca—and then it tells us why. New Yorker profiles provide outstanding examples of fully drawn nonfictional characterization.
Another literary technique commonly used in nonfiction is dialogue, or, in the language of journalism, quotes. Direct quotation gives life and spirit to a narrative—but only when handled with some grace.
Quotes serve several purposes. In exposition—where you are explaining a subject—quotes allow voices other than the writer’s to comment. This adds interest or authority to what is being said. You might use an expert’s remarks to support a generalization, or have a witness to some event speak about what she saw, heard, or thought.
Expository quotes should do more than simply repeat the author’s assertion. They must add some fact or give insight into the characters’ emotions. Try to avoid constructions like this one, for example:
Fitts, however, [said] he had reservations of his own regarding a constitutional challenge to his indictment because he wanted the opportunity to prove in court that what he wrote about the two politicians is true.
“I want to prove my case,” he [said]. “If this motion is accepted, the case probably will not go to court. I need to go to court.”
Redundant and boring: the writer has Fitts say the same thing three times. By contrast, a quote in Ralph Backlund’s July 1998 Smithsonian story about the Dance Theater of Harlem works well:
People contrasted the energy of the company with the lethargy that sometimes overtakes performances of the Bolshoi Ballet. At a dress rehearsal the afternoon of opening night, there were many dance students. They said that not only could they not maintain the speed and precision demanded by the company, they never imagined anyone else could. Julia Kazlova a student at the Moscow School of Ballet, said, “These are techniques and talents we have never seen.”
That quote emphasizes the point without repeating it, and it adds a fact. Another quote in the same story demonstrates a different use of quotation: to characterize.
Robovsky shouts , stamps, and gives a convincing display of what we think of as Hungarian temperament. He scolds the boys for landing too audibly. “Do I hear noise? Oh, the noise is killing me! You are landing with thuds.” Then he laughs and everyone relaxes.
In writing dialogue, novice writers often stumble over attributions, those words that tell who said what. In “‘I find Paul appealing and Peal appalling,’ said Adlai Stevenson,” the word said is an attribution.
Ordinarily you should start a new paragraph for each new quote, unless the quote supports a point you are making within a paragraph. When two or more people converse, begin a new paragraph with each change of speaker. Attribute as often as is necessary for clarity: you need not attribute every utterance, as long as the speaker is clear to the reader.
Attributions normally fall at the end or in the middle of a quote. If the quote is several lines long, place the attribution where a comma would naturally occur. If it is short, place the attribution at the end. Only when you wish to emphasize the speaker should you begin with the attribution: “John Kennedy said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you. . . .’”
Newspapers often invert the normal word order in attributions: “said Adlai Stevenson,” rather than “Adlai Stevenson said.” Some editors dislike this style. Do not feel you must use one or the other. Listen to the rhythm of the prose and use the order that best pleases the ear.
On most newspapers, too, reporters put attributions in the past tense. This does not hold true for magazines, or on some papers, for the feature pages. If a speaker says something that he clearly means as generally true—that is, he’d repeat it right now if asked—use the present tense: “‘I personally despise them,’ he says.” But if the remark applies only to something that took place once, use the past tense: “‘Hey,’ Darrel said quietly, ‘It’s your moose.’”
Setting reveals the story’s time, place, and social milieu. Drawing a setting requires skill, both as observer and as writer. Description may be vivid, but it must never be purple—that is, florid, overblown, or gaudy.
It’s vital to let the reader grasp early on where the story takes place and how the surroundings look. In establishing the setting for “The Big Dry,” Time’s July 4, 1988, cover piece, Hugh Sidey demonstrates the show-don’t-tell principle:
John Malard sat at a small kitchen table covered with a blue plastic cloth, and with strong, thick fingers stroked the stubble on his chin. His black hair was cropped to its roots, his glasses coated at the edges with the grit of a morning of tilling in his stunted cornfield, which hugs a bluff above the Missouri River between Bismarck and Cannon Ball, N. Dak.
The 93ºF wind scoured the boards of his tiny home, gusting and swirling up to 30 m.p.h., drying, loosening, lofting, trying again to blow him away. The big prairie sun, without a wisp of cloud to soften it, hammered the land as far as a squinted eye could see, which is a long way out there.
Rather than flatly saying Malard is a farmer, Sidey shows us a man who tills a cornfield. In this lead to a story about a drought, Sidey does not use the word “drought.” Instead, he draws a picture: grit, stunted corn, 93º winds, the sun, the squinted eye.
Note how specific the details are and how they add up. We see Malard, who is immediately named. His small kitchen table covered with a blue plastic cloth signals a man of modest means with middle-class, pragmatic tastes. His black hair is cropped to its roots, suggesting middle- or working-class conservatism—he wears his hair like a U.S. Marine’s The words “roots” and “cropped” are connotative. He has strong, thick fingers: a working-man’s hands. The stubble on his chin says he didn’t stop to primp on the way to a hard morning in the fields. That he has been tilling tells us he farms. He raises not just any crop, but corn, the quintessential American grain, and the cornfield is stunted, a sign something is wrong.
