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BETTER WRITING BY THIS TIME TOMORROW

Following are some nuggets of advice that I believe may help you in revising your outpourings of brilliance. But first, the #1 piece of advice which outranks the rest:

The only rule that can finally be applied to writing is a feel for what works in a given situation. It may be necessary to override any so-called rule, no matter what the source, in order to write what needs to be written at some time.

“No generalization is worth a damn, including this one.”

— Oliver Wendell Holmes

I offer you this not as an all-purpose rationalization for never revising, but rather as a reminder that the responsibility is yours.

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The following thoughts come in no particular order.

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Try not to repeat the same words or phrases over and over unless they strengthen what you’re saying. But remember that strong repetition is part of good writing. An example you may have heard before: ” . . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

On the other hand (which is exactly where advice on writing gets maddening — it’s always “on the other hand”), don’t vary things compulsively to the point where variation becomes a mannerism in itself — like sportswriter prose. (Once “home run” has been mentioned, it has to have a different name every time it comes up: “four-bagger,” “round-tripper,” “dinger,” “tater,” etc., etc.)

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It’s relatively easy (esp. when you read your work out loud) to spot over-use of a certain phrase or word; it’s harder to notice repetition of the same content in different words. Watch for this when you re-read a draft. It is often the cause of a subtle feeling of drag.

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Here’s another issue I have to work on all the time in my own writing: agreeing with yourself. Not content with saying something once, you tell the reader that it’s true all over again in the next sentence, or pat yourself on the back for being right.

Example:

When I was a child, dinner at our house was put on the table at 4:00 p.m., no matter what. My mother was on a schedule and she didn’t deviate from it in the nineteen years I lived in her house. I used to wonder why we ate so early. I know now it was because Mom wanted to get dinner over with as quickly as she could. She never enjoyed cooking as much as some of my friends’ mothers did. In fact, I’d say she hated it and anything remotely related to it.

The relationship between those last two sentences is what I call “agreeing with yourself.” It’s not a severe case, it’s not blatant, but for me, those two sentences are asking to be reduced to one.

Another:

. . . our eyes were fixed on the oven as we waited for the fireworks.

What amazed me more than anything was the look of surprise on my mother’s face as the flames first poked through the crack she left at the top of the oven door. It was as if she had totally forgotten about the last fire caused by broiling pork chops. But she always managed to put out the flames with theatrical flair, as if she were the entertainment and we were her audience. When the kitchen was safe we all clapped and she would bow and smile. What a performance!

I enjoy this scene, but the last sentence comes as a letdown, an anticlimax, because we already know it was a performance (“theatrical flair, as if she were the entertainment and we were her audience”). When the author says it again — agrees with herself — some of the air gets let out of the balloon for me. The writer already made the performance happen in front of us; now to step back and name it a performance is superfluous, and the exclamation point doesn’t succeed in pumping that last sentence up. Exclamation points never do succeed in adding emphasis that isn’t already there in another form.

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Believe in the power of words. You don’t constantly have to shore up words with intensifiers like “very,” “such,” “so,” “quite,” “extremely,” “absolutely” . . . well, I won’t go on, because you get the picture. Words themselves have power — believe in it, rely on it, use it.

If you write:

She looked so pathetic and cheap.

it is not half as strong as writing:

She looked pathetic and cheap.

Think about it from the point of view of whoever “she” is: if someone said you looked pathetic and cheap, that would be a sufficiently intense experience, right? I have a feeling you’d notice it. You wouldn’t need the word “so” in there to make you feel insulted and humiliated. In fact, “so” cushions the blow.

In short, intensifiers often weaken the very thing they’re supposed to intensify.

Another example:

Something about the fact that our tour guide didn’t punch a clock, take off his costume and go home to a different life intrigued me and gave everything he said more weight — I saw him quickly transform from a costumed character into a real person.

Take out the word “quickly” and see what happens:

Something about the fact that our tour guide didn’t punch a clock, take off his costume and go home to a different life intrigued me and gave everything he said more weight — I saw him transform from a costumed character into a real person.

Now the word “transform” comes at you cleanly, unencumbered, with its full meaning. To transform something, or to see something transform, is a big deal, an event. Now that it’s out from behind “quickly” you can see it happen. Plus: the word “quickly” was preventing the event from happening quickly.

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A thought about “so”: it works far better when “so” is followed by a consequence, a “that.” Example:

But from that day forward I became so aware. I noticed each passing face, the locations of people’s lockers, but most importantly I mastered the timing of our encounters. I was so aware that I even began to notice myself.

Now, to my ear, the last sentence above is terrific — and partly because the “so” has a consequence (which is surprising — “I even began to notice myself”). By contrast, the “so” in the first sentence is flat, without force. Check it out: if you take out that “so,” the sentence becomes stronger. Read it this way:

But from that day forward I became aware. I noticed each passing face, the locations of people’s lockers, but most importantly I mastered the timing of our encounters. I was so aware that I even began to notice myself.

Now, without the “so,” the first “aware” is restored to its full strength, and the second one — “SO aware” — is piled on top of the first “aware” (by the use of “so”) and made stronger still.

