Posted: March 9th, 2012 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Articles, Entrepreneurship & Business, Writing Tips | Tags: editing, editing business, editing tips, freelance career, freelancers, FreelanceSwitch, working as an editor | Comments Off
Launching into a career as a freelance editor is relatively easy. Unlike our web and graphic design colleagues, editors can start working on their own without too much investment in expensive software or equipment.
There are the usual prerequisites of course: You need a staunch command of language and a natural grace with rational and creative discourse. A precision with words and an uncanny sense of good structure and narrative skills also helps.
Read how to get started as a freelance editor at FreelanceSwitch. Get advice on leveraging your experience, managing your clients, and promoting your editorial services. Also, add to your editor’s arsenal with a list of must-have tools and learn how to feed your creative muse.
Posted: February 15th, 2012 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Articles, Entrepreneurship & Business, Writing Tips | Tags: cashflow, freelancers, FreelanceSwitch, getting started, productivity, workflow management | Comments Off
Before I took the big entrepreneurial leap in 2010, I had always worked for a single employer. But you know how the story goes— suddenly the cubicle walls start to feel claustrophobic, the beck and call of the chain of bosses starts to grate, and you yearn for something, well, more inspired. You feel confident enough in your own skills and personal networks to leave the ‘system’ and start your own freelance business.
Ah, the sweet freedom of being an un-tethered freelancer… But there are downsides, too. At a job you don’t worry about the next paycheck if you slouch a little one week. But on your own, if you don’t produce, you don’t get paid. Every moment for a freelancer is precious.
So once you make the leap, what’s the best way to structure your new work life as a freelancer? Know that by “going indie” you’ll need to prepare yourself for the emotional roller coaster of running your own shop. The highs are higher— exhilarating and thrilling; and the lows are steep drops, where you battle self-doubt and worry about scoring the next project.
For a starter kit of essential productivity tips to get you grounded and organized as you make the transition to the exciting and unpredictable life of a freelancer, continue reading at FreelanceSwitch.
Posted: February 5th, 2012 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Cool, Writing Tips | Tags: breaking rules, Elmore Leonard, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, writing rules | Comments Off
“Rules?” you snort. “You can’t apply rules to writing. It’s a creative craft.”
Think of writing rules as guidelines rather than hard and fast commandments from some all-knowing writing deity. In fact, most rules reflect prevailing public opinion and artistic conventions of what constitutes good writing. And as we know, writing tastes change with time. They can also change depending on the form and context you are writing in.
Take the classic writing rule: “Show, don’t tell.” Nonfiction writers often resist this rule. It’s ingrained in their nature to balk when asked to tell the story of their book. They may look at their editors blankly and say, “It’s not a story because it’s nonfiction.” Or, they may spin a series of colorful anecdotes and think that a list of storied episodes sufficiently makes a book.
Both of these viewpoints lose sight of the creative possibility of subverting or following a cardinal rule.
Nonfiction can benefit from many storytelling devices. Sure, there are some that definitely don’t work: made-up facts and dialogue are a big no-no, no matter how trivial. You also can’t attribute motivations of the people you include in your nonfiction piece without solid, factual evidence– sourced facts that are carefully laid out on the page. Speculation in nonfiction is acceptable insofar as you make sure your readers know these thoughts come from you.
Still, narrative techniques work in several instances for nonfiction. Readers know a good story when they read one. They want to read a good story. Writers should present their subject matter in a way that moves from a beginning to a middle to an end, and makes the reading experience more seductive, even if no dramatic elements like dialogue are used.
In effect, you can “tell” a story– breaking the rule– and introduce good narrative tension– following the rule– even when the book is not structured as a story.
Here’s an example I made-up:
It was a trip to the capital the group of young economists embarked on with trepidation but also excitement. For years, the local authorities had ignored their policy recommendations, choosing instead to go with politically expedient solutions from business cronies. Dr. Salazar remembers the bright, cold December morning when the Secretary of Commerce rang him up. A plane had been arranged to ferry him and fellow University economists to see the President. “Please come at once,” the Secretary said over the phone. The line crackled with his voice. It was less a plea than a staunch command. The three professors cancelled their classes for the semester, packed their suitcases, and were on a red-eye flight that evening.
