Words

Back in the days before online dictionaries — back, for that matter, before the World Wide Web was ready for prime-time — I was the features editor for a weekly newspaper. Editors and reporters worked together in the newsroom. The American Heritage Dictionary sat on top of a midsize bookshelf, within easy reach of everybody.

Some tools of the word trade. Clockwise from top: the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.; Words into Type, my favorite usage and grammar guide; The Copyeditor's Handbook (3rd ed.), by Amy Einsohn; and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.

Some tools of the word trade. Clockwise from top: the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.; Words into Type, my favorite usage and grammar guide; The Copyeditor’s Handbook (3rd ed.), by Amy Einsohn; and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.

Most of my colleagues consulted it, at most, once or twice a day. I, on the other hand, was out of my seat and flipping through its pages so often that I finally brought my own AHD from home. When I was at my desk, it was almost always open on my lap.

My colleagues were nothing if not quick. If they wanted to know how to spell something, or whether a certain word was right for their sentence, they’d holler to me from their desks. I’d holler back. Usually I had the answer in my head. Sometimes I’d look it up to make sure I was right. Other times I’d look it up just because I was curious.

When I left that job, one reporter wrote on my farewell card: “You saved me a year’s wear and tear on my dictionary.”

Ask a writer what tools she uses and she might list her favorite dictionary, usage guide, computer, and so on. (I, of course, would include fountain pens and bottles of ink.) But really our absolutely most essential bottom-line sine qua non tool is words.

Recently I edited a very long nonfiction book whose author had done a commendable job of organizing complex material and marshalling a daunting number of references. On the word level, however, he was somewhat challenged. He regularly confused “affect” and “effect,” which are on just about everyone’s Frequently Confused Words list, but his troubles went well beyond that. An example, chosen at random and tweaked slightly to conceal the original:

These actions revealed the official’s willingness to adjust to complaints about public intoxication. They also  underscored his constancy.

I’ve bolded the words that stopped me in my tracks. Uh, no, thought I. Close but not close enough. For “adjust to” I suggested “accommodate” and for “constancy” “consistency.”

A good copyeditor will catch less-than-felicitous word choices and suggest improvements, but why let the editor have all the fun? The English language is full of vivid, precise, flexible, wonderful words. While you’re writing your first million words, learn as many as you can, Play with them. Notice how words often take on different shadings depending on where you put them. Then go on to your second million and third million words.

While you’re doing it, read a gazillion words. Listen to people talk, even if you never intend to write dialogue — but especially if you do.

Read, and listen to, poetry. Listen to songs. Poets and songwriters are really, really good at making words count because poems and songs don’t have all that many words in them. Try your hand at poetry or songwriting. (No need to write a new tune: pick a traditional one.) I can just about guarantee that your prose will be the stronger for it.

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Get Me Rewrite

Many writers hate rewriting. I love it. First-drafting is like breaking trail. Breaking trail is exhausting. (We’ve had a lot of snow this winter. My dog and I have broken a lot of trail. We’re both tired when we get home.)

Rewriting is more like pruning branches, tossing rocks out of the path, and notching trees to mark a trail. Even when it means rerouting a trail to avoid a fallen tree, I’d rather be rewriting than breaking trail.

For now I’m lumping editing and revising in with rewriting, even though they aren’t exactly the same thing. Rewriting means “messing with your first draft.” It can include anything from minor tweaks to a total overhaul.

If you hate rewriting, why should you do it? Good question. Maybe a better question is when should you do it? Not everything needs to be rewritten. Journal entries don’t. Freewriting exercises don’t. Most personal correspondence doesn’t — which is not to say that you shouldn’t reread the letter before you seal the envelope or the email before you hit Send. You should.

Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan nailed one of the whys with these much-quoted and -misquoted lines:

You write with ease, to shew your breeding;
But easy writing’s curst hard reading.

When you rewrite, you focus on your intended audience. That can be your boss, your publisher, your teacher, your writers’ group, your legion of fans — whoever you want your writing to reach. My audience includes myself. Yours probably does too. (I just learned from a Richard Nordquist column that Sheridan wrote “vile,” not “curst,” but I sort of like “curst” better.)

At the moment I’m taking a break from Squatters’ Speakeasy, the novel in progress, to work on an essay about The Sleepwalker, a statue whose temporary installation at Wellesley College is causing much discussion at Wellesley and elsewhere. No one’s waiting for this essay. I have no deadline and no length limit. I’m writing it because the placement of the statue raises several issues that have fascinated me for a long time, like risk and feminism and the purpose of art.

