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Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby glorybee » Mon Sep 16, 2013 7:44 am

My mother used to tell me a little story about a guy who sold fish. He thought maybe he’d get more business if he had a sign to advertise his market, so he went to a sign maker.

“How much do you charge?” the fishmonger asked.

“Ten dollars per word.”

Now the fishmonger was a frugal man, so he thought carefully about what the sign should say. “All right, then—paint ‘Fresh Fish Sold Here’ for forty dollars. No…wait! Of course the fish are fresh; my shop is right on the docks. Just paint ‘Fish Sold Here.’ No…wait! Of course I’m selling fish here, where else would I sell them? Just paint ‘Fish Sold.’ No…wait! Of course I’m selling the fish; who gives fish away? Just paint ‘Fish.’ No…wait! Of course I’m selling fish; what else would a fishmonger sell?’

He walked away without his sign, happy that he’d saved forty dollars that day.

The fishmonger learned a lesson that many FaithWriters have also had to learn, especially if they write for the Weekly Challenge—the economy of words. When I was writing for the challenge, I was happiest when my first draft was 800-850 words; I knew that the process of trimming 50 – 100 words would be painful, but would result in a far better entry. And now, as an editor, I find that the MSs I edit end up with about 10% fewer words when I’m done with them.

Here, then, are my tips for writing frugally:

1. Look for places where you’ve used an adjective + noun combination, or an adverb + verb combination, and choose a stronger noun or verb instead.

a. Jack lived in a huge, expensive house/Jack lived in a mansion.
b. Jack walked slowly and heavily down the hall/Jack trudged down the hall.

2. Avoid redundant phrases. A few of my pet peeves:

a. I thought to myself. (Who else could you think to? Just write I thought. Better still, eliminate the tag and put the thought in italics.)
b. She nodded her head and She shrugged her shoulders. Just write She nodded and She shrugged.
c. It was six a.m. in the morning. Just write It was six a.m.
d. The $500 check was an unexpected surprise. It’s not necessary to put unexpected with surprise.

You get the idea—most of these redundant phrases are also clichés, and we write them without really thinking. This website has a list of redundant phrases that you should avoid.

3. The famous writer Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” Eliminate sentences that don’t. I’ll reprise an example I’ve used before: “I can’t believe you’re wearing that purple sweater.” Jan placed her coffee mug on the table. That action reveals nothing significant about Jan, and does not advance the plot. Eight words, easily snipped.

4. Most readers dislike long descriptive passages. You may find it necessary to set the scene, but often descriptions—whether of places or people—go on far too long. If you have written a description, look for ways to trim it.

a. If you’ve used two or three adjectives, eliminate one or two of them.
b. Sometimes you can arrange the words in a sentence differently and lose a word or two: There were six trees lining the driveway/Six trees lined the driveway.
c. Don’t assume that your reader wants to know what every tree and bush looked like, or every item of furniture in a house, or every article of clothing that your MC is wearing. I’m exaggerating—but truly, descriptive passages should be trimmed, especially in microfiction like the challenge, to allow you more room for character or plot development.

5. Just be ruthless. Slash, slash, slash. I know it’s painful, because we love every word that we write. Just imagine that, like the fishmonger, every word is costing you a sum of money. Be frugal, and spend as little as possible.

Your homework is going to be a little bit different this week. Here’s the background—I used to write a blog called “One Hundred Words.” Several times a week, I posted a complete story with exactly a hundred words. Most of the stories had a developed character, conflict, and a bit of plot development. The rough drafts usually had 125-150 words; if you thought trimming down to 750 words for the challenge was difficult—this is exponentially harder. I’m going to give you a typical rough draft for a 100-word story—your homework is to trim it to exactly 100 words, while retaining the integrity of the story. Feel free to choose different words, to combine, to paraphrase, but keep the story essentially the same. If you wish, post it here for a mini-critique. I’ll give you my edited version in the comments, after some of you have given it a try.

Doreen didn’t look up from her book while the subway clacked through station after station. She was aware of the big man sitting heavily next to her, but she inched closer to the window and dug in with her left shoulder. When the train sped through the second of five long tunnels before her home stop, Doreen wished—not for the first time—that she had bought one of those backlit electronic books. She held her finger in the book and moved her thigh away from the man’s blue jeans. The train came to a screeching halt, still in the tunnel; the only light came from a dimly flickering tube overhead. Panicked, she felt her breathing stall in her throat. When she made a small choking sound, the man said, in a surprisingly soft voice, “Ma’am? Would you hold my hand, please?”

As always—any questions? Comments? Additional tips for writing tighter? Suggestions for future classes?
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Sep 16, 2013 6:38 pm

I can't believe there aren't any takers yet!

