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Writing Tip: Delete Most of the Words

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Clear writing is usually concise. The more words we use, the more likely we are to miscommunicate. Or to over-explain something simple. Or to flat out say the wrong thing. That’s why the Bible says, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”

Unfortunately, many of us are trained by reading bad writing to believe that writing clear and concise sentences is a sign of intellectual weakness. (Or some such nonsense.) This is especially true if you’ve spent much time in academic circles, where bad writing abounds. Academics often use five words where one or two will do. In this way they sin, if I’m reading Proverbs 10:19 correctly.

So for the sake of clarity and your own sanctification, delete all the words you can without losing meaning. Most manuscripts easily could be reduced by 25% without sacrificing any crucial content. Of course you want to delete the right words. But that isn’t hard to do. Here are some tips (illustrated with real-life examples):

Simplify redundancies. “In our minds, we thought…” is not a false statement. Our mind is where we do our thinking. But because our mind is the only place we do our thinking, the prepositional phrase “in our minds” is redundant. Just say, “We thought.” No one will wonder if you did it with your toes. (Note: we reduced the word count by 60%.)

Beware of prepositional phrases. Sometimes we’ll be tempted to address an issue “in a broad manner” when we should simply address it “broadly.” Prepositional phrases are bland. Why say someone arrived at his point “in a roundabout way” when you could say he made his way there “circuitously”? (Note: in both cases we reduced the word count by 75%.)

Trust your verbs. Don’t use the noun (nominal) form of a word when there is a verb form: Instead of “provide a reorientation,” say “reorient” (a 33% reduction in length). Instead of saying “There is no possibility for success,” say “success is impossible” (a 50% reduction). Instead of  “to be a deterrent,” write “to deter” (another 50% reduction). Letting your verbs do the work keeps your prose clear and active.

Another strategy is to give yourself a strict word limit and stick to it. I’ve committed to spending no more than 500 words on these posts about writing. It’s good practice—a small step toward godliness and good writing.

(395 words)

Writing Tip: Be Careful What You Assume

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

Here’s a lesson I learned the hard way: readers and writers are not always on the same page.

The first piece I wrote for public consumption was a blog review of Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity. Viola argued that the “practices of the first-century church were the natural and spontaneous expression” of believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit that were “solidly grounded in timeless principles and teachings of the New Testament.” Unfortunately, it is “unmovable, historical fact” that most practices of contemporary churches were adopted from pagan culture and thus at odds with NT teaching. Thus “the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to function as it does.”

I was brand new to publishing, had just enough church history education to be dangerous, and was eager for a chance to flex my intellectual muscles. Also, I made one massive assumption: the readers of Out of Ur (the Leadership Journal blog) are pastor-types, right? So surely they will be as resistant as I am to the notion that the pastorate is pagan.

Boy, did I misread my audience.

With the confidence that everyone on the interwebs was sure to agree with me, I wrote a snarky and uncharitable review/response. The comments starting piling up immediately. Readers were divided, but way more of them agreed with the book than I expected, and they called me out for my condescending response. (Full disclosure: I disagree with the book more now than ever but am not convinced taking up arms again is worth it.)

My point is, I wrote about the book (for a general audience) the way I would have talked about the book with a few close friends who I knew agreed with me. And who knew where I was coming from. And who shared my assumptions about history and church and so forth. I made the mistake of assuming that my pastor-type audience and I shared certain presuppositions. And we didn’t.

When you’re writing for a broad audience, people will read into your writing as much or more as they read out of it. It’s dangerous to assume that all your readers will share your assumptions. So you have to know your audience. If you’re writing primarily for people who know you well, you may be safe. But if you are used to communicating in that sort of environment and then start writing for a larger audience, be careful.

Sarcastic humor, for example, doesn’t always communicate well in print. For example, I’ve edited pastors who mentioned their spouses in ways that were obviously intended to be funny (i.e., “Obviously, I’m the brains of the relationship”) but don’t come across right in writing.

