28 January 2015

It's the Little Things

An ominous cover for decidedly
non-ominous content.  Apropos?
Sometime last year, I finished reading Stephen King's On Writing, a part-memoir, part-craft discussion piece that was originally published back in 2000.  King isn't my favorite author, but I do enjoy his work on occasion and have a decent collection of it on my bookshelves at home.  Regardless of how you or I might feel about him, let's be honest: he's a master of suspense and has been enormously successful.  Therefore, his opinions on the writing craft [should] hold a good amount of sway in the writing community.

Both of the tips I'm going to mention I've heard a thousand times before reading On Writing.  However, because I hadn't accomplished much writing at the time I was reading the book, I found myself inspired to sit down and get some work done, and in the final months of 2014, these two tactics proved instrumental in finalizing two short stories and submitting them to publishers.  I'd been working on both pieces for some time but hadn't been confident in their quality until I made this final, editorial pass.  Regardless of whether or not they will be accepted, just to get them finished and sent out was an achievement -- especially since I haven't published anything since 2010.

Sometimes it's the little things.

No matter whether you write fiction or music reviews, whether you're a student writing essays or an author working on his tenth manuscript, these simple tools are invaluable to the editing process.  If you've heard them already (and you probably have), now's the time to put them to use.

Death to all adverbs

"All the officer patients in the war were forced to censor letters... It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers... To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective."
-- Joseph Heller, Catch-22


I used to sneer at this rule.  That's because I still tend to use a lot of modifiers.

Adverbs are especially easy to throw into the mix.  They add what feels like clarity and assist in turning sentences into paragraphs.  It feels good to look over your unfinished manuscript and see large chunks of text -- it feels solid, like the story has weight, and the densely packed pages look intelligent.  Adverbs aren't the only bloat in a writer's first draft, of course, but they do contribute to the overall mass.

"Pasty, putrid, pulp" also describes that dialogue box.

King gives his "formula for success" in the form of an equation: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.  A chunk of that 10% margin of elimination is unnecessary modifiers.  I would argue that something like 80% of all adverbs are unnecessary.  I'm making up a harsh statistic, but the point is that adverbs are the average writer's cheat.  They accomplish what a good writer's prose can do by itself.  Strong, intentional words are more powerful than strings of modifiers.  The real problem with adverbs is that, though they fill a descriptive role, they are also limiting.  When used as a crutch instead of the occasional seasoning, they weaken the writer's ability to describe and eliminate the reader's ability to participate in the story.

I think this rule is especially apparent when it comes to written dialogue.  I'm a proponent of simple "he said/she said" dialogue attribution, especially when there is significant back-and-forth conversation between characters.  This approach removes clutter and allows the conversation to flow naturally.  In the process of writing dialogue, however -- to preserve the spontaneity of snappy words exchanged in emotionally charged scenarios -- it's easy to slip into the habit of forgoing detailed prose for lazy adverbs.  For example:
"Well, if that's how you feel about it!" Jane muttered angrily.
While a simple "Jane muttered" is sometimes appropriate and would be preferable to "Jane muttered angrily," what Jane is saying should be enough to imply her tone, volume, and intent.  Coupled with a careful description of Jane's body language, her words are enough to give the reader a sense of what she is feeling without the need for such overt clarification or emphatic punctuation (side note: the exclamation point has little functionality in mature writing).  Furthermore, action can replace modifiers when it lends to the character's posture and mood.
Jane's eyes flashed.  "Well, if that's how you feel about it," she said, allowing her hand to curl into a ball against her thigh.
This example says more than the former, and not just because it has more words.  It provides insight into Jane's anger, adds specific detail without using unnecessary modifiers, and is much more powerful than "Jane muttered angrily."  Technically, I am using a participial phrase as an adjective in this sentence, but it eliminates the need for modifiers in the traditional sense, lends flavor to the paragraph, and also provides a sense of action without delaying a response in the continued dialogue.

Both options arguably achieve similar results, but the former is non-descriptive and lackluster while the latter adds specific detail without feeling cumbersome (though it could perhaps be further refined in the context of surrounding paragraphs).  For the record, it isn't more words we're after when it comes to description, it's precise words.  Purposeful, mature writing scrutinizes which words are best for the context, to eliminate the need for unnecessary, superfluous words.  Conciseness lends itself to purposeful word choice.

Sure, you should try to say more with less words.  But not if your "less words" are all adverbs.