OK, I did 2 quick edits to prime the pump (I hope). I'll post them separately for maximum priming effect. :D

Here's the first one:

Doreen refused to lift her head. Maybe he would believe she was riveted by the book. Station after station—Weatherford, Andover, Hampton—still he sat there. Why doesn’t he get off? Doreen squeezed into the corner but couldn’t escape the thigh that crept closer, invading her space. Another tunnel. So dark. She had almost brought her Kindle—its screen would have provided more light than the dying overhead tube. Screeching brakes. Doreen knew: The train won’t clear the tunnel before it stops! She couldn’t speak. Only a choking noise escaped. Then he spoke.

“M-m-ma’am? Would you hold my hand? Please?”
Steve
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“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby choosingjoy » Mon Sep 16, 2013 6:55 pm

Hi Jan,
I remember your one hundred words. :) Very hard for me, but always fun. So here goes:

Doreen concentrated on her book while the subway clacked through the stations. Aware of the big man scrunched next to her, she wedged her shoulder against the window. As the train sped through the second of five long tunnels, Doreen wished again that she had bought that new Kindle. Holding her finger in the book, she shifted her thigh away from the man’s jeans. Still in the tunnel, the train screeched to a halt, dark except for the dimly flickering tube overhead. Panicked, she struggled to breathe, making little choking sounds. The man spoke softly, “Ma’am, please hold my hand.”


(I wasn't sure if your ending was to be frightening or comforting, so hope I didn't change it too much.)
A child of the King!
Genia

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby choosingjoy » Mon Sep 16, 2013 6:59 pm

Oops, my post crossed with your edit. Oh well, maybe it didn't matter too much. :mrgreen:
A child of the King!
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Sep 16, 2013 7:02 pm

Yeah, I saw that, too. I knew mine didn't prime yours. Now there's 2 to prime other responses. Let's hope Jan gets a lot of responses--it's such an important topic/skill.
Steve
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"When the Round Table is broken every man must follow Galahad or Mordred; middle
things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby glorybee » Mon Sep 16, 2013 7:21 pm

Steve and Genia, thanks. I don't have time to examine your edits carefully until late this evening or perhaps tomorrow, but I promise that I will, and I appreciate your contributions.
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby JayDavidKing » Mon Sep 16, 2013 7:33 pm

I can see the error of my own editing... I already had it down to 100 words before I was half way through the editing. But here is my effort.

Doreen didn’t look up from her book. She was aware of the big man sitting next to her so she inched closer to the window. As the train sped through the second of five tunnels before her home stop, Doreen moved her thigh away from the man’s blue jeans. The train came to a screeching halt, still in the tunnel; the only light came from a dimly flickering tube overhead. She felt her breathing stall in her throat. When she made a small choking sound, the man said, in a surprisingly soft voice, “Ma’am? Would you hold my hand, please?”

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby Come forth » Mon Sep 16, 2013 8:43 pm

I love and need this lesson -- I'm always far too wordy (even on forum posts)

I didn't read anyone else's edit until after I wrote mine; but wish I had because they are good.

Some good points in this lesson and i will refer back to it often.

Here's my homework:

Doreen, intensely aware of the huge man sitting next to her, kept her eyes glued to a book and her shoulder pressed to the window; straining to keep distance between them. The train came to a screeching halt in a tunnel; the only light a flickering tube overhead. Doreen wished for a backlit electronic book -- 'Oh for the extra light right now.' She cuddled closer to the window and moved her thigh away from the man's leg. A gasp of fear escaped her lips. In a very frightened voice, the man whispered, "Ma'am, would you hold my hand please?"
May we all get eyes to see and ears to hear,
A Revelation of His Word, crystal clear.
Admitting our need to be drawn in,
Less of self, more of Him.

My prayer for us all.
God bless us with the Revelation of His Word, Graham
http://www.shekinahcloud.com/page/page/8464330.htm

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby Mike Newman » Mon Sep 16, 2013 9:56 pm

Doreen's eyes remained on her book despite the thump and rattle of the subway. The heavyweight next to her was too close. She stretched and moved toward the window. When the train hit a tunnel and the car darkened, Doreen again regretted her loyalty to the old-school paperback. She bookmarked her spot and shifted her thigh away from his. The train braked, still in the tunnel; the only tube overheard cast a thin yellow light. Panicked, her breathing stalled in her throat, she made a small choking sound. A whisper reached her, “Ma’am? Would you take my hand, please?”

This is right up my alley Jan, I can be way too wordy and I hate having to trim. :)

I liked thump and rattle and thin yellow light too much not to use them, even though I'm sure they're a little gratuitous for a 100-word passage.

Thanks Jan, this was awesome. I didn't realize how much I cling to words before trying this.


