A Quotation From Elmore Leonard

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

— Elmore Leonard, in Newsweek, 22 April 1985.

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Revision as Re-envisioning

 In a recent post, Write To Done’s Leo Babuta (of Zen Habits fame) discussed revision as primarily a process of simplifying.  The tips he provides in that post focus on removing the inessential and the verbose (the “cluttered” parts of a piece of writing, so to speak).  Those of you who are familiar with Leo’s writerly ethos will appreciate that his definition of revision is consistent with his blogs’ values and goals.

Certainly, part of the revision process consists of pruning away those parts of the piece that don’t work.  When drafting, it’s easy to perpetrate wordy, vague sentences and wandering paragraphs in the name of getting started with a draft. 

More to the point, at the drafting stage these kinds of writing “sins” are acceptable.  The goal of drafting is to get your ideas out on paper (or on the screen) where you can work with them.  If you stop to rework every passive construction that pops into your head as you draft, you’re bound to lose some ideas.  It’s in revision that you clean, tighten, and polish your sentences.

But I like to think about revision in a different way.  For me, the most useful way to approach revision is as a process of re-envisioning.  When I re-envision, I engage the draft on several fronts.  Next time you approach the task of revision, I hope you’ll try thinking about it in the following ways.  You might find that your attitude shapes your outcome.   

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A Quotation From William Zinsser

“You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”

— William Zinsser, On Writing Well

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3 New Ways To Get Started Drafting

One reason I love personal productivity/life development/organization blogs is that they provide some great tips for overcoming procrastination.  The blogosphere is full of them, and they’re great fun to read.  (Check out Leo Babuta’s Top 20 Motivation Hacks – An Overview at Zen Habits or Lifehack’s 11 Tips for Nuking Laziness Without Becoming a Workaholic for examples, but this is truly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to productivity how-tos.)

Plus, they’re a great way to feel like I’m doing something productive when I’m really avoiding larger tasks.

…hey…wait a second…

This post is not about overcoming procrastination. It’s about getting a draft started.  I make this distinction at the outset because even if you’re not a chronic procrastinator, it can be challenging to get started drafting.  Whether you’re a potter or a sculptor, writing is hard work.  In fact, it can seem positively Herculean.  This goes double for the procrastinators out there.

Here are some tips that have worked for me, or for writers I know.  More importantly, I have not come across these tips in other personal productivity/writing blogs.  (If you have posted something similar, let me know in the comments section.  I’d be happy to link to it.)  I hope you’ll find something here that you haven’t tried yet.

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A Quotation From Anne Lamott

“For me and most of the writers I know, writing is not rapturous.  In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really, shitty first drafts.”

— Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Doubleday, Anchor ed., 1995), p. 22

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Drafting Process: The Potter vs. The Sculptor

What is the difference between a novice writer and an experienced writer? It’s not the ideas, talent or creativity: an inexperienced writer can have a great idea just as a pro can. As I have said before, writing is a skill, not an inherent attribute.

In many ways, the difference can be boiled down to this: novices start writing at the first word of the introduction and continue to the last word of the conclusion. But proficient writers have started writing long before they put a sentence down and, more importantly, they continue writing long after.

In other words, experienced writers know that writing is not an act. Rather, writing is a multi-step process. What the novice writers think of as “writing,” proficient writers know to be neither more nor less than “drafting.”

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High Stakes Pronouns

As I’m sure you know, pronouns serve a key function in written communication. Because they have the power to stand in for nouns, they add remarkable ease and convenience to our everyday discourse.

Just to review – in case it has been a while since you diagrammed sentences in middle school English class – here is a list of common pronouns:

I, me, you, he, she, him, her, it, we, us, they, them, who, whom, that, which, this, his, her, its, their, our, your, my

Don’t forget indefinite pronouns, like:

everybody, anything, each, either, nobody, no one, anyone, everyone, everything, nothing, somebody, something, someone, anybody

(We won’t be dealing with indefinite pronouns in this post, however.)

Pronouns are humble little words, but they have great power. Without pronouns, we’d all have to speak and write in a stilted, repetitive manner: Loren would have to use Loren’s name every time Loren wanted to refer to Loren. Loren’s readers would soon grow tired of reading Loren’s name, no doubt. Pronouns give Loren and Loren’s readers more options, because using pronouns Loren can communicate to Loren’s readers without Loren having to repeat “Loren” so many times.

Okay, enough of that. You see what I mean, I hope. A world without pronouns would be a world full of bloated paragraphs instead of sleek sentences. No one would spend time reading blogs for fun, that’s for sure.

What I want to think about today, however, is not merely the importance of pronouns. I want to explore certain pronouns’ potential impact on readers, using blog writers and readers as an example.

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A Quotation From John Mason Brown

“It is in the hard, hard, rock-pile labor of seeking to win, hold, or deserve a reader’s interest that the pleasant agony of writing again comes in.”

— John Mason Brown, Dramatis Personae: A Retrospective Show, Compass Book ed.(New York, Viking, 1965), p. 458.

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On Removing “Weakifiers”

In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss notes that in excess, almost anything takes on the characteristics of its opposite. When do possessions become clutter? When there are too many of them.

I propose that we start applying this principle to writing, beginning with the plague of intensifiers that has descended upon written English. An “intensifier” is just what it sounds like: a word that, when attached to another word, is designed to communicate increased intensity. “Very,” “really,” and “extremely” are three examples.

There is nothing wrong with the concept of an intensifier. For example, a paper that earns a grade of B- might be called “good,” while a B paper is called “very good,” a distinction that has a difference.

But we have overused intensifiers. Indeed, we use them so much, and so often, that they have lost their intensity. Even as I write this, I am tempted by specters of intensifiers whispering, Wouldn’t it be better to say that we have “seriously lost the vast majority of” our intensity? Wouldn’t that be – how to say – a really freakin’ cool sentence?

Let’s face it: intensifiers really don’t add very much emphasis. Nope. They really don’t add very much at all. A better term for these words is “weakifiers”: they add words to your sentence, but they don’t have a strong enough purpose to justify their inclusion. Therefore, those intensifiers weaken your sentence. They are weakifiers.

Now that we know what weakifiers do (clog up our writing) and don’t do (add the emphasis we want to convey), how can we communicate intensity in writing?

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A Quotation From Jim Raymond

“Writing is a way of arguing with ourselves, a way of keeping ourselves honest by discovering precisely what we believe and finding out whether we are justified in believing it.”

–Jim Raymond, Writing (Is an Unnatural Act), (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 2

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