I’m writing primarily to clarify my own thinking, though if I can inspire other people to consider these issues from different angles, that’s more than OK with me. This purpose is what guides me as I rewrite.

Here’s what the beginning of the first draft looked like:

statue ms

After 13 pages, I figured I had enough good raw material to proceed to the next draft. So I typed my handwritten pages into Word (Word 2010 on a Windows 7 laptop, for those who are wondering). The first two paragraphs look like this:

statue screenshot

The words are almost the same, but they look different, don’t they? Seeing those nice crisp letters, words, and paragraphs triggers my internal editor. At this point, I welcome her on board.

This draft is 21 pages long — considerably longer than its predecessor. At this stage the essay is still expanding. A phrase might trigger an elaboration or a detour: I go with it, not worrying about how it’s going to fit into the final version. At the same time, the internal editor is noting that a paragraph toward the end might be more effective near the beginning, and that I’ve discussed the same point in three different places — could they be consolidated?

Now I’m working on the third draft. My internal editor is having a field day. Word’s various features come in very, very handy. Internal editor is making comments for the writer to consider. She’s highlighting key phrases and sentences that will help structure the next draft. She’s also making additions and deletions, always with changes tracked. Nothing’s set in stone at this point. The writer likes how it looks.

statue screenshot 2

Make Room

Place matters.

Places help shape the things that happen there.

A classroom doesn’t look like an office doesn’t look like a church. All classrooms (etc.) don’t look alike either. They aim to shape different things. Some work better than others.

Some people can write anywhere, anytime. When you’re stalled or stuck or feeling balky, though, having place on your side can be very helpful. Classrooms, offices, and churches help people focus on whatever they’ve come to do: learn, teach, work, worship, whatever. Your writing place can do likewise.

It doesn’t have to be a separate room with a door that closes, though if you live with other people this might help.

When my workspace is messy, it means things are happening there. That's Travvy, one of my muses, on the left.

When my workspace is messy, it means things are happening there. That’s Travvy, one of my muses, on the left.

It doesn’t have to be a place you use only for writing either. Plenty of good writing happens at kitchen tables. I write in the chair where I also sit to edit or read. When I sit down to write, I light a candle or two. If a candle is burning, it’s writing time.

Particular objects and rituals can help turn ordinary time into writing time, an ordinary place into a writing place. Experiment. Pay attention to all your senses. Candles, incense, music, a favorite glass or cup or mug, a special photo — any or all can help create the place where writing happens.

Actually writing in that place makes the place more conducive to writing. That might be the most important factor of all. So don’t obsess too much about making the place perfect. (Perfectionista is always lurking in the background, waiting for a way to get into your head.) If writing doesn’t happen immediately in your writing place — just write. Write anything. Write the same sentence over and over again. Do it for 10 minutes. Then do it again tomorrow.

 

Lower Your Standards!

The shrieking you hear is Perfectionista in the background. “Lower my standards? Never! You want me to write dreck?”

Etc., etc., etc.

No, dear. I want you to write, period.

Expectations are good. Goals are good. When they’re unrealistic, however, they’re not so good. When I’m stuck or stalled, unrealistic expectations are usually the source of my troubles.

Consider: You’ve resolved to write for two hours a day, but day after day you don’t do it because you can’t find two hours to write in.

Revise your goal. You’ll write for one hour a day. If you can’t find one hour a day to write in, make it 30 minutes. Or 15. Or 5. When you’re meeting your goal, start revising it upward. Be sneaky if you have to.

After I’d completed a draft of The Mud of the Place, I freaked out. OMG, thought I. I might actually finish this thing.

This raised all sorts of scary questions, like “What if it sucks?” and “What next?” I dillied, I dallied, I stalled.

I made a resolution: I will write every day until it’s done. At that point I knew myself well enough not to specify a length of time or a number of words. Just I will write every day until it’s done.

And I did. Sometimes I didn’t start till 11:30 at night. A few times I didn’t open the file till five minutes to midnight. But I wrote every day till it was done. In the process I learned that when I’m working on a long or scary project, writing every day is important. Hell, just looking at the thing every day is important. If I don’t, I quickly convince myself that whatever I’m working on is unsalvageable crap. Then I don’t dare look at it. What if I look at it and discover I’m right?

Thanks to Travvy, my Alaskan malamute, I got into dog training. He needed it. So, as it turned out, did I. One of the basic principles of the training I do is Make it easy for your dog to succeed. If your dog isn’t learning what you’re trying to teach, try breaking the task down into smaller parts. When the dog gets one part, move on to the next.

Works for writing too. Try it.

 

A Million Words

Received wisdom says that you have to write a million words before you can call yourself a writer. If you’re the literal type who’s using Word’s word counter to calculate your output, please forget I ever said that.