The writer here is ‘telling’ the story rather than ‘showing’ it in the conventional sense, but it serves the purpose of propelling the historical account along with some much-needed narrative tension.
All rules have at one point been broken by a slew of writers. You’re not alone when you bristle in reaction. But don’t break rules for the sake of anointing yourself an anti-establishment, rebel with a pen.
As a writer, you may be looking for interesting and adventurous ways to subvert the writing rules, but there’s a fine line between excusing yourself from good form and practice, and transcending rules in some focused and illuminating way. Break the rules with style.
Breaking a ‘rule’ strategically can pull your readers into a story in unusual ways, so practice with care. Put a harness on convention and see where you can drag it. Practice in small doses, and see how it changes your narrative.
Below are timeless rules by several well-known auteurs.
Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules of Writing:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that they will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character they can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the plot.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
How to Write With Style by Kurt Vonnegut:
1. Find a subject you care about.
2. Do not ramble.
3. Keep it simple.
4. Have guts to cut.
5. Sound like yourself.
6. Say what you mean.
7. Pity the readers.
George Orwell’s 6 Rules for Writing:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing:
1. Never open a book with the weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the parts the readers tend to skip.
And of course, the classics:
1. Show, don’t tell.
2. Avoid too much backstory when introducing characters.
3. Write what you know.
4. Don’t lecture your readers.
5. Pace your narrative with action.
Kurt Vonnegut’s lectures on writing are illuminating. Here’s his discussion on the ‘shapes of stories’, great advice (to heed or flout!) for crafting the narrative arc in both your nonfiction and fiction pieces:
And for more gloss on the visuals, read Austin Kleon’s “Graph a Story with Mr. Vonnegut“.
Posted: January 23rd, 2012 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Entrepreneurship & Business, Writing Tips, social media | Tags: business, business idea, business strategy, emotional connections, manifestos, marketing strategy, social enterprise, SocialEarth, storytelling, storytelling techniques, target market, telling a good story, writing, writing tips | Comments Off
(Note: This post was originally written for SocialEarth.org.)
Socially responsible enterprises thrive because they are able to move people to change. How do they do this? By tapping into the emotional connections that inspire.
Stories act like catalysts to action. Businesses should take note.
In the old, business-as-usual paradigm of getting information across about your business, think of the familiar tools you’ve used: Powerpoint presentations, jargon-laden bullet point lists, sterling but stale reports and policy briefs, manifestos that are intellectually seductive, though emotionally hollow. What do they have in common? These are tools and techniques that convey information but don’t do much else for your cause. Numbers are the lingua franca of business, but I argue that much more can be gained in adding storytelling strategies to your campaigns.
Companies that are focused on a business idea that solves a social or environmental problem, or are trying to make a change in the communities around them have one thorny obstacle to overcome: the inertia of indifference and getting buy-in from your market. Your target market has to care enough to use your products or services not because you tell them it’s good for them and the community around them, but because they feel moved at some level to do business with you.
What Businesses Can Learn from Writers
Social enterprises can improve the way they do business by focusing on good storytelling– in their marketing and promotional campaigns, in the way they give people glimpses of their ventures, and in how they interact with customers or clients. Storytelling humanizes your business. A good story connects your business to your target market in a very visceral and potent way.
At Night Owls Press, we make it our mission to help small businesses and organizations tell those stories that inform, motivate, and inspire.
Why should a business care about telling a good story? Stories are what make up our lives. They make us feel connected, alive. They provide the material that moves people to act. As an editor, I always tell authors I work with that their first job is to get their works read. No self-respecting writer should dismiss the value of readership.
It’s the same in business. Don’t dismiss the value of reaching out to your clients, your employees, and the community around you. If people are inspired and compelled by your story, then they will want to know more about you and your company. By exploiting that intrinsic love of a good yarn, many businesses can start forming that invaluable base of followers, clients, fans, and admirers.