Mike

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby glorybee » Tue Sep 17, 2013 8:26 am

swfdoc1 wrote:Doreen refused to lift her head. Maybe he would believe she was riveted by the book. Station after station—Weatherford, Andover, Hampton—still he sat there. Why doesn’t he get off? Doreen squeezed into the corner but couldn’t escape the thigh that crept closer, invading her space. Another tunnel. So dark. She had almost brought her Kindle—its screen would have provided more light than the dying overhead tube. Screeching brakes. Doreen knew: The train won’t clear the tunnel before it stops! She couldn’t speak. Only a choking noise escaped. Then he spoke.

“M-m-ma’am? Would you hold my hand? Please?”


Steve, I was delighted to read this version of my little story. Your editing process is different from mine, and at first I was taken aback, because you did a lot more paraphrasing and re-writing than I do. But you did as I'd asked and kept the story essentially the same--and I really like your choices. The two quick intentional sentence fragments in the middle, for example, followed in a bit by another one, work really well to give this piece a rhythm that copies the racing and 'stopping' in Doreen's heart. You've kept tension and inner conflict here--well done!

I'd be interested to read about your process in trimming this little paragraph.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby glorybee » Tue Sep 17, 2013 8:44 am

choosingjoy wrote:Doreen concentrated on her book while the subway clacked through the stations. Aware of the big man scrunched next to her, she wedged her shoulder against the window. As the train sped through the second of five long tunnels, Doreen wished again that she had bought that new Kindle. Holding her finger in the book, she shifted her thigh away from the man’s jeans. Still in the tunnel, the train screeched to a halt, dark except for the dimly flickering tube overhead. Panicked, she struggled to breathe, making little choking sounds. The man spoke softly, “Ma’am, please hold my hand.”


(I wasn't sure if your ending was to be frightening or comforting, so hope I didn't change it too much.)


Thanks, Genia! First of all, my intent was left deliberately vague; if you read it as either frightening or comforting, you're right either way. Whatever works for you.

I like your edited version very much--you've used some great words like scrunched, wedged, shifted, screeched, giving it a feeling of increasing tension. And you've been able to keep the bits that tell the reader a few things about Doreen. So the things that I'll mention as critiques to follow are very minor; you've truly done a fine job.

I noticed that 5 of your 7 sentences (all but the first and last) have a similar structure: a dependent clause followed by an independent clause. You might want to be aware of that, and work on switching it up a bit more. And I really wanted a little transition between the last two sentences--even just the word "then" would tie them together so the reader gets a sense of the man's question interrupting her panic.

I'd love it if you'd tell us what your process was--how did you decide what to keep, what to snip, what to re-write? What was easiest, and what was the most difficult?
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby glorybee » Tue Sep 17, 2013 8:53 am

JayDavidKing wrote:Doreen didn’t look up from her book. She was aware of the big man sitting next to her so she inched closer to the window. As the train sped through the second of five tunnels before her home stop, Doreen moved her thigh away from the man’s blue jeans. The train came to a screeching halt, still in the tunnel; the only light came from a dimly flickering tube overhead. She felt her breathing stall in her throat. When she made a small choking sound, the man said, in a surprisingly soft voice, “Ma’am? Would you hold my hand, please?”


Jay, thanks for this contribution!

One of the things I learned when I was doing the '100 Words' blog was that I had to establish my setting right away (and that's usually true for writing for the Writing Challenge, too). In your version, we don't know that Doreen is on a train until the third sentence, and the tension doesn't really start until the fourth sentence. You seem to have edited out some of Doreen's personality in the beginning (her irritation, her repugnance at the big man). The last half of your edit is great, and keeps the important parts while trimming away the chaff.

I've asked Steve and Genia what their processes were in editing this selection--now I'll ask you the same thing. How did you decide what to trim? Was it easy or difficult?
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby glorybee » Tue Sep 17, 2013 9:03 am

Come forth wrote:Doreen, intensely aware of the huge man sitting next to her, kept her eyes glued to a book and her shoulder pressed to the window; straining to keep distance between them. The train came to a screeching halt in a tunnel; the only light a flickering tube overhead. Doreen wished for a backlit electronic book -- 'Oh for the extra light right now.' She cuddled closer to the window and moved her thigh away from the man's leg. A gasp of fear escaped her lips. In a very frightened voice, the man whispered, "Ma'am, would you hold my hand please?"


You do love your semicolons, don't you? :D I'd change the semicolons in the first and second sentences to commas. The clauses following the semicolons can't stand alone as complete sentences, so a semicolon isn't really the appropriate punctuation there.