Jokes about theological positions or denominations (or political groups or whatever) with which you disagree are dangerous, unless people know you are openminded. You know—it’s the “no one makes fun of my brother except me” principle. Once you are established as a trusted, broadminded writer, you can say whatever you like and most readers will give you the benefit of the doubt.

One way to avoid missteps with your assumptions is to lay all your cards on the table in your writing. When I’ve written about race or, more recently, the Trayvon Martin case, I’ve tried to clarify that I’m speaking not as a legal expert or a political commentator nor with any expertise in race relations but as a father and white male wrestling with my own baggage. On the whole, I think those caveats make readers more sympathetic to my reflections.

Tough skin is a topic for another day. But your readers will let you know when you’re not on the same page. Try to take criticism graciously and you’ll learn to intuit what your readers are bringing to the table.

Writing Tip: Write with Your Ears

Friday, July 5th, 2013

Writing in a natural voice is important for every writer, and finding your voice can be a lifelong pursuit. (Personally, I don’t feel like I’m quite there.) But it is especially important—and sometimes especially difficult—for people who speak publicly for a living. These days it’s typical for someone to become a writer because they’ve already become well known as a gifted communicator. Whether pastors or professors or politicians, people who speak publicly for a living have an audience of folks who like what they have to say and like the way they say it. This makes them a publisher’s dream.

But a speaker who is well-liked because they have a distinctive way of communicating can often find it difficult to translate their naturally distinctive voice from the pulpit or lectern to the printed page.

One way I find my voice in print is to read everything I write out loud. Reading aloud accomplishes several things at once. It helps me catch awkward phrasing or identify places I need to vary sentence length to maintain a readable pace. It helps me identify passages that are redundant or unnecessary. Most important for present purposes, reading aloud also helps me achieve a natural writing voice, because it forces me to identify words on the page or turns of phrase that I would probably not use in normal speech.

Friends and family tell me that when they read my writing, they can “hear” me saying the words. This is good news. It’s also really hard work. Typically, my first couple drafts of anything are stilted and unnatural. It takes several drafts before I begin to sound like myself. Typically the first step in the right direction is when I stop writing with my eyes and start writing with my ears.

Writing Tip: Outline Early and Often

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

There are two kinds of outlines I use regularly when I write and edit.

The first is the kind our teachers made us produce in school. (The kind, coincidentally, my friend Andy has no patience for.) It’s the outline you write before you write whatever you’re writing. Ideally it’s a plan for your composition. You list in bullets (or Roman numerals) the major topics you know you need to address in roughly the order you plan to address them. The outline for the introduction of my dissertation looked like this:

Chapter 1: Introduction

  1. Something interesting to grab attention and introduce the subject
  2. A Short Life of Isaac Backus
  3. Jonathan Edwards in the Writing of Isaac Backus
  4. Review of the Literature
  5. Research Objective, Methodology, and Contribution

I sometimes even include word count limits in my outlines to prevent me from over-researching or over-writing about a peripheral issue (for example, 2. A short life of Isaac Backus [800 words]). Ultimately the purpose of this sort of outline is to help you focus your research and keep you on track. Dissertation intros are fairly formulaic, for example, so my final draft followed this outline exactly. Often, though, the actual shape of your final draft is very different from your original outline. In any case, this sort of outline can be useful at the beginning of the writing process.

It’s the second kind of outline I find most helpful, and I use it all the time during the writing process, when revising my own writing, or even when editing someone else’s writing. I’ll outline the same thing multiple times until I get it right. Why? Well, sometimes an article or chapter just doesn’t flow right, or it hints at an important point but never gets around to saying it outright. When I can’t put my finger on what’s wrong, I outline the problem passage. The purpose of this outline is to make sure I’ve actually communicated what I intended to communicate. To do this, I summarize every paragraph of my composition (or someone else’s) in one sentence each.

So, for example,

But imagination is not the opposite of reality or the enemy of truth. In fact, we do ourselves an enormous disservice when we ignore the imagination (whether intentionally or accidentally) and only develop the intellect. For the intellect is only half the equation. Imagination is the partner of the intellect. One is not more important than the other; they do different things. But because we have neglected the imagination, it deserves our special attention.

becomes something like

The imagination partners with the intellect to communicate truth, so we need to pay attention to the imagination.