Constructing a good story and compelling narrative isn’t rocket science, though it often makes people nervous. “I’m not a writer,” they say. How do you get started? Read the rest of our article at SocialEarth.org.
(Images: Jill Clardy and Casey David)
Posted: January 19th, 2012 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Writing Tips | Tags: Adaptation, interviewing, observation, people-watching, procrastination, research, Susan Orlean, writing tips | 1 Comment »
In college, I used to procrastinate doing my English literature papers by reading. This sounds weird, I know. I would read literary criticism about the particular work I was trying to deconstruct and even biographies about the author and his or her life. I would circle around that 10-page report by taking copious notes that I would never use, and getting lost in loosely-related commentary. I convinced myself that I was ‘working’ even as deadlines loomed and the stark whiteness of an empty page blinkered back at me.
The Writer’s Old Foe Becomes a Friend
But I’ve realized over the years that this kind of procrastination that fills the empty void when writer’s block strikes can actually be extremely useful— if used and manipulated well.
You just have to be savvy about it.
Sometimes it helps to disengage from the words on the page and step outside. People-watching for fiction writers, for example, can be extremely useful. Writers can take note of quirky human interactions and behavior— perfect fodder for endless stories and character sketches.
Nonfiction writers, too, have much to learn from observation. There are nuances in manners and speech that lend telling details to your interviews or character profiles. Simple factual statements come to life with a revelatory description of action and expression.
In fact, nonfiction writers often forget the remarkable relationship between words, characters, and landscapes. As an editor, not only do I check for flow in the prose, but also in the details. Does the character, voice, and environment feel disjointed the way the writer described it?
Chinua Achebe’s essay, “English and the African Writer” offers a stark example of how words affect character and setting. In one version:
“The Chief Priest is telling of one of his sons why it is necessary to send him to church: ‘I want you to be my eyes. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a Mask, dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying, ‘Had we known…tomorrow.’”
Now compare the Chief’s statement with this stripped-down version:
“I am sending you as my representative among those people—just to be on the safe side in case the new religion develops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man’s way may well regret their lack of foresight.”
Achebe points out that the first example grounds the character in his respective time and place, while the second merely conveys messaging. The gist is the same, but the experience for the reader is not. Which feels more authentic?
Take some time to procrastinate—use the break to play hooky. Read a few books. Watch the world around you.
Procrastination can be essential to rejuvenating your creative side. Coffee shops and restaurants are great places to people watch. Don’t just note appearances, but take stock of behavior, interaction, eye contact, and gestures. Do they look distracted? Serene? How do they speak to others? Trying to figure out why someone is the way they are can lead to amazing character breakthroughs and creative behavioral tags for your dialogue. Just don’t be creepy about it.
Finally, there’s an added bonus to taking your spy missions around town. Learning how to be a keen, fly-on-the-wall observer offers great training for interviews and fieldwork for your books or feature articles.
An aside. Last night, I put on an old favorite movie of mine, Adaptation. In the movie, a screenwriter named Charlie Kauffman (played by Nicholas Cage) struggles to adapt a book, The Orchid Thief. What struck me was that Cage’s character reaches his biggest writing breakthrough when he decides to take a clean break from writing and takes off on a crazy mission to meet in person the book’s author, Susan Orlean (played wonderfully by Meryl Streep). Meta-writing, post-modern craziness ensues.
In the movie, we also observe Orlean meeting with John Laroche, the subject of her book that Kauffman is trying to adapt. Orlean dives deep into her character study by hanging out with Laroche, going around with him in his beat-up van, even accompanying him on a swamp hunt for the elusive ghost orchid. In one scene, she’s covered in mud, exhausted, flummoxed by his brusque manner, but at the same time endlessly fascinated with Laroche, too. As she interviews him, he tells her about his passion for orchid hunting and shares stories from his childhood, even personal tragedies. Soon, these personal confessions start to resonate with Orlean’s own personal experiences and thoughts about life.
This interaction becomes even more affecting when we see Orlean at a dinner party. Her husband starts to describe Laroche for the guests (“no front teeth”, “lack of hygiene”, etc.), a caricature of the orchid hunter that evokes guffaws and snickers from the guests.
