Category Archives: Writing Rules

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.

– – – – –

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

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction, Writing Process, Writing Rules

Redundancy And Sleep

Falling asleep readingHave you ever read yourself to sleep? I have. Of course, there’s always that great book that makes me want to keep my eyes open, that causes me to fight my own inclination to sleep. But then there are those novels that work better than any over-the-counter sleep-aid you could buy. I suspect few writers would rejoice if they knew their book had achieved such status!

There can be any number of problems with a novel that reduces the interest level—slow pace, uninteresting characters, low stakes, a lack of compelling action. And yet, I suspect redundancy might be writer enemy number one when it comes to creating a story that lulls people to sleep.

Redundancy can occur at the sentence structure level or at the scene level. To be clear, it may include repetition, but the two are not synonymous. In short redundancy means “superfluity,” or too much of a good thing. Or a bad thing. Mostly, just too much. The greatest reason something is “too much” in fiction is because it’s already been done. Or said.

I believe there are three basic reasons a writer allows redundancy to creep into a story.

First a writer has not learned to trust his reader—or, perhaps, to trust his own ability to be clear. Consequently, he puts safe-guards into the story “so readers get it.” This type of redundancy shows itself in a combination of showing and telling.

In reality actions—showing—should replace the telling narrative rather than complement it.

    Example of redundancy: In an angry fit, he stomped from the room, slamming the door on the way out.

In the illustration above, the phrase “in an angry fit” isn’t necessary because the action clearly shows the anger. To eliminate this type of repetition, the author should omit the phrase that explains what the action is supposed to show.

However, the temptation to explain grows when the action is weak.

    Example: With joy in her heart, she followed him into the room.

To improve this sentence, the author must strengthen the action, making the narrative phrase unnecessary.

    Example: She danced into the room behind him.

A second reason a writer may allow redundancy to seep into her work is because she has forgotten her own lines or plot points and replicates them, or perhaps she hasn’t stretched her creative muscles enough to develop new and fresh dialogue, description, and events.

As a result, events may take on a similar shape. For example, the character is about to step into the street, but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from walking in front of an oncoming car. Some chapters later, this same character is about to lean over a porch railing but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from . . .

Either the writer has forgotten she used this same last-second distraction earlier to save the character, or she hasn’t dug deep enough to find something unique.

Finally, characters themselves create redundancy. Well, of course the writers do, through our characters, but in an effort to be true to the people we have created, we allow them to struggle with what they’re experiencing, often through internal monologue. Nothing wrong with using characters’ thoughts.

However, those thoughts must move the story forward, not recap what happened in the past. If their musings bring nothing new, nothing the reader doesn’t already know, they are redundant and therefore sleep inducing.

At one stage of my writing, I was good at lots of rehash internal monologue. My character needed to understand what was going on. He needed to analyze and come up with a motive that would explain his next decision. The latter is true, except in many cases his thoughts stated the already stated. At one point I realized the particular chapter I was working on was boring me! That’s a sure sign that something needs to change.

As a corollary to this last point, some writers utilize “echoing” dialogue, which amounts to redundancy. Often times the writer wants to reflect an emotion such as surprise or disbelief, so he has one character repeat some part of what another character just said.

Such interaction may be true to life, but restatements don’t tell the reader anything new:

    Example: Tyler shook his head. “You can’t go, John. Didn’t you hear Mom?”
    “I can’t go? What do you mean, I can’t go?”
    Tyler stared at his brother. “Just what I said. You can’t go.”
    John’s tone turned to the whine he’d used as a little boy. “Did Mom really say I can’t go?”

This example may stretch the point, but clearly echoing dialogue isn’t necessary to move the story forward, and there are better ways to show surprise, anger, or dismay.

I can only think of one instance in which writers appropriately used redundancy. In the TV program Monk, the title character suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and did many things redundantly, helping to establish his quirks and foibles. There may be other proper uses of redundancy, but for the most part, writers would be wise to eliminate them from their fiction. Unless their promotion plan includes something about inducing sleep. 😉

1 Comment

Filed under Revision, Writing Rules

When Showing Becomes Tedious

Timmy_Lassie_1961As I’ve mentioned before, fiction writers hear from the start, “Show, don’t tell.” The problem is, good fiction needs both showing and telling. Too much showing, or showing the mundane as well as the important, becomes tedious.