In that regard, what really helped build my confidence in my manuscripts was the elimination of adverbs.  In addition to trimming each story's word count, this careful editing process gave each story a sense of maturity it had lacked.  Eliminating adverbs led me to choose more effective verbs and reduce my overabundance of modifiers -- limiting them to fewer, more potent numbers.  Adverbs used appropriately aren't childish: sometimes they're necessary.  They're a part of speech for a reason.  While the mediocre writer can fall into the trap of using modifiers as a crutch to crudely convey his point, the good writer can apply them as the type of seasoning that amplifies the rest of his prose.

If this seems like a simple thing, that's because it is.  It's also powerful.  Whether or not you write fiction, eliminating an overabundance of adverbs is a refining tool.  The practice of avoiding unnecessary modifiers both simplifies and expands a writer's prose.  It allows his or her sense of imagery, vocabulary, and writing style to flourish.

Edit on paper

"A blank sheet of paper equals endless possibilities. Conceptual."
-- Michael Scott


Maybe it's ironic that someone who maintains a blog and does the bulk of his writing on his computer should insist on this.

I've got a number of editing methods that I employ.  For instance, after I finish writing something, I'll leave it for an hour or two or maybe even several days before I finally sit back down to begin editing.  Then, I try read through the story/essay/etc as though I'm a first-time reader instead of its author.  I read sections out loud.  I move entire paragraphs around to determine whether or not the piece could benefit from a different spatial organization.  One really helpful trick I've found is to make the computer read aloud what I've written back to me.  The iWorks software has a "read text" feature built into it.  I can even save text as an audio file to listen back on-the-go.  If the bland, monotonous voice of your computer can read your work aloud and make it sound intelligent, that's a good indicator that a human reader can do the same.  This is an especially useful tool for identifying run-on sentences and deciding whether or not you should add a comma between those clauses.

However, all of that is part of my initial editing process.  It's not until I get what I've written printed on paper that I can truly get hands-on.  Literally.  There is something about editing on paper that makes the process much more deliberate and intense.  Killing your darlings should be visceral.  It should be hard to slash chunks of your work, especially when you love it.

The fact is, you notice different things on the paper than you do on-screen.  Part of that is simply because your eyes have adjusted to the way the text looks against a glowing white background.  Part of that is because the shift in format makes the prose feel fresh, and because you read more carefully and absorb more thoroughly printed text.

Whatever the conjunction of reasons, it isn't until I have a pen in hand that I really begin to eliminate large sections of unnecessary text and identify the portions of the story that are well-paced, those that are quagmires, and those that could use expansion.  I'm more hesitant on the computer.  Maybe the delete key is frightening in its finality: on paper, I can cross out but still see what I've removed.  In that regard, I can be more merciless on paper.

The bottom line?

Write on a word processor.  It's faster and more efficient.  Edit on paper.  It's more accurate and methodical.


As stated, these are two simple editing tools.  You've probably heard more than one writing professor suggest them.  Maybe you can get away without utilizing these methods and maybe even still be successful, but these are painless and efficient ways to hone your craft.  What's lost by trying them (besides adverbs)?

16 January 2015

New Years' Resolution (As Such)

I'm not much for New Years' resolutions.  If I were, I'd be failing already because this first post of 2015 concerning New Years' resolutions is coming a half-month late.

However, I do have a Biblical passage/ideology that I intend to apply this year -- an easy-to-miss verse in an easy-to-gloss-over passage that has some hugely significant application.

The prophet Jonah's story is known even outside the realm of Biblical study.  Critics of biblical inerrancy make much of the miraculous "delivery system" God employs in this short book, but the focal point of the text actually has very little to do with giant sea creatures.  What's truly remarkable about the book of Jonah -- aside from the fact that an entire populace unanimously renounce their wicked ways (though they would eventually return to them, prompting the prophecy of Nahum a century later) -- is the fact that God once again employs a disagreeable person to accomplish His purposes.  Of course, that doesn't give us an excuse to be disagreeable, but it is encouraging to know that I'm not the only one who struggles to be compassionate or to follow the route God is clearly laying before me.

As a political zealot, Jonah had pressured King Jeroboam II into expanding Israel's northern borders against the encroaching Assyrian empire -- restoring them to the point at which they had been in the days of David and Solomon (2 Kin 14.23-27).  Like his fellow Israelites, Jonah knew well the atypical propensity for cruelty and bloodlust that characterized the Assyrian nation, and seems to have been a man who seemed to need little provocation to become resentful.  Ninevah, possibly the largest city in the world at that time, found its home on the Tigris River 500 miles northeast of Israel.  It was one of Assyria's royal cities, served as its capital for many years, and was a center for idolatrous worship.