Orlean at this point has gotten up and excuses herself to go to the bathroom. She overhears the details— they are all accurate of course, just the way she had described them, but something’s off somehow. They ring untrue and from the pained look on Meryl Streep’s face, the audience realizes she’s betrayed some part of herself. Laroche has been made an object of disdain and mockery, removed from context as the sensitive, complex person Orlean has gotten to know. Unless you’re writing a satire or parody, it’s the epitome of literary or journalistic treachery: dishonesty with character and context.
The moral of the story is that observation matters. Spend less time worrying about being a bad writer when you procrastinate and more time immersing yourself in the world around you when you do— either through research or observation.
(Image: Brandon Dubois)
Posted: December 28th, 2011 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Nonfiction books, Writing Tips | Tags: editing, memoirs, personal reflections, personal writing, Virginia Woolf, writing tips | 3 Comments »
In recent days, several inquiries into our Become an Author program on Night Owls Press has centered around memoirs and other autobiographical writing. Personal writing can be one of the most challenging genres of nonfiction simply because the author is faced with how to render personal, first-hand experiences to readers in an interesting and engrossing way.
In fact, the personal story can quickly become dangerous quicksand for writers. Newbie writers will often fixate on declarative writing, the kind that starts off with a lot of “I feel”, “I am”, and “I did this” and so on. They approach their personal narratives and experiences like they were giving a speech, rather than reaching out to readers by conveying something palpable and immediate. The authorial voice used in so many of these problematic first-person accounts is one that speaks too directly to the reader.
The fundamental issue is that we assume that the reader is interested in what we have to say at face value. It’s the “So what?” question that hovers over the most delicately rendered memoirs, personal stories, and accounts.
Unless you’re Steve Jobs or some other icon or celebrity, it’s going to be hard to keep your audience engaged with what you have to say just by saying it. The question you should always ask yourself as you write is, “Why should the average reader care about what I have to say?”
To get a better idea of this, take a look at one of the most memorable quotes by Steve Jobs from his 2005 Stanford commencement speech: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” The line is starkly powerful and compelling, right? I listen to this speech and it always gives me the goose bumps. Now, imagine your Aunt saying that line. It rings differently. Now, it’s no longer an inspiring statement that pricks your side and makes you tingle. No, it’s just been rendered another cliché that barely makes you shrug. People like Steve Jobs can inspire audiences just by telling others what they think, reciting experiences in a straightforward way— but the rest of us have to do much better.
Just because we experience something that’s deeply moving and personal doesn’t mean that others will feel the same way about it. It’s an inevitable bias that’s hardwired in our sense of self, which is naturally on display with personal writing.
Try something different: Don’t just write the story— render the experience for your readers.
This involves describing your experience in a way that transcends that experience— so that your readers can relate. Because really, they couldn’t care less about you— not yet anyway (and for many writers the cult of personality is a dream never realized). Focus on the writing instead. Good personal writing found in compelling memoirs and stories is the kind that doesn’t make the writer the sole subject of the work.
“The writer sees, questions, reads, searches, observes, concedes, wonders, and above all thinks…The nonfiction writer is a conveyor, a medium, and a lens.” – Rebecca Blevins
Share the experience, not the ego with your readers. It’s about them experiencing the world through your eyes.
Virginia Woolf, one of my favorite writers, was subversive for her time because she dared to write about domestic life from the perspective of a woman. In Mrs. Dalloway, she wrote about protagonist Clarissa Dalloway’s simple plan to buy flowers, and deftly turned it into an audacious interior drama— this one day in a person’s life.
Remember, it may be nonfiction but you still need to be a storyteller.
By writing your life stories as a storyteller would (yes, nonfiction writers should steal from the fiction writer’s playbook), you maintain the intimacy of personal writing, while evoking the momentum and drama that usually rivets fiction readers.
Here are three questions writers should ask themselves to improve their autobiographical work:
- What was it about these particular events that led me to write about them over other events in my life? Be specific with what was compelling for you because it’s also what will be compelling for your readers.