I do this with every paragraph in the section or chapter I’m trying to make sense of. Then I put the sentences together in an outline:

Introduction

  • Faith is an act of imagination, and a healthy imagination is crucial to the Christian life.
  • Some disagree because the Christian faith is based on facts, and some believe imagination is antithetical to facts.
  • The Christian tradition has been focused for generations on demonstrating the reasonability of faith.
  • The imagination partners with the intellect to communicate truth, so we need to pay attention to the imagination.

I don’t trouble myself with whether or not the summary sentences are good writing. The goal is to see if the thoughts develop logically from one paragraph to the next. If they do, then the outline will reflect this. If they don’t, then the outline should show me where the problem is. This sort of outline helps me come up with good transitions between my paragraphs, because it forces me to ask how to get from point two to point three (for example).

This process helps me find clarity in my own writing—and in other peoples’—fairly regularly.

So I suggest you outline the way we vote in Chicagoland: early and often.

A Good Day of Writing?

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Very few writers like to be asked how “it’s going.” The question usually comes from well-meaning friends or family, and it is innocent enough. The person who asks it is showing interest (which writers like) and support (which writers need). And they very likely be would satisfied with an answer along the lines of, “Great, thanks.”

Nevertheless, questions about how the chapter/article/dissertation/blog post/conference paper is coming along sets us to wondering how to measure our progress. There’s the problem. Writing isn’t like hanging drywall or improving your golf swing or invading a country. There aren’t always (or usually) definable steps in the process by which the writer may measure his progress. If a deadline lies crouched around the corner or if, by some misfortune, the writer is trying to make a living by writing, then he probably asks himself constantly, Am I getting anywhere? The rest of the time, it’d just be nice to turn off the lamp at the end of the day able to say, “Look what I accomplished!”

So what does it mean to have a good day of writing? How do we know if we’re getting somewhere? Here’s a list:

Sometimes a good day of writing involves brainstorming, mind-mapping, outlining, or otherwise organizing your thoughts. Draft an outline. Jot down notes on a napkin. Think and doodle. You may not compose sentences or paragraphs. But this is real work.

Sometimes a good day of writing involves getting some of these thoughts on a piece of paper. There’s time later to worry about what order the words ought to go in. If you start with a blank white page and end the day with something—anything—on it, that’s a victory.

Sometimes a good day of writing results in clearly articulating a single important concept or thought. It’s not glamorous, but the most important part of writing is often finally being able to say what you mean. Maybe it’s the thesis you’ve been struggling to formulate, the payoff you’ve failed to make tangible, or the crucial connection you’ve been unable to articulate. If you finally pin one of these down, even if you walk away with only one good sentence, it’s a good day.

Sometimes a good day of writing is spent cleaning your desk. Or washing the car. Or mowing the lawn. Almost without fail, I do my best writing in my head while I’m doing something else. Then there follows a mad dash somewhere—to find a notebook or computer—to capture the words before they escape. The point is, sometimes a good day of writing doesn’t involve any “writing.”

Sometimes a good day of writing includes reading good writing that helps you find your voice. There are days when I feel like I have plenty to say, but by the time I try to put words to paper, they feel stilted and unnatural. Often the solution is to just keep writing; you can revise tomorrow. Other times the solution is to read someone who helps you speak naturally. True confession: when I sing along with “More Than a Feeling,” I feel like a rockstar. When I read Flannery O’Connor, I feel like a writer. Sometimes Sister Flannery (and others) give me the boost I need to speak for myself.

Finally, sometimes a good day of writing results in quantifiable forward progress: you type actual words—words that you like and may well keep—into your document and save them. These are good days. For me, these days usually follow several days like the ones described above: days spent doodling, turning out bad prose like beef through a meat grinder, slowly—slowly—pulling together clear, finely-tuned sentences here and there. Then there’s a rush of productivity when things finally fall into place, and I might compose several pages at a sitting.

Those are the days I like best, of course. But I’m learning to consider the other days good days of writing. That way when someone asks me how it’s going, I can say, “Great, thanks.”