Tools for thought… or food for your toolbox… or something like that

image A while back, I talked about three of the most important tools a writer wields when it comes to establishing their voice. Does anyone remember what they were?

For the sake of time and my feelings, let’s just assume the rest of you remember what those tools were and, in a series of uncontrollable outbursts, begin shouting out the following:

TIMING!

TRUTHFULNESS!

and…

CUERVO!

No, the third tool is RELATIVITY — not Cuervo. Even though I think we can all agree Cuervo does have a way of making even the most abstract things seem relevant.

In this case, however, Relativity means ensuring the reader can relate to what we’re writing about. This is especially true when it comes to personal experience and family anecdotes. For example, that hilarious story about how Aunt Frida got mad and stomped through the garden won’t be nearly as entertaining to readers as it is to you unless, like you, they already know Aunt Frida was a mule. I realize that’s an overstatement, but unless you take time to lay the foundation of your story in a way that involves the reader, they will likely sit down and refuse to follow.

As for Timing and Truth, they’re pretty self-explanatory. In a nutshell, Timing is the use of punctuation and sentence structure to create a rhythm that enhances your storytelling, while Truth is exactly that: writing about what you know and, whenever necessary, doing the research to educate yourself about a topic before presenting it to your readers. For example, when I wrote about the first wedding proposal in space, I prepared myself by going through NASA’s extensive astronaut training program.

OK, fine. But I did do my research before writing about how awful the food would be at a space wedding, with puree’d roast beef and cedar-plank salmon from a tube, and how throwing rice would be a big mistake since, thanks to zero gravity, the wedding party would spend the rest of the evening surrounded by clouds of floating rice. And how do you spike the punch when it’s served in a squeeze box?

Now that we’ve re-summarized those first three important writing tools, here are two more:

Vocabulary
Economy

Vocabulary seems straight forward, right? A knowledge of words. But more important than knowing a lot of words — or big words — is knowing the perfect words. Think of it as the care you put into choosing the words to express your love for someone. Or quite possibly while trying to get out of a speeding ticket. In either case, there’s a lot riding on your word selection. One wrong word, or too many of them, and you could find yourself in hand cuffs. (I realize for some of you that might be the objective in the first case, but just play along.)

Let’s take a look at the last sentence a few paragraphs ago, about educating myself at NASA. What if I had written it like this:

…when I wrote my column on the first person to propose in space a while ago, I learned about the subject by participating in the astronaut program at NASA.

Here’s what I went with:
…when I wrote about the first wedding proposal in space, I prepared myself by going through NASA’s extensive astronaut training program.

The breakdown:
1) “…when I wrote my column” versus “…when I wrote about…” In the second instance, I’m assuming you already know it’s “my column.” I wanted to avoid another “me” reference and also improve the flow.

2) “…on the first person to propose in space a while ago…” versus “…the first wedding proposal in space…” We all know it’s a person who is proposing since there has been no reference to aliens or talking animals, so I didn’t feel it was necessary to refer to “the first person” proposing. Instead, I went with “first wedding proposal in space” since the proposal is the subject. Now, if alien or talking dog proposals were common place, then yes, I would make sure to clarify it was a person proposing. Hopefully to another person and not a talking dog. And I chose to completely drop “a while ago” because it really doesn’t matter when I wrote it, and trimming it cleans up the sentence.

3) “…I learned about the subject by participating in the astronaut program at NASA” versus “…I prepared myself by going through NASA’s extensive astronaut training program.” To get to the action of this sentence, I dropped “learned about” and “by participating in” and combined it into “preparing myself by going through,” then moved “NASA” closer to the action as a way to bring those two images together much faster. From that point, I built on the satire by describing what I did as “extensive astronaut training.”

Are you having flashbacks from eighth-grade sentence diagramming? Sorry about that. I hope the breakdown was helpful in offering at least some insight into the thought process of choosing the right words or, if nothing else, why my daughter won’t let me anywhere near her book reports.

Our last writing tool, Economy, is directly related to Vocabulary because choosing the right word can often mean fewer words. Economy is big part of the revision process, when you take a hard look at what can be eliminated from the literary structure you have created while maintaining its integrity. While this isn’t as important in novel writing, it is critical for columnists, short story writers and journalists. Every story requires being as concise as possible by using an economy of words. Ironically, as I say this, I just realized the current word count makes this my longest post at Gliterary Girl.

Fortunately, Hypocrisy isn’t one of the tools we will be talking about today.

Alfred Hitchcock once said everything in a movie must have purpose and propel the story. If it doesn’t, it needs to be eliminated — which could explain the number of murders in his films. In short, when it comes to Economy, think of Alfred Hitchcock.

But probably not while you’re in the shower.

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications.)

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63 thoughts on “Tools for thought… or food for your toolbox… or something like that

  1. Your Friday posts on writing make me act like a kid in a candy store. So much to see, so much to grab and devour and I want to do it all at once!

    Your sugguestions around “word economy” were fantastic. One of the reasons your blog is so attractive (other than the promise of nakedness) is the concise way you deliver your message. Without getting into this too personally, shorter is definitely better, right? That’s an art I’m still working on–I’m a girl, so it takes a few more words (and pairs of shoes).

