Writing tools for thought (or food for your tool box?)

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, let’s just assume all of you remember what those tools were and, in a series of uncontrollable outbursts, begin shouting out:

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 ever.

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.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

imageThis has been an excerpt from Ned’s upcoming eBook, Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing: Pearls of writing wisdom from 16 years as a shucking columnist. 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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29 thoughts on “Writing tools for thought (or food for your tool box?)

  1. Very informative. And funny. My problem is I write the way I speak. (Only without having to hear the insults being yelled at me.)
    I try not to write too formal so I sound natural.
    But on the other hand I’m sure I come off as someone who ain’t got that writing thing too good.

    • Nothing wrong with conversational writing. I actually think it’s harder to pull off than formal-sounding writing because most people aren’t comfortable revealing themselves that way. And I don’t mean writing in the nude.

  2. Funny…I was just e-talking with a writer about this last night. Specifically, the use of the perfect word to describe an emotional or motivational state behind a person’s behaviour (or, egad, the subtext).

    For example:
    Gordon enters the room.
    Gordon inches into the room. (he’s reluctant or afraid)
    Gordon storms into the room. (he’s angry or bluffing)
    Alec shoves Gordon into the room. (he’s incredibly reluctant, almost rebelling)
    Gordon takes a deep breath and swings open the door. (he’s bracing himself)

    As I noted then, this might mean lengthening the first sentence (depending on the word or phrasing used), but it often means not having to add other sentences to add mood or motivation.

    Hunh…I think this may have been the first serious response I have made to something you’ve written.

    If I knew anything about timing and truth, I probably wouldn’t be divorced right now (phew, that feels better).

  3. I intend to be great after I die. So my blog has been written and my wife will enter my daily posts way until 2155. Life is like eating popcorn for the day. The bottom falls out and the gas is tremendous.

    • At the risk of sounding like self promotion, I am putting together an eBook-only version of writing tips based on my weekly “Nickel’s Worth on Writing,” or you can look through the archives on the blog. There’s also a great book called “The Elements of Style,” which is a classic but still gets to the meat of effective writing. It’s a small book, which in itself shows how well it works 😉

  4. I remember reading this about a year ago and it has shaped the way I write now. Looking back over my own posts, they have gotten noticeably shorter. Imagine if I had the gumption to go back and actually edit the ones that drone on and on….
    Thank you for always providing sage advice – I’m so happy to be back at my writing desk this weekend. Unfortunately, there appears to be a vulture rather than a raven perched here. It clearly smells like something has died on my neglected keyboard.

    • It’s great to know you’re back where you belong, Michelle. And I’m so glad this piece was helpful. It’s one of my favorites.

      And just so you know, my keyboard smells like that most days; I really need to stop eating at my desk.

  5. Even after managing to complete a few assignments of writing stories in only and exactly 50 and 270 words, I’m still learning about economy, not only for writing, but for regular every day talking. Given my natural, actual DNA profiled into my genes, manner of wordy-ish speaking, this could be that exercise that saves my brain from plaque-induced dementia. Or not. 😉

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