- What seems essential in my narrative and what’s secondary? Essential elements should frame the beginning of your stories in some way, rather than stay buried in the middle of your account.
- What makes these things essential? Details of your personal narrative are the pieces that have emotional weight or resonate in some way beyond the basic documentary telling. These can be details that illuminate character, setting, or weave narrative tension in your writing.
(Image: Spreng Ben)
Posted: December 18th, 2011 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Nonfiction books, Writing Tips | Tags: ideas, memoirs, personal essays, writing tips | Comments Off
Last week, my sister and I were brainstorming plot twists for a children’s book we are planning to write and produce together— and it got me thinking about one of the greatest single questions asked of writers: How do you get your ideas?
This is an especially thorny question for nonfiction writers of personal essays or memoirs.
If only it were as easy as going to an ‘Idea Depot’ and having a team of brawny guys in orange suits driving forklifts and delivering a big crate of ideas to your car. Hmm. Novel-in-a-box?
But alas, it’s usually not this easy— and coming up with an idea for a personal story that excites you and your readers can be an exhausting exercise for both new and veteran writers.
But prospecting for ideas like a gold miner doesn’t have to involve staring agape at a blank age until your eyes bleed. Here’s one secret to tap into rich writing material: Try plumbing your experiences for moments or turning points that confounded you and made you twitchy.
You know what I mean. We’ve all experienced those troubling moments when people ask us seemingly innocent questions about our lives or something in our past. We become curt, even evasive, and quickly change the subject. It can be questions, like “What was it like growing up in a small town in the middle of nowhere?” or “How did it feel to go to college near home rather than in New York?” or “Why did you stay in that horrible relationship for so long?”
Questions like these bring up fuzzy, though not necessarily painful experiences we wish to gloss over because we can’t quite pinpoint them in our minds, or because they were emotionally grueling or embarrassing. Why were they so difficult? When we reminisce, we often evade dwelling on these memories for too long. Well, how come? It may sound like self-administered psychoanalysis a bit but plumbing this part of ourselves can provide the right conditions for developing and finding a unique personal story to tell.
It’s ironic: sometimes it’s easier to recall painful memories (in a kind of excoriating therapy), and much more difficult to tackle memories that make us merely uncomfortable. Well, try tackling those gray-zone experiences. Accessing this part of you can be brilliant— and brave— writing fodder.
“You have entered rich territory for your writing. It doesn’t matter what the question is so much as how it hits you, and if it hits you in the deepest part of yourself, at the intersection of memory and misgiving, of Private Property and No Trespassing signs…” – Madeleine Blais
The rush of misgivings and ambiguity is a potent combination for creative writing inspiration. It begs the question: Why do I feel this way? You can spend a chapter or even an entire book pondering this, exploring your past, and how these certain experiences have shaped who you are as a person.
(Image: Daniele Marlenek)
Posted: December 18th, 2011 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Nonfiction books, Writing Tips | Tags: book introductions, editing, nonfiction, writing model | Comments Off
One of the great joys of being an avid reader is book browsing, whether at the local library or indie bookshop on the corner, or even on our Kindle or iPad, skimming through the free sample previews.
As an editor working with nonfiction authors, I’m keen on watching how potential book buyers relate to a book. They’ll flip to the inside flap or the back of the book, read the summary and the book blurbs. If that passes their taste test, then they move on to the inside of the book— and most likely they’ll turn to the introduction.
Ah, the book introduction. This is the writer’s golden chance to hook the reader.
So what do nonfiction readers look for in a good introduction? They want answers to three questions:
- What is the book about?
- Why did the author want to write the book?
- How will this book enhance the topic? (or what is the author trying to say that is new and interesting to the reader about this topic?)
Introductions for nonfiction books should generally employ the language of exposition, rarely argument, and almost never narrative.