I'm interested to know why you moved the sentence about her trying to avoid the man's leg to after the train stalls. To me, the gasp of fear (a great phrase) seems to follow her shifting away from him, not the stalled train, and it's less clear what she's afraid of. And as with Genia's edited version, I'm missing some sort of transition before the last sentence.

I like your word choices of cuddled, whispered, pressed, glued.

Can you share a bit of your editing process--how did you decide what to keep and what to chop?
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby glorybee » Tue Sep 17, 2013 9:11 am

Mike Newman wrote:Doreen's eyes remained on her book despite the thump and rattle of the subway. The heavyweight next to her was too close. She stretched and moved toward the window. When the train hit a tunnel and the car darkened, Doreen again regretted her loyalty to the old-school paperback. She bookmarked her spot and shifted her thigh away from his. The train braked, still in the tunnel; the only tube overheard cast a thin yellow light. Panicked, her breathing stalled in her throat, she made a small choking sound. A whisper reached her, “Ma’am? Would you take my hand, please?”


MIke, this is outstanding. I agree with you--thump and rattle and thin yellow light are fine phrases. Using heavyweight to describe the big man was perfect--just one word, and it also gives the reader a sense of Doreen's prickly personality.

You've got a comma splice in the second to last sentence. I'd have used a semicolon there, or used the word and (but then you'd have had to trim another word somewhere else). The last sentence is also a comma splice, and there I think I'd choose a dash after ...reached her.

Is there anything you could share with us about your editing process?
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons--TIGHT WRITING

Postby glorybee » Tue Sep 17, 2013 10:18 am

I'm going to go ahead and post my edited version of Doreen's story now--not because it's any better than those that have already been submitted (in fact, there are elements in all of them that I like better than my own), but because I've asked the previous writers to share their editing process. I guess I'd better share mine, too, and maybe that will help out anyone else who decides to do this week's homework.

Here's the original at 142 words:

Doreen didn’t look up from her book while the subway clacked through station after station. She was aware of the big man sitting heavily next to her, but she inched closer to the window and dug in with her left shoulder. When the train sped through the second of five long tunnels before her home stop, Doreen wished—not for the first time—that she had bought one of those backlit electronic books. She held her finger in the book and moved her thigh away from the man’s blue jeans. The train came to a screeching halt, still in the tunnel; the only light came from a dimly flickering tube overhead. Panicked, she felt her breathing stall in her throat. When she made a small choking sound, the man said, in a surprisingly soft voice, “Ma’am? Would you hold my hand, please?”

And here's my edited version (100 words), with a sentence-by-sentence explanation following:

Doreen read, her head down, while the subway clacked through the stations. She was aware of the man sitting heavily next to her, but she inched toward the window and dug in with her shoulder. When the train sped through a tunnel, Doreen sighed and moved her thigh away from the man’s jeans. The train screeched to a halt, still in the tunnel; the only light came from a flickering tube overhead. Doreen’s panicked breath stalled in her throat. When she made a choking sound, the man said, in a surprisingly soft voice, “Ma’am? Would you hold my hand, please?”

1. I liked the word 'clacked'--it has imagery, and it's a strong word for an opening sentence. The word 'didn't' in the first version is rather weak, and I decided it was better to show the reader what Doreen DID do. Putting Doreen's head down is more imagery that tells the reader a little bit about Doreen.

2. I didn't change the second sentence much, but big wasn't necessary to describe the man (and it's a weak word) when I have him sitting 'heavily' later. I got rid of 'left' shoulder--it was unnecessary.

3. I got rid of everything about keeping place in her book and wishing she had a Kindle. I liked those bits, but they didn't really keep the tension going, and that was more important to me. Of more importance was her discomfort with the large man and how close he was to her. It also wasn't important that she was in the second of five tunnels. Basically, I had to decide that the real story here was the unspoken conflict between Doreen and the man. I also felt that by just concentrating on the two of them--and making the man nothing but a silent, somewhat menacing hulk--I might cause the reader to make some judgements about him, maybe even to predict how he might react in the blackout.

4. I didn't change much here, just rearranged and combined a few words.

5. I didn't change much here, either, but in switching a few words, I changed the subject of the sentence from 'she' to 'breath'--a stronger sentence.

6. Almost entirely unchanged except for snipping the word small. The word when at the beginning of the sentence connects Doreen's choking panic with the huge man's fear.

To summarize--I decided that the most important things to keep were the actions that characterized Doreen and that described the tension of being in a dark, enclosed space with a huge, too-close stranger. I also kept anything that I thought might make the reader think that Doreen was possibly in danger from him, because I wanted his fear in the last sentence to be a total surprise.

So when you're writing for the challenge (or anywhere else, for that matter), it's important to identify your conflict, and to eliminate anything that doesn't advance the conflict or its resolution.

Thoughts? Questions?
Jan Ackerson

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