Thursday, March 28, 2013

Write Tight

The wise old guideline, “write tight,” means to cut extra words.

Write tight: Be concise.

Avoid wordiness.



Trim fat.

Remove jumble.

Cut off dead wood.

Declutter so your readers won’t get bogged down and give up on your book. As The Grammar Girl says, “Readers don’t want to rummage through a messy verbal flea market to discover one or two sparkly gems of information.”  

“Vigorous writing is concise,” says William Strunk, Jr. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

Joseph M. Williams says, “Some words are verbal tics that we use as unconsciously as we clear our throats,” words like actually, particular, really, certain, virtually, individual, basically, generally, and practically.

He gives this before-and-after example:

“Productivity actually depends on certain factors that basically involve psychology more than any particular technology.”

Williams offers this revision: “Productivity depends more on psychology than on technology.” (from Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace)

Remove redundancies such as: I repeated again, he shrugged his shoulders, John gave her true, accurate facts, Eliza served various different appetizers, Teddy ate each and every piece of chocolate.

Often (but not always) you can cut “that” from a sentence. Here’s an example: “I know that you are busy but I think that this is information that you need to know.”

"Prune out all the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: 'a bit,' 'a little,' 'sort of,' 'kind of,' 'rather,' 'quite,' 'very,' 'too,' 'pretty much,' 'in a sense,' and dozens more," writes William Zinsser. "They dilute both your style and your persuasiveness."

"Don't say you were a bit confused," Zinsser continues, "and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don't hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident." (On  Writing Well, Fourth Edition)

“Keep an eye on the verb ‘make’ when it us used in constructions such as ‘make a decision,’ ‘make a correction,’ and ‘make use of.’ Here’s an example of a bloated sentence:

“‘Seth Bullock will make a decision tomorrow about whether his calling is hardware or law enforcement.’

“Change ‘make a decision’ to ‘decide’ for a leaner sentence:

“‘Seth Bullock will decide tomorrow whether his calling is hardware or law enforcement.’” (from How to Write Clear Sentences, by The Grammar Girl)

What clutter would you remove from the following sentence? (Leave your revision in the comments section below.)

“My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” (Elmore Leonard)

Often “try to” is another phrase to delete; note the Leonard quote above and the following: “Try to recapture the wonder of being a child.”

How would you revise the next sentence? 

"The good thing about it is that it's one I can complete in fairly easy segments."

Look over your current manuscript. Read it aloud because your ears will hear what your eyes overlook. Then, cut out the clutter and tighten it up.

If you write tight, your readers will appreciate your story’s fast pace and clarity. Instead of stumbling over piles of words and phrases, they’ll focus on your message.

You’ll enjoy these additional articles on writing tight: Jody Renner on Uncluttered Prose (She includes before-and-after examples.)

How to Write Clear Sentences, by The Grammar Girl

At Sharon Lippincott's blog, agent Harry Bingham tells of cutting 70,000 words from a manuscript "to tease out the amazing story that lay buried within. The shorter and more focused the manuscript became, the more appealing it grew."

When you read a great book, 
you're reading an author 
willing to cut 
thousands of words.”  
Donald Miller

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Humbled, annoyed, and temporarily overwhelmed

This week I'm taking a break to work on our rapidly changing technology. Keeping up with it can be humbling for old folks like me.

And annoying.


It can cause tears and angst and lack of sleep.

Pray for me! (And may God forgive me for being grouchy.)

For now, though, I know you’ll enjoy visiting the blogs posted in the right column, below. They are packed with inspirational, helpful stuff for memoir writers.

C’mon back next week!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

“How many dead and gone women were in the kitchen with you?”

I opened my recipe files and was suddenly surrounded by all the dead women whose recipes I was using,” writes memoirist Marion Roach Smith. That was a scene from cooking in her kitchen. 

Then she turns to you and me: “How many dead and gone women were in the kitchen with you recently?”

Marion’s jolting, inelegant words remind me that my recipe files are packed with family-favorites from my grandma, my mom and her sisters, my mom’s cousin, my mother-in-law, and even a few men (and—ahem—most of them are still alive). 

Those recipes—so much more than 5” x 3” cards!—represent people intricately connected to me, folks who showed me how to live and love, dear ones whose lives nurtured mine. In turn, their lives have impacted my children and grandchildren. 

My grandma’s recipes, some in her handwriting, generate dozens of memories. I picture myself at my grandparents’ kitchen table eating dinner—roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, and Grandma’s creamed peas. She grew them in her garden out back behind the garage.

And—oh! I have memories of that garden! Grandma took me there one afternoon—I might have been four or five years old—and introduced me to sweet tender new baby peas right out of the pod. 

Recently I took my granddaughter to our garden and taught her to pop open a pea pod and eat those sweet little morsels right out of the pod. I told her the story of my grandmother doing the same with me, and I wondered aloud if she’d remember, as I’ve remembered all these years.