Because he knew God was "gracious and merciful," "slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness," and "One who relents from doing harm," (4.2) Jonah at first refused to go to Ninevah -- because he feared -- at best -- that they might brutally murder him, or -- at worst -- the people might actually repent and that God might actually forgive them.  Strange priorities, sure.  The notion of his people's oppressors walking away scot-free for saying they were sorry didn't sit well with the prophet.  And so, because Jonah refused to go, God was forced to deliver him directly to Ninevah by some fairly unconventional means.

In the wake of Jonah's message, accompanied by the Spirit's convicting presence and prompted by the occurrence of two plagues (765 and 759 BC) and a solar eclipse (763 BC), the entire population of Ninevah turned out in simultaneous repentance.  Such a wide-spread scale of earnest confession the world has perhaps never seen since.  However, despite the fact that any missionary would have considered it a rousing success, Jonah parked himself on a hill outside the city to watch, wait, and feel sorry for himself.  Maybe he thought God would take pity and decide to smite a few Assyrians, if only to lessen His servant's stinging pride.

It was here, seated in his place of judgment, that Jonah accused the Lord of being too kind and too generous.  Jonah appreciated God's grace and forgiveness when it came to himself and to his people.  Historically, they were no strangers to the kindness and patience of the Almighty.  When it came to the Assyrians, however, Jonah couldn't fathom why God would extend mercy.  This was a people who could barely define the concept.

And then, as Jonah moped on his little throne on the hillside, God asked him the question.

"Do you do well to be angry?"

This simple query reveals so much about the patient, inviting nature of our Father -- the One who is "gracious and merciful," "slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness."  Instead of rebuking the wayward prophet -- who, by virtue of his calling, was held to a greater standard of obedience than was the pagan city below him -- God extended to Jonah the opportunity for humble self-evaluation.

The question wasn't, "Who do you think you are?"

The question was, "Is it justified for you to withhold compassion?"

In his analysis of the ministry of the prophet Jonah, H. A. Ironside observed the following:
[Those who have a special ministry to the people of God] are judged of the Lord, not merely as saints, but as servants.  Nor does failure relieve them of responsibility to serve, but calls all the louder for self-judgment, that they may be in a right state of soul to minister in holy things.
Here's what I know.  Like Jonah, I am a failure of a servant.  I am a man who is abysmally selfish.  I wrestle with pride and a quick temper that no one but me ever sees.  Were I to list all of my faults, not only would you stop reading (probably more due to boredom than disgust), but I'd also be defeating the purpose of this post.

Instead of dwelling on my flaws and becoming discouraged, or instead of assuming my actions to be justified, what if I stopped to evaluate my actions with that simple question -- "Do I do well?"  In any given scenario, instead of defaulting to my normal mode of operation, what if I paused and considered whether or not the choice (conscious or otherwise) I'm making is really the best, most rightful option?  Maybe it's not always my anger that needs to be evaluated.  Maybe it's not always a deliberate sin.  Maybe the question could be, "Do I do well to be comfortable?" -- do I have a good reason for sitting on the couch tonight?  Is my sense of contentment the gateway for sin to enter?

We're all failures, but failure doesn't make us unusable.  Failure unaddressed -- failure to "self-judge" as Ironside put it -- makes us unusable.  But the fact that we have failed and will fail does not mean we are no longer fit for service.  Even Jonah was useful to God.  Though his account ends abruptly, the fact that Jonah himself is attributed as the writer of the book would imply that he eventually learned his lesson.  However, to truly minister effectively, we must not fall into Jonah's trap -- thinking we're better off than we are, assuming our selfish reservations are justified, withholding compassion from the lost.

Earnest self-evaluation and regular repentance keeps us from wandering into the types of sins we never thought ourselves capable of committing.  Earnest self-evaluation and regular repentance keeps us from parking ourselves on hillsides of self-righteousness and deeming sorrowful sinners unworthy of God's grace.

"Do I do well?"

It's not really a New Years' Resolution, but it is something I want to try this year.  If I'm faithful, I'll come out of 2015 a little closer to bringing every thought into captivity for the sake of obedience (2 Cor 10.5).