Writers further along on the journey understand this. But showing can be tedious in other ways, too.

Showing is tedious when the action is expected. For example, here’s where they kiss. Or now there will be a car chase. No matter how well a writer shows these scenes, they are tedious because they are predictable. To avoid tedium, showing must present something unexpected.

Showing can also be tedious if the action is a repeat of a similar action that happened earlier in the story. For example, after nearly drowning in the river, Timmy now nearly drowns in the pool. Thank goodness Lassie saved him both times. Yawn! To avoid boring readers, a writer must avoid show repetitive actions.

A third way that showing can be uninteresting is by going on and on and on. The point of showing is to spark the reader’s imagination, not give a blow-by-blow report. A carefully placed detail here, a particular shown there, and a scene unfolds in the mind of the reader. A good deal more that happens in the scene, then, can be communicated through narrative summary.

Here’s an example from Merlin’s Blade, Book 1 the Merlin’s Spiral series by Robert Treskillard:

The arrival of Uther mab Aurelianus, High King of the Britons, would have been a grand affair if not for the somber mood of the people of Bosventor. Oh, the other monks eagerly anticipated the justice they’d receive against the druidow, but the villagers were downright glum. [narrative summary]

One man, whom Dybris hadn’t met during his brief time at the abbey, stood near and complained to those around him, hooting, “A crock o’ ants, he is! Tregeagle cares nothin’ but fer tribute and Uther’ll be the same. You’ll see.”

The others nodded, and an old woman said, “Sh, Uther’ll not care for tributes when he gets a sight o’ our Stone!”

The Stone. What would Uther do with the Stone?

So when the battle horns blasted and people turned to see Uther’s war band rounding the side of the mountain from the east, Dybris prayed for deliverance from the Stone and its curse. [narrative summary]

Merlins_Blade_coverThe principle focus in this scene is on the Stone and what the king will do about it. If the author had shown him riding into the village with his war band rather than summarizing it, the emphasis would have shifted to something less important.

This touches on a fourth way that showing can be tedious. If the story is stalled by a lot of showing, it is boring. In the above scene, readers will be wondering along with the priest Dybris what the king will do about the Stone. If the author uses valuable pages to show something completely different, the reader may be tempted to skip all the “fluff” that isn’t connected to the question the author has raised.

Of course, an important something might delay the story’s forward movement, but the author then needs to give a clear motivation for this delay. Getting caught up in showing a scene simply for the sake of showing, isn’t a good reason.

Showing is certainly an important technique in fiction, without a doubt. But there’s more to showing than we often think and less need of it then we often realize.

Leave a comment

Filed under Show Don't Tell, Writing Rules

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. 😀

Leave a comment

Filed under Nonfiction, Writing Rules

Five Fiction Killers

Reading_Young_manI’ve read any number of lists about writing fiction from editors, writers, and agents, all designed to give fiction writers help. Some enumerate story essentials, others, ways to improve, what agents look for, or story mistakes. I decided it’s time I make my own list–my “story killers.” The elements below are things that induce me to put a book down, perhaps never to pick it up again. Or worse–perhaps never to pick up a book by that same author ever again.

Of course there is some subjectivity in such list. Some readers care more about plot than others do. Some care more about character. Good stories, however, need to be a blend of both, in the right way. I think you’ll find the “killers” on my list reflect this blend.

1) Characters that don’t want anything. Instead, the story happens to the protagonist, and he merely reacts. Even when the action seems fast-paced and suspenseful, I remain rather ho-hum because I’m not cheering the character on to achieve anything. All the activity seems designed merely to keep the character alive so he can do other things to keep himself alive. Survival, without a plan to end the cycle, simply doesn’t make a compelling story as far as I’m concerned.

paper_cutout_character2) Characters that are flat. This point applies to minor characters as well as the main ones. Writers have several euphemisms for this kind of character–two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out, stereotypical. The point is, they lack originality and, therefore, the feel of a real person. No individual is actually like any other. When a character in a novel acts just like a “typical” barkeep or hooker or preacher or cop . . . in fact like a typical anyone, there is some stereotyping going on.

The other way to flatten a character is to make her non-descript. She is simply “a woman” or “a secretary” or “a waitress.” There’s nothing particular about her.

