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Friday, May 3, 2013

Gary Provost's 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

Even though this book was copyrighted in 1972 and its first printing was in 1984, its principles hold credence now. A few concepts taken from journalism were new to me, although I have been seriously writing (fiction) since my twenties.

At only 158 pages, even after copyediting another 120 pages earlier in the day, I was still able to finish this book in one sitting.

Of course, Gary Provost confirms to place modifiers near what they modify; to use dense words, detailed nouns, active verbs, strong leads, spare wording; plus vary our word choice, and length of our sentences and paragraphs. We are authors, people. We should not be using the same words over and over (unless in threes for effect, and that not often or you lose the intent of the rhetorical device).

Here's the best of the best tips I've mined from Gary's work:
  • A journal. But for me it is more a twenty-five subject notebook (which I guess I have to make myself as I've never seen one with that many tabs). It would hold my great ideas, whether for titles, for character names, for places, but also single words that conjure up a whole story by themselves, quotations too, a stirring picture (worth a thousand...), etc. Reminds me of a former coworker's son who was in maybe China backpacking and had his travel bag stolen. The one thing he lamented losing the most was his Chinese-English dictionary where he had added in almost as many handwritten notations to himself as were on the printed page. Now THAT's what I think of as a journal. My creative life in one centralized notebook.
  • Words relevant to your theme. This is another tangent to the journal idea above. But I've seen Nora Roberts take advantage of this with one or two of her books about magicians. She must have brainstormed all the words that relate to magic and their performers, and then used them throughout her novel as nouns, verbs, adjectives, descriptors, etc. Just love this. I like themes to books, even if we, as the authors, don't discover the particular one until the book is complete. That's alright.
  • Ask yourself why you are writing. I've seen this in a couple other books on the craft. It bears our attention. This doesn't have to do with genres but with tone. Do you write dark or light? Humorous or serious? Just make that clear in the opening and fulfill that promise to your reader throughout your book. If you are a Janet Evanovich fan, you may not like to be scared to death by Stephen King's writings. Which is okay. Each author, I am convinced, has their own readership. Look at J. K. Rowland. She had the religious groups after her. So you won't reach everybody. No need to. Your readership will find you.
  • Don't write words; write music.
  • Gary has a great example of show versus tell on p. 65.
  • He calls the verbs the engine of the story and suggests reading your work aloud with extra emphasis on the verbs. Hmm.
  • Respect the rules of grammar. Amen. As a copy editor, I second that motion.
  • Put emphatic words at the end.
  • Show your opinion. But balance it with the opposing side's as well.
  • Take the pyramid approach. This is newspaper journalism. Lead with who, what, when, where and why. Put supporting facts in order of most important to least in the paragraphs that follow. That way the paper can cut off the last inch, should lack of space require it, without having to read it. But can still be applied to fiction.

That pyramid approach was news to me. Since I don't write for newspapers, I don't technically need it. Although it would help to define the path for the fiction author. As a copy editor, I've read many a scene where I have no idea who is the POV character yet and I'm five to ten paragraphs in. We need to orient our reader as to time and place and cast, because you do not want to confuse your reader. So keep the who, what, when, where and why in mind, and relay the relevant info to your reader as soon as you can in the initial setup of each of your scenes.

The emphatic words at the end (of a sentence, most likely the end of a paragraph, and for sure at the chapter end) was another Margie Lawson approach, but yet with multiple choice endings that I'm just now seeing. Each sentence or phrase has components. Which do you want to focus the most on? The person, the time, the act, the thematic word, the emotion, the action? Switch your sentence around to allow for each to end it. Which is serving your tone, your story, your internal editor more? Use that one.

As an author, blogger and freelance copy editor, my foremost and recurring command is this: communicate well. If anything gets in the way of perfecting your exacting interchange with the reader, CUT IT! Yes, even your "little darlings." Especially them.

Denise Barker, author + blogger + copy editor

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