Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ideas into Words – Extracts III

Source: Ideas into Words

Refining Your Draft

Before you start refining, do whatever will freshen your view of the manuscript. At a minimum, take a break and print out the manuscript.  After your break, proceed as if you had never seen the manuscript before. The idea is to approximate an outsider’s clear view of the piece as it stands. Next do the following things:

Read at cruising speed  and jot down your reactions

Read at cruising speed, like any other reader, but jot down your reactions in the border. Note that word—your reactions, not fixes. Keep moving, reserving your attention for the text and your own reactions. You want to notice every slightest flicker of boredom, impatience, confusion, put-off-ness, or pleasure. Do you have an impulse to skim? To jump ahead? To laugh? Are you working hard? Is your mind wandering? Make a quick note and keep moving. Write barely enough that you’ll know what you meant, along these lines:

  • Waiting for story to start. What’s this about? . . .
  • Bored . . .
  • Woke up here, comp. lab busy at midnight a good touch
  • LOL [laughed out loud] . . .
  • Skimming, impatient . . .

Read the text out loud, or at least murmur it to yourself, lips moving, in order to spotlight any awkward patches.
Noting positive reactions is a must, and not only to preserve morale. Most of us tend to think of editing as “fixing” what is off. We forget the other half of the job, and maybe the more important half—retaining and strengthening what is good. The better to retain it, mark it.

Check the structure

In editing, your initial concern should be structural.  Aim to strengthen and balance the whole. Sweep through from beginning to end, again and again, solving the problems that your reactions pinpoint—first the big ones, then small ones.

About the opener

  • Do you actually have an opener? Or were you merely clearing your throat? Initial reactions like “Bored” and “What’s this about?” are ominous.
  • Does the opener still match the story as it turned out to be? Does the piece deliver on its promise?

About the closer

  • Do you actually have a closer? Between fatigue and a desire to be done, you may have simply stopped without telling the reader good-bye.

Check your marks and examples

  • Take a look at the passages you marked as any variant of “boring.” Do you want or need the material?
  • Is the passage boring only because it is unclear? Most things seem boring when we don’t understand them.
  • Do your examples demonstrate what you say they do? Bad examples sometimes survive from before you had total command of the subject, or because you found them charming.

Check the shape

  • How’s the shape? As a whole, does the piece flow? Is it beginning to seem inevitable, as if the segments could never have been in any other order?
  • Only with all big pieces in place should you go ahead to polish your writing, a process not unlike that of a plastic surgeon treating an aging movie star: you work all over.
  • Take into account that :
    - Leading edge of a paragraph must be used to direct or redirect the reader’s attention.
    - Last part of a paragraph must be used to  emphasize something, the place that gives the reader her final impression (and perhaps a millisecond longer of brain time). Last place gives you a way to spotlight particular words and ideas that are critical to later understanding or that have important resonance.
    - Middle of the sentence must be used to de-emphasize something.

Follow the basic rules

  • Replace passive verbs with active ones,
  • Take out the garbage words—at least, most of them. By “garbage words,” I mean puny all-purpose modifiers such as very, really, rather, sort of, kind of, somewhat, quite, absolutely, extremely, and on and on.
  • Take out redundant qualifiers
  • When in doubt, throw it out.
  • Your subconscious is your friend. If your subconscious made you do something, ask yourself why

Ideas into Words – Extracts II

Source : Ideas into Words

Creating your first draft

Following you can find some advices to create your first draft

As you write, keep your eye on the ball

I borrowed the sporty image in this mixaphor, hackneyed though it is, because in sports we all know it’s true (which is how it got hackneyed). It is hard enough to hit a tennis ball streaking toward you at 118 miles an hour. It cannot be done by a person who is preoccupied with losing, or his appearance, or anything else.

Your initial effort needs to be more or less continuous

Meaning day after day, as in all the arts. An artist friend often quotes her painting teacher on that subject: “You must. . . go . . . to the studio,” her teacher would say, slowly and with emphasis. “Once you are there, you might spend all morning sweeping the floor. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that you must . . . go . . . to the studio.”Yes, master, I hear you. “What am I really trying to say?” is a near-magic question.

Write out loud, mumbling or whispering to yourself as you write

Because reading is processed in the speech centers of the brain, any sentence or paragraph that is hard to speak will be hard to read, period. Not a lot harder, of course—but 1 percent improvements have a way of adding up, and this particular habit may be a 2 to 5 percenter.

Polish your prose late in the process rather than early

The more you work on a piece, the deeper it burrows into your neural pathways, and the harder you will struggle to see it freshly. The more effort you invest, the more every word will seem precious near  impossible to change.

