Sunday, June 21, 2009

Writing Tight

By Earl Staggs

I’ve heard writing is easy. All you have to do is open a vein. Ooooh. Sounds painful. And bloody.

In addition to being painful, writing is NOT easy. It’s hard work. We want our readers to envision a setting exactly as we did when we described it. We want our characters to materialize in the reader’s mind as they did in ours when we created them. We want our story to unfold for the reader exactly as we planned. To accomplish all that takes a lot of time and effort. Plus, you have to stop once in a while and mop up the blood.

I’ve also heard only ten percent of what we do is writing. The other ninety percent is rewriting. If that’s true, and it seems that way for me, once the first draft is done, the hard work – and pain – have only begun. After the major components of our masterpiece are in place, we have to scrutinize each word, sentence and paragraph to make sure they’re the best they can be. We want to be certain we have the right words in the right order, eliminate unnecessary words, and replace weak words with stronger ones if we can find them. Call it polishing, tweaking, pruning, or what you will. I call it tightening. Tightening requires hard work, a lot of time, a working knowledge of the cut, copy, paste and delete functions, a big fat dictionary, and a Thesaurus.

If writing is like opening a vein, tightening is like removing your own appendix. Ouch.

I recently became a regular columnist for Apollo’s Lyre, a wonderful ezine owned and operated by the magnificent Lea Schizas. In each bimonthly issue, in a column called ”Write Tight,” I’ll talk about methods and processes of tightening our writing with examples and discussion. To give you an idea, for the June issue, I worked with this example of a passage in need of tightening:

“Years ago, when I was in high school, the other kids referred to me as a nerd. Whenever they saw me, it seemed as if I had my arms full of books, and they never missed a chance to tease and taunt me about it.”

In the article, I went through the tightening procedure step by step and reduced it to this:

“In high school, the other kids called me a nerd. They’d see me with my arms full of books and make fun of me.”

Fewer words, simpler, and says all that’s needed to make the point. Passive words and phrases have been eliminated, weak words made stronger. The entire passage slimmed down to bare bones.

Of course, tightening down to bare bones is not always what we want. There are times when we want the reader to slow down, dwell on our words a second or two longer, give the messaqe time to sink in. In those times, we may purposely pad our work with passive words or phrases here and there and sneak in a modifier or two.

How does a writer know when to tighten to bare bones and when to pad?

Practice, practice, practice.

And keep a few pints of blood handy for transfusions.

Earl Staggs


Strawberry Girl said...

Ouch, I feel your pain...

Nice article :0)

Earl Staggs said...

Thank you, Strawberry Girl. Writing can be painful and bloody, but it sure is sweet when it all comes together.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

I'd argue that the second version strips it down to a much less interesting read. It changes the meaning and focus and takes away a lot of the emotion.

But, that is just me.