Category Archives: Nonfiction

Tighten Your Writing

wrench-899403-mI love contests. Besides reading and feedback from critique partners, contests may be the best means by which my writing has improve.

For one thing, most contests give feedback, either through judges’ scoring sheets or through comments from other participants. Then too, contests provide opportunities to experiment—to try out a new premise or dance a little with a new point of view.

However, the most important thing contests have taught me is how to write tight. You see, most contests have some kind of word or page limit. In other words, you have to tell your story in 5000 words, or 1500, or 100.

One contest I entered, held by agent Janet Reid, was to write a 100-word story which included five words she specified. It’s quite the challenge, I can tell you.

My first version was nearly twice as long as the limit. Next came the editing process. What words were unnecessary? What phrase could I replace with a single word? What parts of the story were needed? All this to meet a stringent word count.

It dawned on me, however, that those questions are ones I should ask about my writing whether or not I’m constrained by contest rules.

Eliminating unnecessary words keeps a story or an article moving. Some unnecessaries are fillers that an author falls back on, often without realizing it—words such as just or even. I even told my writing partners contests were helpful, so I just decided I should enter, too.

Other unnecessaries are built-in redundancies. He stretched, raising up both arms. (Is it possible to raise arms down?) The unopened can slipped from her fingers and fell down on her foot. (Could the can fall up on her foot?)

The next phase of tightening writing is somewhat harder. What phrases can be replaced by single words? Prepositional phrases are good suspects. He touched the screen of his iPad can become He touched his iPad screen.

Hardest of all might be determining what parts of a story or article are or are not necessary. Everything needs to be fair game. Is a particular character adding anything new or is he merely taking up space? Is a particular plot point moving the story forward or is it veering away from the desired end? Is an article example shedding further light on the subject or is it duplicating the point of a previous illustration?

Writing tight takes work, and clearly readers won’t know how hard an author struggled to hone a story or article. What they will know, however, is that they remained interested from start to finish and their minds never wandered—something fiction and nonfiction writers alike should strive for.

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This article, with some editorial changes, is a reprint of one that appeared here in October 2010.

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Nine Nonfiction No-nos

45559_robert82_far_from_everywhereI have to admit upfront—I only picked the number nine because I like alliteration. I’m not a hundred percent sure I can provide nine writerly things to avoid in nonfiction, but here’s my valiant (I hope) attempt.

1. Confusion. People read nonfiction primarily to learn something, to be informed, to increase their understanding. Confusion prevents any of that from happening.

2. Sloppy thinking. Writers of nonfiction need to create a clear line of thinking that readers can follow. Skipping steps or making unfounded leaps to an unearned conclusion will make readers skeptical—either about the writer’s ability or the subject’s accuracy.

3. Disorganization. Skipping from one point to another without some logical order waters down whatever it is an author is trying to say.

4. Outdated or incorrect statistics. Supportive data is not supportive if it is wrong or no longer relevant. When writing nonfiction, an author must do the research and check it twice to be sure it is up to date.

5. Unclear examples. If an author uses an example to illustrate a point, it should do so in an unambiguous way. Questionable examples can undermine the very point the writer is trying to make.

6. Yawn-inducing content. Even in blog posts, writers must aim to write about interesting subjects in an interesting way.

7. Unimaginative prose. No less than fiction, nonfiction needs to use strong verbs and nouns. The author should vary the sentence structure. The writing itself should be high quality—beautiful or compelling, entertaining or riveting.

8. Deceptive or untrue. Readers looking for an expert’s opinion or knowledgeable advice need to trust an author. Consequently no writer should knowingly fabricate information in order to make his argument look stronger. Neither should he use inflammatory vocabulary that will purposefully lead readers to an incorrect conclusion. Sadly, political campaigns all too often resort to this kind of writing—which may be one reason people sigh with relief when an election is over.

9. Plagiarism. Other writers can inspire. A book or article can prompt ideas. But no author should take another’s work and pass it off verbatim as if it is his own.

Nine no-nos weren’t as hard to identify as I expected. If fact, I can think of one or two others, but I’ll save them for another day and give you a turn to add ones you think belong on the list. We can rename the collection Ten Turn-offs or Eleven Errors or something. 😀

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