Many writers think that jumping into the middle of a scene or telling an anecdote is the best way to hook a reader. That’s fine for magazine articles and features, but for books, it’s best to get down to the real business— telling your nonfiction reader what they will learn and gain from reading your book. Cast your narrative spells and write your stories in the opening chapter (chapter 1) of your book. But for the introduction, here’s what you do:
If you must start with an anecdote or a story, keep it pithy and write about how you came to the book’s topic. Was it a grand revelation? An epiphany after an arduous struggle? A simple realization? Did you read a small footnote in another book that set you on your investigative journey? Was it a personal encounter with someone? These kinds of stories should entice readers with their revelations.
After this quick taste of your narrative skills, jump right into the business at hand: What the book is about and what the reader’s payoff will be.
A writing mentor once told me not to be shy about “spilling the beans”. She scolded, “Don’t be coy.”
Your introduction shouldn’t be a coy, come-hither flirtation with the reader, but a full-on amorous strike. Writers might think, “Oh, I’d like to give them a little teaser of the book and not give too much away.” In reality, this obfuscation is a big reader turn-off. An introduction that boldly states its thesis is more provocative than an introduction that insists on half-revelations.
Readers— serious readers who are thinking of buying your book— are not really concerned about the ‘ending’. This may be an issue with fiction readers, but not so much with nonfiction readers. Nonfiction readers are more interested in how an inevitable ending came to be. Boldly state what your book is about to entice readers.
One writer I admire for his plain but fiery introductions is Malcolm Gladwell. He hits it on the head with the Tipping Point:
“The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into best-sellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth or any number of other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do…
Three characteristics—one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment—are the same three principles that define how measles moves through a grade-school classroom or the flu attacks every winter. Of the three, the third, epidemic, trait… is the most important, because it is the principle that makes sense of the first two and that permits the greatest insight into why modern change happens the way it does. The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point.”
Gladwell laid it bare like a sunbather on a nude beach— and the reader is more enticed to read the rest of the book, to go through the vibrant case studies and examples illustrating his bold premise.
So go on, spill the beans, and hook your readers.
Posted: December 11th, 2011 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Writing Tips | Tags: art of the edit, editing tips, outlines, writing tips | Comments Off
If you scoff at having an outline to write to, you might consider the prospect of finding yourself in a continual loop: writing and writing and writing— until you get it right.
Sure, somewhere in the drone of words you’ve written in your burst of creativity, you’ll eventually find your story. It’s buried in there somewhere. Once you find your narrative thread, it turns into a chase. You pursue the story like a wrangler, your lasso going for the errant bull who kicked its way out of the herd. Outlines simply make it easier to write.
Think of it as a roadmap.
Unless you’re freewriting in your journal, you want to write with some sense of purpose and direction. A roadmap for your writing disciplines you and keeps you on the right path. You don’t have to stay on the main road all the time. It doesn’t even have to be a paved road. But at least you’ll know where you’re going and you can choose the best places to wander to. The goal of having an outline is not to handcuff you but to prevent you from wandering aimlessly— which may go counter to the reckless joy of writing, but it will prevent more headaches later on. Particularly when you start editing and revising.
Planning before you write provides you freedom with guidance.
As a writer you shape the reader’s experience. Yeah, it’s kind of like you’re the reader’s enlightened despot or philosopher king. Readers look to you to guide them.
Outlines will also provide you a helicopter view of where your story is going and they let you see how all the disparate parts fit together. Like a composer, you’ll want to have a beginning, middle, and an end. This doesn’t mean you can’t start in the middle of your story. Or, play the cinematic trick of putting things out of order. But the internal narrative flow should still be there for your readers. They are trusting you to provide it. Even jazz musicians who improvise still follow a dominant motif or theme. That motif provides the organizational logic to even the most creative and freewheeling riff.
Trust me. Even your readers who love abstract art, adore the postmodern novel with all its literary tricks and parallelisms, eat pancakes for dinner and steak for breakfast—will appreciate having a structure they can follow. At the end of reading your article or book, no matter how cleverly a-linear you may have written it, readers should be able to summarize the story to their grandmothers.
Here are several ways to inject order into your story without compromising your love for improvisation and discovery when you write:
1. Locate the story over 3-5 main events.
3-5 events is arbitrary. I like odd numbers because I think there’s a lovely symmetry to them, but you can decide the number according to the work in question. Think of these events as the main parts of the story— parts you would be telling friends if you were to give a synopsis over happy hour.