Some writers think that giving a character a particular or unique look is sufficient. However, characters become memorable by what they do more than by how they look.

A college professor with tats covering his arms and neck might seem unique, but if he behaves like any other college professor, then he will soon fade into the background. If he has tats and never writes anything using capital letters, now he’s acting out of character for a college professor.

The reader might start to wonder if his students like him more or if they’ll think he’s incompetent. They might wonder how he keeps his job. In other words, there’s been some complexity introduced, some conflict. And yet this character doesn’t need to become major. He can simply be interesting in his minor role.

3) Unimaginative prose. Rather than varying structure, each sentence is simple, starting with “He.” Or adjectives are pedantic–long arms, long beard, long cord–and verbs are lackluster. Everyone walks, sees, turns. These verbs, of course, aren’t “incorrect,” but they are dull. They don’t create an image for the reader or paint a unique scene.

I recently read a book that compared a bald head to a cue ball. This analogy was an attempt to make the prose interesting, but there were two problems with it. First, it’s such a common comparison it can almost be considered a cliché. But also, this was a work of speculative fiction and nothing in the story made me think these people would know what a cue ball was.

The point is, comparisons can liven up unimaginative prose, if they are done well. The comparison needs to give the reader a fresh perspective and it needs to be consistent with the viewpoint character’s thinking.

4) Conflict that is too easily resolved. Characters need to struggle and strive. They need to work hard to overcome. If obstacles block their goals but are easily removed, the struggle doesn’t seem like much of a struggle. Whatever they win doesn’t seem as if it’s been earned. When a character beats any foe, overcomes any problem, soon there’s little tension when the next hurdle looms ahead of the character. The reader already knows this too will be brushed away in a page or two, with little or no lasting effects.

5) A lack of emotional response. Characters that live through horrific things ought to feel something or ought to make a conscious effort to shut off their emotions to the awfulness. If they act the same after witnessing a murder or escaping death as they did before the event, the story begins to feel cartoonish and the characters, more like caractures.

Along those lines, a character running for her life should have more thoughts about how she can escape than about whether or not the love interest she’s with will kiss her or not. Seriously. I’ve read books that interrupt the tension of an escape for an injection of sexual tension–at least that’s what I imagine the author was going for.

This tension-on-tension is bound to water down one or the other. They both won’t have the same impact they’d have if they were introduced separately.

Plus, it doesn’t seem plausible to me. When the danger is over, yes, then the character might feel grateful to the love interest or so relieved or thankful, that a “moment” would be logical and appropriate.

But with gun-totting criminals behind and the edge of the roof ahead, I don’t see the female protagonist logically thinking, My, look at his broad shoulders. That sort of line will ineitable induce from me . . . well, 🙄

Along with a reason to put that book down.

What “killers” would you add?

5 Comments

Filed under Characters, Plot, Word Use, Writing Rules

Show, Don’t Tell: Beyond The Cliché

pulls_weedsMost writers have heard the adage to show rather than tell when writing fiction. When I taught English to seventh and eighth graders, I even taught the principle. And yet, one of the first things a writing professional who critiqued my work uncovered, was problems with showing.

There are actually several ways that “show, don’t tell” can go wrong. First, not everything a character does can or should be shown. Should readers be subject to long scenes of a character brushing his teeth? toweling off after a shower? weeding the garden? It’s possible in some story that these activities do carry some significance and should be fleshed out in a scene, but the chances are, for most novels these are incidentals that ought not receive equal weight with such things as a character leaving her husband or being fired from his job or meeting her birth mother for the first time. So the first rule of thumb should be, show what’s important.

_CrutchesEven showing the important is a bit of a balancing act. Some writers take the idea of showing too far and create what I refer to as “stage direction.”

    Joe sat up, rubbed his eyes, then stood, his left hand resting on the back of the chair. He reached his right hand toward the crutch propped against the wall. Snugging it under his right arm, he inched his left leg forward, then transferred weight to the crutch and swung his injured right leg ahead.

Again, there may be some story that needs these details, but most don’t. Writers should trust their readers to fill in the specifics when they aren’t essential to the story. The above can be improved by eliminating the stage directions:

    Joe grabbed his crutch and limped toward the door.

Besides knowing what not to show, a writer also needs to know what she ought to show. There are four areas which may appear in a scene that require showing: action, description, dialogue, and internal monologue.

