English: Mating Grasshoppers, Uvita, Costa Rica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By Roy Peter Clark, CQ Press, @ 2008, 260 pages.
The introduction to this book advised me to start reading the last chapter first. I don’t think the author meant for me to read the book backwards, chapter by chapter, but that’s what happened. This worked well for me as I found the most interesting material at the end. But that said, this was an excellent book all the way through. I highly recommend the whole thing. Every chapter provides informative, well-chosen prose examples.
For example, in the chapter that advises us to prefer the simple over the technical—to use shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs at points of complexity—we are tossed this gem describing the humidity in Florida:
“The towel, hung to dry, grows wetter by the hour. The newspaper, with its headlines about integration, wilts in your hand and falls limply into the coffee and the egg. Envelops seal themselves. Postage stamps mate with one another as shamelessly as grasshoppers.” (From E. B. White’s “The Ring of Time”)
So, when the subject matter gets complex, use shorter words and phrases.
For those people who say: Good writing never uses adverbs, I got clarification.
For the most part this is true; however, adverbs that modify the meaning of a verb are acceptable. The adverbs you want to avoid are those that intensify the meaning of a verb: just, certainly, entirely, extremely, completely, exactly.
Clark also revealed when and how you use numbers of things. This was especially interesting to me because I am often faced with long series of words in the writing I proofread and edit. The kitchen sink is always in there. How do I get it out?
So here’s how to use numbers:
- Use one for power.
- Use two for comparison, contrast.
- Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.
- Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.
“In the anti-math of writing, the number three is greater than four.”
Amen. Thank you!
I don’t know about you, but there are several words that stalk me. These are words that I never got around to looking up in the dictionary, and that are rarely used. Then all of a sudden, someone has to show off and bandy them around. One of those words for me is “hyperbole.” This word simply means “overstatement.”
We learn about abstract and concrete, and the dreaded abstraction. The question to ask in order to get yourself back in the land of the concrete is “Can you give me an example?” To enter the land of abstraction, you can ask: “What does that mean?”
Clark also gives a great explanation of the idea of the writers “voice.” Find your voice, they say. But just what is voice?
“Voice is the sum of all strategies used by the author to create the illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader from the page.”
At work, I am often pondering: what is the voice of the company? So to help nail down voice, we can ask the following questions:
- What is the level of language? (slang, formal, etc)
- What person does the writer work in?
- What are the range and the source of allusions? (high or low culture, both)
- How often does the writer use metaphors and other figures of speech?
- What is the length and structure of the typical sentence?
- What is the distance from neutrality? (objective, partisan, passionate?)
- How does the writer frame the material? (on beat, off beat, standard subject matter, conventional, experimental, iconoclastic?)
Then there is this clarification on the difference between quotes and dialogue. “The quote may be heard, but dialogue is overheard.”
Clark even makes me want to read Madame Bovary again for the juxtaposition of the flirtatious language of Rodolphe Boulanger with the calls of animal husbandry in the setting’s background. This is genius I had not paid attention to when I first read the novel, but 20 something years later, I vaguely recall it—and want to try it in my own writing.
Then Clark tells us if we want to sell a gazillion books—and who wouldn’t?—learn how to craft the cliffhanger, and more specifically the internal cliffhanger. I’m not exactly clear on this, but I think it involves paying attention to the questions that your situations could possibly raise for the reader and taking advantage of their curiosity to propel them into the next chapter.
Build your work around a key question. (What will your character do given the stakes?) The key question can also be called an “engine.” And stories can have mini-engines associated with each character. How will each character’s problems resolve? If every character wants something, and we’ve got them up a tree and we’re throwing rocks at them, how are they going to get down based on their own individual backstories, ticking clocks, and motives?
Clark also advises us to place gold coins along the path:
- A small scene or anecdote
- A startling fact
- A telling quote
And there’s so much more. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer has given me lots of ideas to try. And has reminded me why I wanted to write in the first place—because it’s fun to put these strategies to use and see a creation emerge. It’s just plain fun.