Important Lessons About Writing

Editor CartoonOne of the writers I follow and greatly admire is Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten, who was previously a reporter, editor and feature writer at the Post and other newspapers. In his current weekly column, always under 750 words, Weingarten epitomizes the value of economy in writing. And that’s just one of many valuable lessons that writers can get from his writing.

In the introduction to a 2010 compilation of longer articles, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes for feature writing  (The Fiddler on the Subway), Weingarten writes that as a young reporter in Detroit he learned two truths about writing in one night while struggling with a story.  “The first is that without passion, you have nothing,” he writes. “The second is that the most important words in your story are the ones you don’t write. They’re the ones you imply—the ones that cause you to pop into the reader’s mind and get her to think ‘Aha!’ That’s how you transform her from a passive observer into an ally. And that’s when you win.”

Later in that introduction, Weingarten discusses the importance of rhythm  as part of that winning formula. “For a long narrative to have power, it can’t just be delivering information—it needs to create a textured experience, the way a movie does,” he explains. “A writer hasn’t the advantage of a mood-setting soundtrack, or actors who can communicate emotion with an expression or a gesture, but he has something of potentially greater impact: the descriptive power of words. Use them with care: arrange them shrewdly. Remember that sentences have cadence and meter and melody—don’t let them become a one-note lullaby. Interrupt the long with the short, the simple with the complex, and use them all to build a vivid narrative, a theater of the mind that each reader then edits and personalizes for himself. It’s a collaboration, this process. Don’t take your new ally for granted. Don’t bore her, even for an instant.”

Winning with words isn’t easy, but a skilled editor can help develop and fine-tune your game plan. Contact me for a free assessment of your own writing project.

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New Evidence That Every Word Counts

A Seattle attorney had a traffic-camera-generated speeding ticket dismissed recently, and he didn’t deny he was speeding. He won because there were too many words on the sign warning motorists to slow down.

The sign said the posted 20 mph speed limit would be enforced “WHEN LIGHTS ARE FLASHING OR CHILDREN ARE PRESENT” in two-inch-high capital letters. But domestic law attorney Joe Hunt found a diagram in the federal government’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices that prescribes the shorter phrase “WHEN FLASHING” for that sign. Hunt argued that with more words, the posted sign was harder to read, diminishing the driver’s ability to heed it before a mounted, automated camera enforces the 20 mph school zone. According to Washington State law, automated camera zones must comply with the federal manual.

After the ruling, the City of Seattle announced that Department of Transportation crews will replace 40 such signs before school resumes in September. The new signs will read “WHEN FLASHING.” Fewer words that are more concise, more emphatic, easier to read and comprehend.

It’s amazing what a little editing can do. “Shorter language is easier to comprehend,” spokesman Neil Gaffney of the Federal Highway Administration noted in the Seattle Times.

If you ever need an editor to condense, organize and hone your own writing, look no further.

http://MikeGreenstein.com

Another pair of eyes can make a big difference.

Incidentally, attorney Hunt estimated the dismissal of his $189 ticket cost him about $578 in services, equipment and fees. Hiring an editor is much cheaper than a hiring a lawyer.

 

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How to Choose the Right Words

Using literary metaphors in your writing makes your writing seem smarter, as long as you use them correctly. If you muff it, however, it can have the opposite effect.

For instance, in explaining how President Obama forged a bipartisan agreement with Capitol Hill Republicans to avoid another federal government shutdown last fall, Washington Post columnist Zachary A. Goldfarb wrote, “Obama gave the flimsiest of fig leaves to the Republicans.” Only if he were trying to cover up his nudity, actually; olive branches would have been more appropriate here.

In another instance last year, The Post reported, “The sale of football tickets and fundraising will be the keys for Maryland as it digs itself out of a financial hole.” Perhaps, but climbing out of the hole would be a better strategy. Digging would likely get Maryland further into the hole.

Let’s hope that under the ownership of Amazon.com mogul Jeff Bezos The Post will remain at the forefront of American journalism over a range of media. Hiring more copy editors would provide a good initial boost.

If you’re not Jeff Bezos, you might still need to hire an editor before you turn an olive branch into a fig leaf.

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Author Elmore Leonard: Less Was Elmore

Leonard

Leonard

American crime novelist  Elmore Leonard,  who died Aug. 20, was known for hard-boiled characters and lean prose. In a Detroit News obit,  editor and close friend Otto Penzler said Leonard wrote every day in longhand on unlined legal pads, ordering a thousand a year.

“I’ve seen his manuscripts,” Penzler said. “I can see the amount of rewriting he did. He didn’t change words so much as sentence structure … to maintain the cadence. There was a cadence to his writing, frequently compared to jazz.”

Good writing flows. Bad writing stumbles. When your own words are not in rhythm, you may need an editor to make them sing.

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Post Purchase Promotes Prose

Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post  may or may not turn out to be a good thing for journalism, but there are some encouraging signs.

Washington Post LogoIn an interview published in The Post, he called it “an important institution” and expressed optimism about its future. “I don’t want to imply that I have a worked-out plan,” he said. “This will be uncharted terrain, and it will require experimentation. There would be change with or without new ownership. But the key thing I hope people will take away from this is that the values of The Post do not need changing. The duty of the paper is to the readers, not the owners.”

Bezos also has demonstrated great respect for writing. He is known to be an avid reader and his wife is a novelist. This anecdote may help explain his interest in owning a venerable benchmark of the seemingly dying newspaper industry, as told by Post Company (soon to be renamed) Chairman Don Graham to columnist Ezra Klein: “When Jeff holds meetings are Amazon, he asks people not to use PowerPoints but to write an essay about their product or program or what the meeting is to be about. For the first 10 or 15 minutes, everyone sits and reads the essay. His point is that if you write at length, you have to think first, and he feels the quality of thought you have to do to write at length is greater than the quality of thought to put a PowerPoint together. “

Bezos understands that writing is important. Good writing is even more important, but for some it’s just hard to do. The ideas are there, but not the prose. That’s when it pays to hire an editor.

 

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Style Books Battle

2013 AP StylebookAfter ordering my own  copy of the recently issued 2013 Associated Press Stylebook, I was amused when an editor friend sent me this news item:
 
4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Stylebook , Chicago Manual Gang Violence
NEW YORK—Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.” “The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.” Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Relax before taking this TOO seriously. It came from the satiric Onion website.

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Advice from the Ocean

I saw this poster last summer at Meadowdale Beach Park, Snohomish County, Washington. It provides a great example of putting  a clever twist on words.

Advice from the Ocean Closeup

When your own words aren’t making waves, a good editor can throw you a life preserver.

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