First and foremost a writer needs to show the important action, not after the fact as if it happened off stage and someone is recounting the events. Rather, it should take place in front of the reader, either in story time or as a scene in a flash back.

cigarette_smokeIn conjunction with the action, a writer can show the scene. In so doing, he does not stop the story to set the stage, but rather inserts descriptive detail into the story, along with the action. Notice how Mark Bertrand did this in his novel Nothing To Hide, Book 3 in the Roland March Mystery series.

    He stares at me through a cloud of smoke, pleased with this pronouncement.

    We stand around for a bit, soaking up the UV rays and the secondhand carcinogens; then I thank Bridger for the help and get going.

Bertrand could just as easily have stopped the action and inserted a line of description.

    The air is thick with smoke, so thick the sun’s rays could hardly penetrate it.

If he had wanted to call particular attention to the smoke and the sun, that would have been the way to go. But if they are incidental, they can be included along with the action and they add richness to the setting without slowing the story needlessly.

Third, dialogue shows. Rather than summarizing an interchange between two or more people, the writer gives the exact words. However, in the same way that showing can devolve into stage direction, dialogue that’s trying too hard to be realistic, can devolve into the trivial. In the exchange below, I’ve omitted tags and action to show how the words themselves need to go somewhere rather than simply filling space.

“Hi.”

“Hi back. What’s up?”

“Not much. Just hanging out.”

“I see that.”

“So have a seat.”

“Thanks.”

“You want something to drink?”

“No, I’m good.”

“Want to watch a movie or something?”

“What’s the or something?”

This exchange may be realistic, but in most instances there’s not enough relevance to the story for this entire dialogue to be included. The writer would be well served to move past the non-essentials to show the parts of the conversation that move the story forward.

The final area is internal monologue–what a character is thinking. Too many of us writers, when we’re starting out, tell the character’s emotion rather than showing it.

Here’s an example from an early draft of Hunted, Book 1 in The Lore of Efrathah, with the “telling” lines in boldface type:

    Jim glanced to his left and saw, to his surprise, that the shelf upon which he sat extended on in that direction. He hadn’t been aware before that it was more than a slight accidental overhang. He couldn’t see what became of “his ledge,” as he began to think of it, because it disappeared around an outcrop of rock that jutted from the cliff. But his decision was made.

Compare that to this segment from a later draft (and different scene) which doesn’t tell he’s exasperated or uncertain about what to do, but shows it with action and thought:

    Ignoring the stinging from his scraped and bleeding hands, he reached for his cell phone. Except it wasn’t in his pocket. Of course! He’d lent it to Karen. He thumped his head against the cliff, once, twice, a third time. Now what? With no way of telling anyone where he was, he might be stuck on this ledge for an unhealthy long time, considering all his cuts and bruises and whatever he’d done to his ankle.

One caution about showing internal monologue. It’s tempting to front load backstory by having a character remember past events. By using such a device, the writer might feel as if he is showing the character’s thoughts. In fact, he’s giving a clump of backstory. To be effective, internal monologue needs to be delivered in the character’s voice as a natural part of whatever is happening to him. It should never be included because the author wants to tell the reader something so decides to put it into the character’s thoughts.

I hope that difference is clear because it’s pivotal. In one instance the writer is showing the character’s thoughts and in the other he’s dictating to the reader what he wants her to know. Of course, the thoughts that the writer shows the reader should be the important ones which move the story forward. Not every trivial thought a character has is worth showing.

The key to the “show, don’t tell” guideline, then, is balance. A writer needs to show action, description, dialogue, and internal monologue–but not all of any of those.

7 Comments

Filed under Action, Description, Dialogue, Internal Monologue, Writing Rules

Curiosity Versus Confusion

Some clarity creates curiosity; too little creates confusion

Some time ago I read an article in the Writer’s Digest by Steve Almond in which he stated what he considers to be the writers Hippocratic oath: “Never confuse the reader.”

Initially this seems to clash with much advice about backstory. Writers don’t need to put everything up front, we say, and readers are far more patient than we think. In fact, they enjoy being led into a story, enjoy figuring things out rather than having all handed to them.

In other words, one sign of an amateur is too much description, too much backstory at the beginning. But Almond’s article is saying that a sign of an amateur is to leave the reader in the dark.