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Written dialogue is not an exact reproduction of actual speech but rather a highly crafted, stylized, conventional form of writing which gives the illusion of spontaneity. It’s very much a matter of rhythm, of not letting sentences or speeches get too long or too perfectly constructed, of not letting people be too articulate. Watch out for having people “talk like a book” — the kind of dialogue that sounds as though they’re reading from a script. Stiff, too perfect, too formal. If they find the perfect word they must seem to stumble upon it. If they ever manage to state exactly what they think or feel, it must be a rare occurrence. If two people in a conversation ever understand each other perfectly, it mustn’t be for long. They each have their own train of thought and their own idea of what the conversation is about, and we (the readers) can read the meanings behind their words and see that their meanings, much of the time, fly halfway to the other person but don’t quite get there. Writing dialogue is a learned skill. Practice helps. It isn’t pure talent, it’s technique.

I think it nearly always sounds stiff if people don’t use contractions when they talk (unless they’re saying something with great emphasis). It sounds like speech to me if someone says, “So in this dream, I’m in a huge house that I don’t recognize and I’m expecting a bunch of people for a dinner party, plus I’m naked.” It wouldn’t hit my ear right if the uses of “I’m” were replaced with “I am.”

It seems clunky to write “I paused” in order to make a little time pass in silence in the midst of dialogue. Not that one never can do it. But I think it feels less intrusive if you make the pause happen by filling it up with some gesture, some action, or a reflection — something other than a stage direction.

Punctuation of Dialogue. Rule one: New speaker, new paragraph. Every time. Indent them just like any other paragraph.

Suppose the dialogue is “xxxxxxxxxx” followed by “she said.”

The “she said” is considered an appendage of the dialogue, a continuation of the same sentence, and therefore “she” does not have a capital S.

If “xxxxxxxx” ends with a period, that period is converted to a comma so that it reads

“xxxxxxxxxxxxxx,” she said.

I would explain that comma by saying that the dialogue + “she said” is all one sentence.

If “xxxxxxx” ends with a question mark or exclamation point, you keep that mark of punctuation rather than changing it to a comma, but the “she” is still not capitalized. So it reads

“xxxxxxxxxxx?” she said.

or

“xxxxxxxxxxx!” she said.

The question mark or exclamation point is not followed by a comma. Ever.

In some cases, different from the above, “she said” can begin a sentence of its own, in which case it is capitalized, and the period at the end of the dialogue does not become a comma, as in:

“xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.” She said the words, as usual, with quiet bitterness.

If the “she said” comes in the middle of a sentence of dialogue — which then continues after “she said” — you have a comma at the end of the first bit of dialogue and a comma after “she said.” Like this:

“The longer I know you,” she said, “the more I realize what a worm you really are.”

What follows “she said” is not a new sentence, so it doesn’t start with a capital letter.

Writers are constantly innovating, but the preceding represents a reasonable baseline to start from in putting dialogue on the page, a set of conventions which will enable the reader to read smoothly and understand how you want it to sound.

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Here are some clever ways to get unnecessary words into your writing. You probably know them all. I will be happy to assume that you have already mastered these skills, and I will be more happy to read your writing if you take some of these extra words out:

(1) “My neighbor is a man who takes fiendish pleasure in starting                          his lawnmower at 7:30 on Saturday morning.”

(2) “Marie is the type of woman who falls in love every other week.”

(3) “All I wish is that people would stop tormenting my hedgehog.”

(4) “What I would like to point out is that Descartes was all wrong                         about the mind-body relationship.”

(5) “The subject that I wish to discuss is the life of a computer geek              in the 90’s.”

One could multiply examples like this, but enough is enough. You could take the underlined words out of each of these sentences and lose nothing, or nothing worth keeping. The pattern here is that in each sentence there is a perfectly good verb (in #1, “takes,” in #2, “falls,” and so on) which conveys the essential action — but on top of it is layered an unnecessary construction involving “is.” (The same thing could be done with some other form of the verb “to be.”)

Further observations about the above: keep an eye out for stunningly bland utterances unnecessarily imbedded in otherwise interesting sentences. In #1, you find the imbedded statement “My neighbor is a man.” Not a big surprise — how many possibilities are there? The pronoun “his” takes care of his gender without unnecessary fanfare.

In #2 above, Marie, the amorous one, is characterized as a type of woman. Is there such a type? Or is the writer just invoking this “type” because the phrase comes to mind? Is the writer really writing about a whole class of women, or is he writing about Marie, an individual, who reads her Tarot every morning, writes the word “mudbug” on her left sandal in nail polish, and falls in love every other week?

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single and double quotation marks

The established usage is this: you use double quotation marks (the usual kind) to indicate words someone else spoke or wrote. Then, if they quote someone while they’re speaking, you use single quotation marks around that.

Example:

So then my roommate says to me, “Ever since my boyfriend read Hamlet I want to throw up. He’s like, ‘To be or not to be,’ and I’m like, ‘Get a life!'”

[plagiarized from a New Yorker cartoon.]