If you’re not all that literal — well, there’s something to it. If your writing will teach you all you need to know, it follows that the more you write, the more you’ll know. A million words, give or take a hundred thousand or so — why not?

I have no idea how many words I wrote before I started calling myself a writer. I can tell you that the words were in —

  • high school assignments, and poems and stories for the high school literary magazine
  • college term papers, and reviews and columns for college newspapers
  • the journals I kept whenever I was afraid I was going to kill myself if I couldn’t figure out what was going on in my head
  • the three notebooks I filled while hitchhiking around Britain and Ireland in 1975
  • press releases, lots of press releases
  • book reviews, lots of book reviews
  • essays for feminist and/or lesbian publications
  • etc.

Some of the words wound up in print. Many of them didn’t. Among the ones that didn’t were what I call my “desert fantasies.”

Oh dear. I get the shivers just thinking about them.

I was writing slash before I ever heard of slash. Before slash existed, if you date slash to the X-rated fan fiction inspired by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock of the original Star Trek TV show. My first stories were inspired by Wagon Train, a TV western of the late 1950s and early ’60s. I had a terrible crush on Robert Horton as Flint McCullough, the wagon train’s scout, so I subjected him to terrible tortures then to homoerotic relief.

Before long, my proto-fanfic was hijacked by Lawrence of Arabia, which I first saw during its first U.S. run in early 1963. From then on it was, as Auda Abu Tayi told Lawrence in the movie, “there was only the desert” for me.  I kept the desert fantasies going till the early 1990s.

As a teenager and young adult, I was pretty sure that if anyone, like my parents, discovered my desert fantasies, they’d send me to a shrink or commit me to a loony bin PDQ. So periodically I’d burn them in the fireplace.

Years passed. I became a lesbian feminist and immersed myself in the lesbian community and the feminist Women in Print movement. I was sure I’d be drummed out of the sisterhood if anyone knew what I was writing on the sly, so I’d shred my stories and bury them in the trash.

In early 1985, not long before I left Washington, D.C., to return to my native New England, I attended a weekend workshop in Baltimore led by Maureen Brady. We did a lot of writing exercises. One of them began “I could never tell anybody that . . .” What came flowing out of my cheap ballpoint pen was the story of my desert fantasies. Maureen read some of our “I could never tell” stories, with no names attached. One of the ones she read was mine.

Well! Before half an hour had passed, I was claiming the desert fantasies as mine. The next year Lesbian Contradiction published my essay “‘What’s a P.C. Feminist like You Doing in a Fantasy like This?’ A Few Answers and a Few Questions.” The essay needed heavier editing than it got — it goes off in several different directions and never quite pulls itself together — but it’s not bad. You can read it here.

I swear, those desert fantasies taught me how to write dialogue.

Get going on those million words. If you’ve done a million already, start on the second million. Anything goes, and it’s all good.

Editing

When I applied for my first editing job, I barely knew what an editor was. Editing was what I did to my own writing and what I did, as a clerical worker, to my various bosses’ memos, letters, and reports.

Historic photo of me, ca. 1980, in my editorial cubicle, American Red Cross publications office, Alexandria, Va.

Historic photo of me, ca. 1980, in my editorial cubicle, American Red Cross publications office, Alexandria, Va.

Once I was officially an editor, I learned that what editors did was not the same as what writers did.

All unwitting, I’d developed serious editorial skills because I thought they were skills that any writer had to have. This was a lucky break for me because in the 35 years since, I’ve mostly supported myself as an editor.

“Even a great writer needs a good editor. A good writer needs a great editor.” This adage circulates in various forms in the publishing world. In principle I agree. In real life, though, good editing isn’t all that easy to find or to recognize, and when you do find it, it’s not cheap. Editing is time-consuming. It can’t be automated or mass-produced. Editors get paid considerably less per hour than mechanics, plumbers, accountants, or lawyers — where I live, house cleaning pays better than editing — but for book-length manuscripts the hours add up.

Whatever money you spend on good editing is money well spent. (It’s not just the editor in me that says that.) Likewise, the time you spend learning to edit your own work is time well spent. When you get to the point where you can’t go any further, and definitely when you’re thinking about either self-publishing or submitting your manuscript for publication, that’s the time to hire a pro.

So, you say, how do I learn to edit my own work?

I’ve got some ideas. I bet you do too. We’ll be talking a lot about this in Write Through It.

Longhand

By the time I got to college, my once-impeccable handwriting was barely readable. Typewriters were a blessing, even before I learned to touch-type. Computers were even better. I got my first PC in 1985. I fell in love with WordPerfect. I did all my writing on the computer. Then I’d print it out, edit in pen or pencil, type in my edits, and print it out again.