Are these two points in opposition, as they appear to be? I don’t think so. I think there’s a huge difference between being confused and being curious. The best story piques a reader’s interest. I don’t think that will happen successfully if the writer gives too much information. Neither do I think it will happen if a reader is confused.

Like so much in life, there is a tenuous balance. What information should a writer give and what should he withhold?

Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. First, writers muddle readers with conflicting facts or details. If the master bedroom is on the right in chapter one, then it must also be on the right in chapter five. If the heroine is afraid of heights, then she shouldn’t volunteer to scale the ladder to retrieve the ball.

Confusion also results from improper motivation — when the reader isn’t given enough information to understand why a character is acting as he is. In the example above, the character may have a compelling motive for overcoming her fear to retrieve the ball, but it must be believable and compelling. “My dad will kill me if he sees that ball on the roof,” isn’t a good motive, unless in fact, the father is abusive and this has been clearly established by this point in the story.

Third, readers can be confused when the writer does not ground the story in the concrete. The following illustration is a variation of one Steve Almond gave in his article.

    He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.

Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to that question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some information (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next paragraph, I suspect confusion may set in.

The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.

Finally, writers can baffle readers by putting something into a scene that has not been either foreshadowed or previously introduced.

If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll transport himself to another place using his magic power — the magic power the reader had no idea he possessed.

Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.

But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:

The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

In other words, writers should deliver specifics on a need to know basis. 😀

Leave a comment

Filed under Backstory, Writing Rules

Repetition and Redundancy

At first glance, someone might think the title to this post is redundant, but these two phenomena—repetition and redundancy—are actually different and therefore I am not truly saying the same thing using different words. Indeed, the one can sometimes serve the writing whereas the other is always deadly.

First a look at repetition. One repetition problem occurs when the author repeats an action. The character is about to step into the street, but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from walking in front of an oncoming car. Some chapters later, this same character is about to lean over a porch railing but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from … You get the idea. These incidents may be set in different places, but the plot point is repetitious.

However, repetition primarily occurs at the “word choice” level. Either in dialogue or in narrative, the author relies on the same word over and over, either throughout the manuscript or throughout a scene, a paragraph, or a sentence.

Repetition draws attention to the word—and therefore, the person or object—that is being repeated. If the object isn’t intended to be the focus, the repetition draws attention from what the readers should be thinking about.

One author I edited used the word “door” so often in one scene, it was hard to focus on what was happening that moved the story forward. The character walked to the door, turned the door handle, opened the door, slammed the door, went to the car door, opened the car door, slid through the open door, closed the door. And yes, I may be exaggerating, but not by much. 😉

Even names can be repeated to the point of distraction.

I remember one manuscript I critiqued in which the two characters, who were the only ones in the room, used each other’s names in every line of dialogue throughout a scene.

Repetition’s ability to draw attention, however, can be something an author uses intentionally. Abraham Lincoln’s short Gettysburg Address is a wonderful example of the positive use of repetition. Notice the words I’ve marked.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

There are actually others that I didn’t mark—devotion, dead, consecrate, conceived, rather, It is, for us. The overall effect is a piece that is poetic and nearly musical. The repetition creates a rhythm as well as a focus.

Generally such an extensive use of repetition isn’t appropriate for fiction, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. There may be a highly emotional piece of internal monologue that lends itself to just such a strong use of repetition.

Redundancy is a different animal. Rather than repeating an event or words, an author employing redundancy is rewording what he has already said. I elaborated on its use in fiction (without naming it) in my last post (see point number five).

Sadly, redundancy has no positive use that I’ve discovered. Instead, it slows a story, at best, and at worst, insults the intelligence of readers, though the author may be more in doubt about his own ability to get his ideas across than about his readers’ ability to comprehend what he’s saying.

In short, repetition must be used judiciously and redundancy, not at all.

– – – – –
For a more complete treatment of redundancy, see “Redundancy And Sleep.”

5 Comments

Filed under Word Use, Writing Rules

Write Tight

I love contests. Besides reading and 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.

The latest contest I entered, one at agent Janet Reid’s site, was to write a 100-word story using five specified words. 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 decided I would just try it.

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 the necessary parts of a story or article. 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 example in an article 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 I think worth striving for.

3 Comments

Filed under Word Use, Writing Rules