    Your notes on multiple “me” references were spot-on! Writing in the first person is where I’m most comfortable…but, the me’s, I’s and my’s are rampant! In fact, any writing exercises you have up your sleeves to help this nasty habit would be greatly appreciated 🙂
    Finally a note on relevance…

    “Even though I think we can all agree Cuervo does have a way of making even the most abstract things seem relevant”

    We could also agree that Cuervo has a way of making the most relevant things seem abstract. Tequila works just as well.

    • Thanks, Michelle! From personal experience, “economy” and “nakedness” go hand-in-hand, so you are absolutely right when you say smaller is better. And that’s all I have to say about that, other than, as a columnist, an economy of words is essential.

      When it comes to the “me,” ‘I” and “my” references, I think an NWOW about strategies on avoiding too many of those references would be a good one. Naturally, I’ll keep it short. That will give me more time for abstract thoughts about tequila… 😉

  2. One of my favorite English professor while at FIU said something that was also very important when we would pose the question as to how long out paper should be, his reply was simple:

    “It should be like skirt on a woman; long enough to cover the important things,while at the same time short enough to keep it interesting.”

    He then asked us to please not report him, lol.

    Great post by the way, I actually stopped myself from reading any further when you posed the question of what were the ” important tools a writer wields when it comes to establishing their voice.”

    I thought of Cuervo too..lol 🙂

  3. I’m pickin up what you’re puttin down… I know it bothers me when writers use the same descriptive words over and over… one of my favorite writers who appears to have finally gotten away from the word after her first couple of books was apparently in love with the world “stark”… he had stark blue eyes and her skin was a stark pale color and the sky was stark… seriously I didn’t know that word could be used for so many different things… it actually became extremely irritating… that’s why I always make sure to go through and find synonyms and what not or a knew way to phrase stuff… the english language is vase, we might as well use it…

    and now I want to watch Rear Window…

    • I’m always starkly surprised when I see that in authors. You’d think their editor would say, quite starkly, “Hey, enough with the stark already!”

      By the way, Rear Window is my absolute FAVORITE Hitchcock film, and one of my very favorite films period! I have seen it too many times to count. I got to see it on the big screen once, which was a bucket list item. The next one is to change my last name to “Stark.” 😉

      • I love talking to you… but I actually believe she’s self-published… which is no excuse… cause if she got anyone else to read it for her, they would’ve been like geez girl… new word… but who knows…

        and that might be the only Hitchcock movie I’ve seen… but hey totally random… sorta… have you ever seen Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid… I love Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe and so this movie just cracked me up…

        • Thanks, RG, and the same here 😉

          I’m a big Hitchcock fan because of his story telling skills. “Vertigo” is another favorite, but if you want a laugh, watch “The Trouble with Harry.” It proves Hitchcock had a sense of humor.

          And yes, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” is hilarious and very clever. Have you seen “The Lonely Guy?” Also hilarious and a little sweet.

  4. Pingback: More tools for thought… or food for your toolbox… or something like that | A drip of Truth

  5. I took a fast pass through your writing archives – until I found a naked guy. I thought I should come back here before I got in trouble.

    I recently had an editor recommend I change the fact that my main character “ran” across her front lawn to that she “scampered.” My MC is not a squirrel; she would never scamper. I like simple words when simple words will do. And Cuervo.

    • Always trust your instincts when it comes to naked people, even if you have to scamper. And I have to agree with you in regard to keeping words simple, especially when describing action. The same for quotes and dialogue tags. I can’t tell you how many press releases we get in that say something like, “All the money raised from selling mushroom caps will go to fight hallucinogenic drug rehab,” Sally offered.

      Offered what? More scones?

      Words like “said” and “ran” are invisible bridges that carry your reader to the next point, without thought.

      Kind of like Cuervo, I suppose.

  6. I love economy, essential for writers of flash fiction and shorts. It is not easy to tell a compelling tale with a beginning, middle, end; introduction, conflict, climax, resolution in 200 – 1000 words. When it’s done well, it’s fantastic.
    It’s one of the reasons I love the short story format. I find many novels (60K+) tend to repeat scenes, or add scenes that don’t move the story forward. It’s padding, nothing more.

    Hitchcock was right, and writers should heed his advice too.

    Great post, Ned!

    eden

    • I couldn’t agree more, Eden. I feel the best stories tell themselves within a given framework, and when extra scenes are added that don’t propel the story or provide new insight or information, then they don’t need to be there — and readers can tell. It’s the same with writing columns; you have to look at each paragraph as if it is a chapter. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, or if the information can be simplified and incorporated into an earlier paragraph, then it needs to go.

      Hitchcock was one of our greatest cinematic storytellers for a reason 😉

  7. Having suffered through a stack of ninth grade essays today, I can so relate to this post. One student used the word “This” to begin six of her sentences AND used the phrase “My personal view on my own reputation…” MY.MY.MY. My head hurts!

  8. My first day of college I tried out for the newspaper. They actually let me on, and I’ve been practicing brevity ever since. It’s something I admire in others as well. When something goes on too long before getting to the point I find myself scanning the middle sentences, which leads to eye rolling and “x” clicking.

    • I think for a lot of young writers, brevity is difficult because every word they write is “golden.” They tend to over-write, particularly with descriptions. Because I wrote a lot of short stories, making the transition to newspaper writing was easier for me. But I still had learn not to end quotes with things like, “…he said with no small amount of unbridled enthusiasm…”

  9. Great, inspiring post! Thanks a lot for sharing, you have given us a lot to chew on!
    All the best for 2014 –
    et riktig godt nytt år!
    The Fabulous Four,
    Dina

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