I wrote my novel, The Mud of the Place, on the computer. Mud was a five-year journey punctuated with stalls, stops, and detours — every kind of block you can imagine. I’d stare at those crisp words on the screen and have no idea what came next. Pretty soon the stall would turn into a downward spiral and I’d know for absolute sure that I was never going to finish the stupid thing.

Around that time I was one of several women writers who gathered from time to time to share writing and talk about writing. Each meeting we’d do at least one freewriting exercise. We took turns picking a word or phrase to start with and setting a time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. When the timer went off, you didn’t have to read what you’d written aloud, but we almost always did.

I was continually astonished by what I could write in 10 or 15 minutes with only a ballpoint pen and a few sheets of lined paper.

Finally I put it together. When I stalled at the computer, I’d stuff a yellow pad and a couple of ballpoints into my backpack and go somewhere else. In good weather this might be just outside. Other times it might be the Get a Life Café in Vineyard Haven. The key was away from the computer.

My key phrase was usually something like “I can’t write this fucking scene because …” And before I ran out of steam, I would have written, or at least sketched, the fucking scene whose elusiveness had been frustrating me so.

Gradually I figured out that scenes often stalled because I didn’t know a character well enough or, especially, because I couldn’t visualize where the scene was taking place. So before I got to the hair-tearing stage, I’d take pen and yellow pad and let the character talk. Characters, I discovered, were often good at describing places that I couldn’t see.

After finishing The Mud of the Place, I went into a tailspin. What pulled me out was Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way workbook. I bought myself a fountain pen and a bottle of green ink to write my “Morning Pages,” the daily freewriting that is the foundation of Cameron’s method. Writing in longhand, I began to see, could be more than a method of diagnosing and solving problems.

For years now I’ve been doing nearly all my first-drafting in longhand, for both nonfiction and fiction. I’ve got more fountain pens and more bottles of ink than anyone needs, but currently six pens, each filled with a different color ink, are in active use.

Why does it work? For me writing in longhand makes it much, much easier to bypass the internal editor and just write. My handwriting is messy enough to flummox the internal editor but legible enough that I can transcribe it into the computer, which is where I do all my editing, revising, and rewriting. And — not to stray too far into woo-woo territory or anything — words seem to flow more easily through my fingers to a piece of paper than they do through my fingers to a keyboard.

The moral of the story isn’t that pen-and-ink rules. It’s that tools matter. If one isn’t doing the trick, try another one. I haven’t tried a tape recorder yet, but I do read aloud a lot both when I’m writing and when I’m editing, so that may be next.

Whatever works.

This morning's pages, and the pen and ink I wrote them with

This morning’s pages, and the pen and ink I wrote them with. The dark orange scrawl at the bottom is a reminder of where I’m supposed to start tomorrow.

When? Now

I can revise, rewrite, and edit at any time of day or night. First-drafting, however, I have to do in the morning, the earlier the better. The writer in me is a morning person. The editor wakes up later. Perfectionista sleeps like a dog. The slightest rustle wakes her up, and once she’s awake she won’t shut up.

So, a dilemma: I’m on day 4 of a nine-day dog-and-pony-sitting gig. This involves two drive-bys a day, a.m. and p.m. The morning drive-by — feed dog, hay pony, pick out stall and paddock, take dog for walk — eats up my best writing time.

If it were just for  a weekend, I might skip writing, but for nine days? No. And I’m looking at a string of critter-sitting gigs that stretches into mid-March. All involve being somewhere else by 8 a.m. What to do, what to do?

This morning I was out of bed and dressed by 7. I zapped the remnants of yesterday’s tea  in the microwave and put on the kettle for a fresh pot. I sat down in my chair, lit a candle, and pulled over the pages I’d been working on: a character sketch for the novel in progress, Squatters’ Speakeasy, that may be turning into a scene. And I wrote. A page and a half of dialogue that looked pretty good when I reread it three hours later.

All in 35 minutes.

Perfectionista is sure that if I don’t have at least an hour blocked out, it’s not worth sitting down to write.

Not true.

My workspace. It's rather more cluttered now. That's a good sign.

My workspace. It’s rather more cluttered now. That’s a good sign.

 

The Basics

Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

The way out is through.

”I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame.”
Alice Walker

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Marge Piercy

That’s all there is to it. Everything else is commentary.

If I knew what I know whenever I needed to know it, I’d never get blocked, or discouraged. I could skip the commentary.

But I don’t. You probably don’t either. That’s what Write Through It is about.

Let’s go.