Writing about writing, Part 1
Feel free to disagree, but here are a few tips to help readers of anything you happen to write dread continuing to read what you've written less
Easy to talk about, harder to do.
As you may notice, when you go to www.OklahomaColumnist.com and the URL works as it’s supposed to work, it actually says, below “Oklahoma Columnist, by Clay Horning,” “Sports, Politics, Writing.”
Thus far, we’ve written a lot about sports, a little about politics, and none about the discipline that allows any of it to happen.
Occasionally, when time and circumstance allow, I’ll try passing on a few lessons, thoughts or preferences I feel strongly about; knowing they may not be taught anywhere, that other writers are bound to disagree and readers are bound to have their own thoughts, too.
I’m kind of counting on it.
Should you disagree, agree or engage in any way with this column, I promise to engage back.
Also, it won’t be an essay.
Instead, bullet points.
Hope you find it interesting, informative, even fun.
Here we go.
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• Use every single word that’s required to get across what you’re trying to get across as well as it can be put across and not one more. Most believe following this edict will have them writing longer. Performed correctly, the opposite will be true.
• The above thought’s a decent writing tip, yet a better editing tip. In 30-plus years of writing for publication, original drafts have come faster and faster, while editing has become more painstaking, probably because how I want it to sound has become much more precise, making the sculpting process longer. Bottom line, if you can’t lose 10 to 20 percent of your words in the editing process, you’re not editing.
• People say things, the present tense of which is “says” and the past tense of which is “said.” They don’t “state” them, “laugh” them, “surmise” them or “summarize” them.
On rare, rare, rare occasion, they may “answer” them, “yell” them, “mumble” them or “screech” them, but what they never do is answer, yell, mumble or screech them just to get you to avoid writing “says” or “said” again.
• “Since then” and “Ever since” are redundant. “Since” works just fine.
• “However,” is almost always the wrong word. “Yet,” “Still,” “But” are better. “Of course,” is dicey.
• Beginning a paragraph, “Sure,” as in, “Sure, the Sooners want a high-flying offense, but does Brent Venables really need Jeff Lebby’s Baylor baggage brought to campus,” always sounds faux provocative to me, a crutch.
Why not just write “OU wants a high-flying offense …” and make your point more directly, sans crutch, with fewer words?
• Any time you can avoid a prepositional phrase, do it. Like, “Reggie Jackson went 3 for 4 with two home runs on Tuesday inside Anaheim Stadium, pushing his league-leading dinger count to 43 on the season.”
I count three prepositional phrases: “with two home runs”, “inside Anaheim Stadium” and “on the season.” How many we can lose?
“Reggie Jackson went deep twice Tuesday, pushing his league-leading home run total to 43.”
Unless, you’re going to count “to 43” as a prepositional phrase, all three are gone and a sentence that was 26 words is now 15. Meanwhile, where it happened can be dropped in elsewhere, the third hit can be dropped altogether — nobody came to the ballpark to watch Reggie hit a single — everybody knows Reggie hit lefty and “on the season” became assumed the moment “43” was typed.
• Start in the middle:
It you want to find your voice, write with narrative, tell a story rather than simply regurgitate facts, try starting in the middle the way Peter Gammons would narrate baseball features for ESPN, back when the Worldwide Leader didn’t have a beat person in every city but had Gammons covering the entire major leagues, because Gammons would always begin his features with something like this:
“Less than three weeks ago, May 5, still a Marlin, Gary Sheffield suffered his third straight hitless game, plunging his batting average to .250, causing the question to be asked if the veteran slugger still had what it took to be a productive major league hitter.”
I have no idea if that narrative was attached to Sheffield’s struggles in May of 1998, but the numbers are accurate and if folks were beginning to doubt Sheffield, that opening would have deftly set Gammons up to tell the rest of Sheffield’s story; because on May 25, now a Dodger, after going 3 for 3 with a double and a home run, pushing his batting average to .310 by hitting .406 over 18 games and 78 plate appearances since May 5, Sheffield had a fine story to tell.
Anyway, try starting with something you might first think belongs in the middle, be ready to use a bunch of commas, and in one sentence chalk-full of information and commas, establish an easy-flowing rhythm that helps pave the foundation of what you’re really there to say or write.
It’s a lot, but give it a shot.
(By the way, Gammons still writes like that. In his latest piece for The Athletic, under a headline that reads “Ronald Acuña as Willie Mays? International players have revitalized MLB, and league must maintain that,” you just have to read his’ first paragraph.)
• More on finding your voice:
I’m not sure if I write the way I talk or talk the way I write (or the way Gammons talks and writes). Originally, the quest was likely the former, and as I became a better editor, switched to the latter, the writing and editing process making me a better real-time editor of the words coming out of my mouth.
How to get there?
1) Figure out how you’d tell a bystander what you intend to write; 2) Figure out how you’d say it if you never repeated yourself, stammered or stuttered in the telling; 3) Make it grammatically correct but for the spots you’re breaking grammar on purpose for effect; 4) After all that, try revisiting it one more time and make the changes you wish you could make the second time around (just as we often believe we got off a great line with our friends only to wake up the next morning realizing a small tweak would have made that line we were so happy with yesterday so much better today).
There you go.
Clay on writing.
Next, back to sports.