I’d like to thank the American Dental Association for sponsoring this week’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing, which brings me to a startling statistic: 4-out-of-5 dentists have never recommended or even heard of this blog. The fifth dentist only heard about it when, moments after my lips went numb, I was trying to say “Ben Roethlisberger’s lob” and he thought I said “Ned’s worthless blog.” Regardless, there are many similarities between keeping a fresh feeling to your writing and avoiding gingivitis. So think of me as your “literary orthodontist” as I take you through a quick writer’s check-up. Please remember I don’t have a saliva vacuum…
A good dentist will tell you it’s important to floss between meals, and will demonstrate its importance by flossing for you during your visit. That’s unless he also happens to be your proctologist, in which case I’d like to welcome you to the National Health Care Plan.
As writers, we need to “floss” regularly in order to keep tarter — in the form of over-used or cliche’ words and descriptions — from building up in our writing. During an initial draft, particularly in novel writing, the objective is to get your thoughts, ideas and general direction down on paper. If inspiration strikes during a descriptive passage in your first draft, great! But if you’re like the rest of us, and you end up with a description like “Her skin was as smooth as a baby’s bottom wrapped in a silk diaper,” acknowledge it for the tarter that it is and know you will floss it out later. If you already take this approach, then give yourself a sticker. Oh heck… take a pencil, too!
The problem occurs when we allow ourselves to fall into a pattern of last-minute writing and editing, leaving little or no time to floss. Unless this pattern is recognized and reversed, the tarter builds until, one day while sitting across from an editor or publisher, you open your mouth to discuss your manuscript and notice a distinct odor. At that point, discreetly flossing is no longer an option. Even with one of those little, single-use flossers I’m always finding in the parking lot.
Try this helpful tip: Think of the first draft as an open mouth, with one of those shoe horn-type devises jammed in there to reveal the teeth of someone who just ate at The Rusty Donkey’s all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet…
Sorry. That analogy seemed more helpful in my mind. The point I was trying to make is that, no matter how unpleasant and time consuming, it’s important to recognize the need for “flossing” each sentence, paragraph and page of your writing to get rid of tarter-like cliche’s and reveal those pearly whites that shine with inspiration. (Did I mention Colgate is also a sponsor today?)
As E.L. James’ dentist would say, “A good flossing should always be followed by a good spanking.” The same goes for the rest of us, except that our dentists would recommend a good brushing instead. The same applies to writing. Yes, even when there’s spanking involved. What I mean by this is that I should probably get a good lawyer before I am sued by E.L. James. It also means, just like maintaining good oral hygiene, the next step after a good flossing is brushing. In this case, it means going back over things now that the “tarter” has been cleared away. That’s when potential problems — gaps, looseness or even the need for an extraction — can be recognized while thoroughly brushing through what you’ve written. Use a firm brush, not a soft one. If you do it right, there should be a little “bleeding” involved as you make some tough decisions and acknowledge flaws.
If there’s a lot of blood, you may want to switch to softer genre.
Gargle and rinse:
This isn’t actually another tip. I just figured, after my unfortunate “think of your first draft as an open mouth” analogy, some of you may still be sitting there, motionless, with drool pooling in your mouths. It just seemed like a good opportunity for you to take care of that before someone notices.
Ok, actually there is something to be said about gargling when it comes to your manuscript. Just like gargling regularly with your favorite mouth wash — Scope, Listerine, Fireball cinnamon whisky — should be a part of your daily oral hygiene ritual in order to maintain freshness and prevent decay, a final “gargling rinse” should follow “flossing” and “brushing.” The truth is, things may look sparkly clean, but taking the time to give it one more rinse is a good idea.
Just be careful where you spit.
Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. This has been an excerpt from his upcoming book, Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing: Pearls of Wisdom from 16 Years as a Shucking Columnist. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.