Consider starting a bone heap

A place at the end of the manuscript for discarded sentences and paragraphs that you might yet want—dead examples, for example, or an aside that grew so big it disrupted the train of thought. The trouble with these items is that one gets attached to them, having invested the labor to create them. Hence the value of the bone heap: Knowing you can always retrieve that little gem, you’ll find it easy to be ruthless. An example is not quite working? Out!

Write with your notes and references open.

As a creative person, no matter how well you understand the subject, you need the constraints of genuine facts and quotes. Otherwise, you are likely to improve the stories and ideas past recognition. Use your notes. As a boss of mine used to say, “I don’t have time to take shortcuts.”

Make sure you put in all your raisins (i.e., fun facts, great quotes, and interesting comparisons).

Have you ever eaten a bread pudding that had too many raisins? I can’t imagine such a thing, and so it is with writing. You may not be able to turn a brilliant phrase yourself, but if you can recognize brilliant material when you see it, you can come close to a brilliant effect.

Take chances.

A draft is only a draft—by definition, the right place to experiment. Try writing lushly, or speaking more directly to the readers, or whatever you want to try. You will find the edge of the cliff, the place where you’ve gone too far, only by going over. Then once you’ve found the lip, you can stay two paces back.

Write using active verbs

Just as you were taught in high school English. Sentence by sentence, focus on action (which does what to what) rather than “procedures are” or “the data show that.”

Explain as needed

Not sooner and not later, not more and not less. If the article’s structure is right, the subject will unfurl like a morning glory, example/case and explanations inextricably mingled. Avoid any long patches of bald theory.

Keep the reader with you

Joined at the hip, by putting up a little slalom flag every time your train of thought takes a swerve or detour. A word or phrase will do it, of which our language has hundreds

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ideas into Words – Extracts I

Source: Ideas into Words

Main Advice

Whenever you get stuck while writing, stop struggling. Close your eyes, visualize a specific, living, breathing reader, and say to yourself, “What am I really trying to say?” Whatever the answer, write it down. Polish later if it’s needed, but you may be surprised at how trivial the polishing can be.

Getting Started

The first things that you have to do are:

Think about the readers.

Readers come in clusters. There is never only one, though one will be central. When you write, you will address that key reader directly, thereby rousing your social skills. The other readers will listen in and benefit from the occasional aside (or joke, or whatever) that you tuck in for their benefit.
From that viewpoint, your goal in writing is to capture and serve as many different readers as possible, yet stay focused on the core concern shared by the subgroups. You directly address the key reader, offering 100 percent of what that person needs. Then you throw the others a bone whenever one comes to hand.
As you start to think through a piece, imagine yourself as each reader in turn:

  • Who are these people?
  • What does each one need and expect from you?
  • What will each group want to know?

If you meet one particular reader completely, will that do most of the job for the others? Yes, that’s the primary one, the reader. Knowing the reader early on will help you decide how to approach your article, and later it will help you choose vocabulary, examples, and analogies.

Think about the subject matter and mark your material for use in writing.

With your reader(s) held in mind, review all your notes and printed matter so that all is fresh in your mind, seen as a whole. If you are writing a brief news item, such a review may take fifteen minutes. For a major feature, it may take several days.

Write a head and subhead

Good ones, not perfunctory. The process will force you to get precise about both topic and approach.
As a unit, the heads have two jobs:

  • To lure the readers in and
  • To constitute a fair billing.

Consider pheromones, the chemical signals with which animals (including us) attract mates—moth pheromone does nothing for rutting bucks and vice versa. In the same way, the allure of your headline should speak specifically to the right readers, the cluster of people you are talking to.

Make a plan

Following the advice once given by Alexandre Dumas père for three-act plays:

  • The beginning (first act) should be clear, clear, clear;
  • The middle (second act) should be interesting, interesting, interesting;
  • And the end should be short, short, short.

Your written plan may be very simple, especially for something short:

  • Head and subhead,
  • Idea for the opener,
  • Idea for the closer,
  • Plus a list of three to five major points you want to make in between.

Structure your piece in such a way that, when your train of thought comes to an end, its caboose just happens—of course not, but it should feel that way, natural and inevitable— to be a good place to leave the reader. That place might be a scene, a new insight, a question, or simply a final image that encapsulates the major idea. Often, the conclusion enlarges the picture, and it may well bear on the reader’s eternal question, why anyone should care. 

If the grand finale of your article is clear to you but the structure is not, try a more “logical” approach:  Start your plan from the end. Whatever your grand finale, back up. Ask yourself, what does the reader need to know to really get this final part? Good. That material belongs in the penultimate section. And so on. Just keep backing up toward your opener till you get there (or perhaps to a better one yet).A shape should then be apparent—or at any rate present, even if you don’t yet see it.