In the second paragraph, Sidey uses a literary device known as “pathetic fallacy,” in which Nature is imagined to reflect, sympathize with, or be capable of human actions. The thirty-mile-an-hour winds try to blow Malard away. Of course, the wind has no motive, nor can the sun consciously hammer the land like the Norse God Thor. Other verbs also carry faint suggestions of human behavior: scoured, lofting.
The entire setting is allusive. A man speaking from his small kitchen table in a tiny house hugging a bluff in the harsh vastness of North Dakota evokes a favorite American folk image: the little guy who stands up against massive, primal forces.
The strength of this passage lies in its restraint. Add any elaboration at all—one more windy verb, an extra adjective about the sun, a whiff of pity for Malard—and the writing would turn mauve. But because the details are carefully chosen, very specific, and concise, they paint an effective, convincing picture.
A story’s theme is its sense of meaning: why do the things you’re writing about matter? An article, like a novel, short story, or play, expresses its author’s perception of life. In rare cases, you may communicate your view of the facts explicitly, through direct comment. Usually, you work it into the story through allusion and symbol, and by showing believable characters in meaningful action.
Barry Bearak, in his profile of comedian Sonny Sands, uses a sophisticated literary device to let us know why his subject matters. He manages, through the use of language, allusion, and subtle comparison, to make Sonny a kind of symbol. More than an aging comic, Sonny represents the decrepitude that all of us face, and at the same time he stands for an entertainment era that has passed. Bearak suggests this in his choice of quotes (“Life is like a composition. . . .”; “How much time you think you got in this world?”); by placing Sonny in a historic context; by suggesting that most of Sonny’s audience now live in condominiums for the elderly; and by contrasting the old pro with a young part-timer whose life is radically different from Sonny’s early life. In the stratospheric realms of literary criticism, this technique is called iconography. To find it in journalism is so rare as to be startling—Bearak won a Pulitzer with it.
For many kinds of nonfiction, mastery of the techniques of suspense and foreshadowing is vital. In learning to write for Reader’s Digest, for example, Marguerite Reiss was taught “to get the reader on the edge of his chair.” The magazine’s editors call this “nail-biting,” she reports. “You have to hold him there until he can hardly stand it, and at the very last minute, you give him a little relief.”
Several expedients can help bring the reader to the edge of the chair. Most obvious is withholding information until the end of the story. We know, for example, that Rollin Braden will survive the bear attack—otherwise, the story wouldn’t appear in Reader’s Digest. But we don’t know how he will escape or what will happen to him before he does.
In “Nightmare Hunt,” Reiss builds suspense by dropping hints in the first few paragraphs.
“Thought you told me I’d see some bears,” Darrel chided his friend. . . . Alaskan brown bears forage intensely before holing up for the winter. Rollin didn’t relish crossing tracks with this one. . . . Suddenly Rollin sensed something. . . . there was a rustle. . . . Before long he was 300 yards into the woods, then 400 yards. A chill rippled through his body. He knew that whatever animal he had heard was probably watching him right now. . . . A branch snapped. . . .
All these details foreshadow something ominous. Later in the piece, the suspense resumes when the enraged animals back off momentarily during their attack.
Rollin could hear the bears nearby . . . the seconds ticked by . . . the heavy panting subsided. . . .
Telling the story from Rollin’s point of view also helps create a sense of tension, because it builds empathy. “I learned to put myself in the person’s shoes, in interviewing as well as writing,” Reiss says. “Rather than being objective and standing away, like I used to do in newspaper work, you have to actually get in and almost hurt with the guy.
“You look for tiny bits of suspense, and then some little flavors that aren’t so openly suspenseful,” she adds. Reiss once interviewed a young Air Force sergeant who was accidentally caught on a helicopter’s basket litter above the Bering Sea. He assumed a macho pose about the incident. “I asked him, ‘Did you look down?’ He was being sort of light about it. But when I asked him that, he said, ‘No, I didn’t look down. Once I glanced a little bit, but I didn’t want to look down.’ So he was giving me just a little tincture of what I would call fear. But of course, he wouldn’t call it that.”
Details like this make the story.
A fiction writer may invent details. In nonfiction, you must be absolutely factual. But there’s a reason articles are called stories: that’s what any good writer tells.
 “Nightmare Hunt,” June 1986.
 “From a Garage on West 152nd Street, a Ballet Company Soars to Moscow.”
 “Old Jokes Never Die, Just Retire, Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1986. http://articles.latimes.com/1986-09-13/news/mn-11685_1_piano-player