2. Make another list of supporting events.
Supporting events deepen what you have in the first list. They provide the backstory or background material to each main event.
3. Play with the order and the cause-and-effect of your main and secondary events.
Time is linear but the experience of time and events for people is not. What’s the most creative and relevant way to tell your story? Do you want to start in the middle of some pivotal moment and then build the backstory later?
Then, commit to your structure. This means that once you have your pieces in place you’ll want to make sure that each event builds to the next.
4. Identify (roughly) your beginning, middle, and end.
Draw lines through your outline to separate the main sections on your list. Ideally, you draw lines at points where the story shifts and pivots, where there is a natural break in the narrative tension for your reader. This is also a great way to divide longer works, like long form articles and books, into chapters.
By the laws of complex narratives, you may have more than one beginning, middle, and end. That’s fine. But it’s an important exercise as a writer to be able to identify these pivotal junctures in your narrative before you write. This way you can see where you’ll need to change the pacing, add a scene that sets up the ‘big reveal’ or climax, and so forth.
Look! Now you have an outline. Tack it to your wall and see how much easier the words flow when you sit down and write. Want more ideas on how to organize your writing? Read Two Pre-Writing Techniques: Outline vs. Sketch.
(Image: Helena Dagmar)
Posted: December 10th, 2011 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Writing Tips, in-house publication | Tags: advice, art of the edit, editing, revising, writers, writing | Comments Off
The images of writers sitting at their desks have always fascinated me. Nabokov fiddled with his index cards. Ernest Hemingway in his no-frills style had a pack of cigarettes by his typewriter. Flannery O’Connor balanced a lap desk on her knees.
These are romantic, but deceptive tableaus. Why? Because they never show what every writer or editor has to deal with literally and metaphorically around them and on the page.
There’s the literal mess: Piles and landfills of notebooks, Post-It notes, and books mixed in with an array of digital devices like iPhones, Kindles, and iPads. It’s a cacophony of material. All this detritus carries our ideas, umpteenth drafts, outlines, and somewhere (we like to believe) a masterpiece that will be published.
All the good writers I know are curators and collectors, hoarding stacks of books from the library, articles on their LongRead or InstaPaper lists, and stories from other writers they admire. There’s always the earnest hope that if we read, collect, digest, and chew enough, then we can absorb all the information we need through some kind of mystical osmosis.
And then, miraculously, it all comes flowing out in brilliant, Pulitzer-worthy prose. Sigh. If only…
Then there’s the metaphorical mess: Writers like to go off on tangents. They write and write— even without starting a piece. I’ve seen a writer draft an outline for a 1,500 feature article that went on and on for pages. Many first drafts are often just word dumps of facts and observations on paper, with little cohesion. In their exuberance, many writers want to get everything down.
So how do you cut a swath through this bountiful muck and come up with a tincture of clear, elegant prose? Through painstaking editing, of course. In fact, I think the real writing comes in the revising.
You might think, “Well, that’s usually what my editor is there to do.” But editing doesn’t have to be a separate, post-mortem type of process that’s tacked on at the end. It can be integrated right into how you already write.
Start editing at the very beginning. That’s the secret. Here’s one way to do it:
1. Write like a banshee.
“What?” you ask? Yes, just write. Write it out like a good crying fit. Don’t be too self-conscious. No one’s watching at this point. Silence the inner critic and tell yourself, this is just your first draft. It’s almost always going to be drivel. Hemingway, father of the muscular, stripped-down prose, said, “The first draft of anything is sh*t.” Embrace the sludge that generally comes forth, and write everything down.
2. Take a break. Relax.
Leave your writing cave and go outside. You’re like a diver entering a decompression chamber to get rid of the nitrogen that has been building up in your blood stream for days. Writing haze detox, I call it. Forget about what you wrote. This is a cooling off period that’s essential to letting a work settle. That is to say, you, as the writer, need to escape a bit, so that when you return to the work, you’ll have gained some distance and objectivity. Some writers treat their work like precious children. This creates creativity-stifling attachments. Get over it and leave the computer. If you suddenly come across a brilliant image, turn of phrase, new opener— save these ideas in a separate file. Leave that first draft alone.