Grandma and I sat at her kitchen table, snapped open heaps of pods, and popped the peas into a saucepan, ready to cook for dinner after Grandpa arrived home from work. 

And perhaps for dessert we’d enjoy Grandma’s fudge pudding cake.

Memories: Countless dinners around my grandparents’ table, happy conversations, doing dishes with Grandma afterward, and always her merry but oh-so-soft laughter. 

I think of the gentle, devoted wife she was to my grandpa, the faithful, hard working mother she was to my mom and her sisters, and the loving grandmother and great-grandmother she was to us. 

Shy and humble, she was the heart of the family.

Looking back now, I see how like God she was: Never self-seeking, always living for others, slow to anger, compassionate, full of grace and mercy. 

My grandkids and their kids need to know about Grandma Mac. 

I want them to know the blessings they’ve received because of my grandma. 

I want them to know Grandma Mac’s DNA lives in their cells, that some of their likes and passions and longings—even their laughter—could be just like hers. I want them to know they can choose to live the way she did.

Marion Roach Smith asked how many dead and gone women are in the kitchen with us when we cook. My grandma passed away 25 years ago but, because of her love-infused involvement in our lives, she lives on in those of us who knew and loved her—and still miss her terribly.

Yes, when I use Grandma Mac’s recipes, she is with me in my kitchen. Her recipes remind me of her goodness, of the way she lived and loved. I hear her soft, gentle laughter, I see her smiling face—the most beautiful in the world. Her recipes can help me write stories for my grandkids and future generations.

What about you? Dig for your own treasures from old family recipes. Gather memories of people who shared them with you and then write your stories because:  

We all come from the past, 
and children ought to know what it was
that went into their making,
to know that life is
a braided cord of humanity
stretching up from time long gone,
and that it cannot be defined 
by the span of a single journey
from diaper to shroud.

Russell Baker, Growing Up

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Be a Storyteller, a guest post by Wayne Groner

This week we welcome author, editor, and writing coach Wayne Groner.
If you’re struggling to write your memoir, or to complete it, 
Wayne has a solution for you.

Today I’m guest posting over at Wayne’s blog. 
Click on over to Your Memories, Your Book.

Be a Storyteller Not a Writer
guest post by Wayne E. Groner

The Bible is the storytelling masterpiece of the ages; humans trying to make sense of their relationships with God and each other. It’s not likely these storytellers considered themselves writers; they were more interested in the larger meanings of their experiences and how those meanings would affect their children and grandchildren.

Today, writers have created thousands of books, classes, workshops, conferences, websites, and email newsletters to help you write your story. In group settings you benefit from questions and experiences of others and take home lots of handouts; armed with these, your own notes, and dozens of writing exercises, you are pumped to get the job done. Nothing like it was available to Bible writers—they were on their own to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit.

Still, it can be daunting for you to look at a blank computer screen or blank sheet of paper and wonder how to begin. After all your exposure to the writing world you may be thinking, I’m not a writer.

Delete that thought. Nobody knows what a writer is, except that it is someone who writes. Stop thinking of what you are not and focus on what you are as far as your memoir is concerned: a storyteller. Forget about the blank computer screen or blank sheet of paper. Instead, buy a hand-held digital voice recorder. Tell your story to the recorder and then transcribe and polish your story at your convenience.

That’s how I helped Dorsey Levell write his book, Dumb Luck or Divine Guidance, a history of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks where he was founding executive director for thirty-one years. We scheduled a series of weekly face-to-face interviews which I recorded, transcribed, and polished into a narrative that became the book. Dorsey is a great story teller and readily admits he is not a writer. People who read his book and know Dorsey say it’s like sitting across from him over a cup of coffee and listening to him tell a story—precisely what we were after. You can do the same kind of thing in writing your memoir.

Digital voice recorders come in many models and range in price from thirty dollars to $600. I’ve had my thirty dollar model for five years and it meets my needs quite satisfactorily. It has four file folders and can record up to 148 hours per folder, more time that I will need. I use long-life lithium batteries and keep spares handy. 

Many of my interviews with clients are by telephone, so I bought a recorder with a cable to transfer recorded interviews to my computer; no additional software is needed. I create a computer folder in which to save the recordings and name the folder for the project, usually the name of the client. The recorder automatically assigns a number to each recording which I to a date with key words. I limit the length of each interview to one hour for ease of managing and to be sensitive to a client’s time and energy. 

Transcribing from a recording is a chore for me; I prefer to use a professional secretary. A secretary can do in an hour what takes me three hours, enabling me to concentrate on writing the narrative. I email computer-saved recordings to a secretary who emails to me Word documents from which I draft a client’s memoir. You may choose to do your own transcribing.

A digital voice recorder is an excellent tool to help you tell the stories of your memoir. Instead of focusing on being a writer you can focus on being a storyteller.

Author, editor, and writing coach Wayne E. Groner is the credited ghost writer of Dumb Luck or Divine Guidance. He teaches a monthly library class on writing memoirs, biography, and family history. He blogs at Your Memories, Your Book.