This is the only officially correct way to use single quotation marks — for quotations within quotations. Certain ingenious uses of single quotation marks, however, keep occurring, and I am here to discourage you from them for what I think are good reasons, that is, reasons based on something more than “because I say so.”

1. Don’t use single quotation marks to indicate your own uncertainty about a word or phrase. People sometimes use them to apologize for a word, to acknowledge that a phrase is slang, to say that they aren’t sure if a certain word is the right one but they can’t think of anything better.

The obvious moral on this one is: find a word you don’t want to apologize for. Find a phrase you can stand behind. If you feel that a slang phrase is the best phrase, put it out there naked and let it stand on its own.

2. Don’t use single quotation marks, or double ones either, to indicate that you know something you’re writing is unusual — say, a remarkable image or metaphor. Sometimes people seem to use quotation marks as if to say, “Look, I know this sticks out, I know it doesn’t sound like everything I write.” Hey, if you’re suddenly writing better, that’s great. Just let it happen.

3. Don’t use quotation marks of any kind simply to emphasize certain words. That’s not what they’re for. It’s misleading because it makes the reader think somebody’s suddenly speaking.

There are only a couple of uses of quotation marks (the regular kind) that don’t have to do with quotation. They are these:

1. For sarcasm, for casting doubt on something. Example:

Once again I took my car to the “mechanic” and once again it came back exactly the same.

By putting those quotation marks there, I am essentially calling him “the so-called mechanic.”

2. To show that a word is being mentioned as a word.

Example:

For some reason, “go” has replaced “say” in everyday speech.

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When you say that you wonder about something, it’s a statement. You state that you are wondering. So this statement does not end with a question mark. You don’t write: “I wonder if she’s coming today?” It’s either

“I wonder if she’s coming today.”

or

“Is she coming today?”

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“She and I” and similar constructions:

Many people seem determined to write sentences like “Her and I went to the ball game last week.” It’s wrong. Know how you can tell? Take out the “and I” and you have “Her went to the ball game last week.” Hence:

“SHE and I went to the ball game last week.”

On the way to the ball park, some rude boys gave the finger to . . . she and I? No. Wrong again. Know how you can tell? Take out “she and” and you have “Some rude boys gave the finger to I.” Hence:

“Some rude boys gave the finger to HER and ME.”

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“As” vs. “Like”

It used to be that people used “like” when they should have used “as,” and now it’s the other way around. This distinction seems nearly lost in speech, but it counts in carefully written prose. In case it interests you to know this, here goes:

You use “as” when the construction immediately following it includes a verb (or an understood verb).

“AS I explained, but no one heard me, there’s a genuine difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay.'”

Think of it this way:

“_____ I explained” — what goes in the blank?

“explained” is a verb

hence the word in the blank is “as.”

Without a verb immediately following, use “like” — “LIKE a jerk, I explained too much and everyone stopped listening.”

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YOU MAY WISH TO IGNORE THE FOLLOWING because I think these linguistic distinctions are now disappearing from our language. However:

“Lie” vs. “Lay”

Here’s a basic principle that applies: the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. A transitive verb is one which says that something does something TO SOMETHING ELSE. An intransitive verb is one which says that something does something ALL BY ITSELF.

Why does this matter here?

The verb “to lie” is intransitive. You don’t do it to something, you just do it somewhere: you lie down, you lie on the beach.

The verb “to lay” is transitive. You do it to something else: you lay an egg, you lay your pen down after finishing your novel.

“To lie” has the following forms:

Present: lie (“I lie in the sun reading Calvin & Hobbes.”)

Past: lay (“I lay on the quad sleeping.”)

Past participle: lain (“I have lain on every beach on the Eastern                              seaboard.”) (This form is truly obsolete by now.)

“To lay” has the following forms:

Present: lay (“I now lay down my sword forever.”)

Past: laid (“I laid a few more flowers at the base of the Vietnam                             memorial and walked away.”)

Past participle: laid (“I have laid new tiles in this bathroom six                      times and that’s enough.”)

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“may” vs. “might”

This distinction also seems to be disappearing in current usage, but it is, or was, a meaningful one. “Might” should be used when talking about something hypothetical or conditional. You say things MIGHT have happened when you mean they would have been possible if conditions had been other than what they really were. You say things MAY have happened, or they MAY NOT HAVE, when you’re uncertain about facts.

Example: line from a piece about the death of a younger sister, age two. The writer is talking about how her parents lavished constant attention on the little girl once they realized she was likely to die young:

“They didn’t want to look back and regret the few moments of her short life that they might have missed.”

NOT “that they MAY have missed.”

Why? The understood rest of the sentence is this: if they hadn’t devoted every possible moment to her. But they did. So any other past is hypothetical. So the writer used “might.”

Another example:

Hermes and Aphrodite are on the Olympian hockey team. Hermes, the starting goalie, doesn’t show up for a game, so they lose. Pluto runs into him in a subterranean bar and says, “Hey, Hermes, did we win yesterday?”

“We may have,” Hermes says. “I don’t know, I wasn’t there for the game.”

Then Aphrodite sticks her head out from a booth in the back and yells, “We might have won if you’d bothered to show up!”

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Download this document here: Better Writing by This Time Tomorrow

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