3. Edit and revise: 1st Round.
Return to your work with new eyes. Address the major issues first: Is this piece as a whole structurally sound? Does it have a beginning, middle, and an end? Do I have good transitions from section to section? Does it flow and lead the reader toward a clear and logical conclusion? Is the angle and viewpoint you’ve taken a sound one or does it need to be changed? Was there enough background material? Is there a compelling point to this story that needs to be drawn out more?
At this stage, your draft may be like a run-down house you see at the end of the block. It might need major demolition, but it has potential. And no matter how good you are with phrasing or imagery, it will all be garish paint without good structure. This is the point where you fix these big picture problems and deepen your writing.
4. Edit and revise: 2nd Round.
Return to your work with a machete and start cutting away extraneous material. This is the stage where you start honing and streamlining the verbiage. You’ll find that you’ve rambled and were overly heavy-handed with description that goes nowhere. Your draft is probably a garden of weeds at this point and it’s time to do some selective culling. After the carnage (yes, it will be painful and bloody), you’ll be left with a solid draft where your subject is clear and well-presented. A reader who stumbles on this draft will still catch some mistakes and awkward phrasing here and there, but overall, it should fairly stand reader scrutiny. Now it’s time for some serious editorial scrutiny.
4. Edit and revise: 3rd Round (hang in there).
Here, you’ll focus on stylistic matters. How does that opening paragraph read? The opening you start with is rarely the opening that ends up in publication. You’re often myopic when you write, writing so that you only see a few feet at a time in front you. But now you’ve seen the piece in its entirety and have a better idea about where the ‘real story’ begins. It may be a couple paragraphs down or a few pages in. Try to find that compelling image or quote to enliven your opening.
Check again your transitions— the endings of paragraphs should complement the beginnings of successive paragraphs. Writing is building. It’s construction work. Grunt work. Ideas and paragraphs reflect that, and when done well, they build to a crescendo.
Finally, check your pacing. Does the piece move too fast in some sections and slow to a crawl in others? Pacing is often a product of sentence length and paragraph density. Sentence variety affects pacing and the reader’s experience. Punctuate long sentences with short pithy ones. If you must have a long sentence (more than 20 words) with several clauses (maybe you’re doing it for stylistic reasons or dramatic effect) limit it to a single idea. Same with paragraphs. Don’t make the writing too dense with big blocks of text.
5. Copyedit and proofread.
Time to switch to the fine-toothed comb and check your sentences line-by-line for grammatical mistakes and spelling errors. Don’t just rely on Spellchecker. You’ll often miss words that are spelled right but are completely inappropriate (for example, I’ve seen “pubic” instead of “public” on a draft). Free your work from passive sentence constructions and switch out all those ‘to be’ verbs with active, brawny verbs.
6. Have someone else read it.
Now it’s time to deal with your writing blind spots by submitting your work to an editor who can read your draft with fresh eyes. Human error will inevitably leave its mark. An errant typo. A clumsy section. An editor can provide just the right alchemy to transform your piece.
7. Stop tinkering.
Writing can be a notoriously inscrutable process in the sense that there’s no right or wrong way to write. There’s also no right or wrong moment to stop editing a piece. At some point, you’ll usually have to stop revising because you have a deadline looming over your head but otherwise some writers can work on a piece over and over again ad nauseam. Don’t fall into the black hole of perfectionism. Trust your judgment and learn to let go. You’re done. Leave the computer and go outside. Hopefully, the sun is shining. Celebrate.
I’ve been inspired to write this post because we are so excited to be working with freelance writer/editor Stacy Ennis, one of our new Author Partners we just signed up! Stacy will be writing about her own “art of the edit” perspective for aspiring nonfiction book authors. The book is expected February/March 2012.
(Photo credits: acb, statuelibrtynps, and Tim Norris)