Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Creative Words for Creative Writing

Last time I left you with the instruction, "never use two words where one will suffice." Or, you could think of the cliché, “Less is more.” Economy of words is one of the things that separates a professional writer from an amateur. I may be the wrong person to preach this point, since this is one of my weaknesses. The fact is, though, anyone can use lots of words and say nothing. The real test of a good writer is the ability to use the fewest possible words to communicate the largest possible message.

If you don’t believe me, try this: without doing any research, write 400 words about jumping rope for weight loss. Even if you don’t know anything about it, you’ll probably be able to flesh out your 400 words without any problem. Now, think of the person who’s influenced you the most, and reduce their life story to 400 words. Which is more difficult? I’m going to bet you had more trouble fitting more into fewer words. Yet, if you actually did the exercise, you’ll find the 400-word life story contains far more substance than the jump-rope description. “Less is more.”

This skill goes far beyond weeding adverbs and adjectives from your writing. It means choosing the premium word for each thought. As I’ve said before, that doesn’t mean you have to pause in the middle of a creative rush and flip through your thesaurus. If you’re anything like me, you’d never get anything done. It does mean going back through your writing and making sure you’ve packed as much meaning as you can into every single word and phrase. Use action verbs and concrete nouns. Find ways to cut out words by rephrasing. If a phrase doesn’t advance the plot, news story, poem – whatever – at all, take it out (we’ll talk more about advancing the plot in a later post).

If you forget (or ignore) everything else from this post, remember this: make every word count.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Using the “Write” Words to Strengthen Your Writing -- Part 2

Okay, we’ve already talked about the importance of keeping adverbs to a minimum. What about adjectives? Adjectives, of course, are the words that modify, or describe, nouns – pretty, large, angry, petite, etc. I’m not going to spend much time on adjectives. I do want to point out that, while not as problematic as adverbs, they can be overused. Like adverbs, they have valid uses, but they often provide the lazy way out when it comes to descriptive writing.

If you want to know if your adjective is needed, test it in much the same way you would an adverb. For instance, instead of “a big house,” you’d want to say, “a mansion.” That’s a simple example, but you get the idea. Here’s a point I’ll probably repeat again: never use two words where one will suffice. But that’s for another post.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Using the “Write” Words to Strengthen Your Writing

Your ability to use the right words to convey your message is one of the most important aspects of creative writing. Using the wrong words can not only muddle your message, it can also weakens your writing. One example of this is the overuse of adverbs.

Adverbs are often called "-ly words," because they commonly end in -ly. By definition, the adverb is the part of speech that "modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb." In my last post, I quoted Stephen King's words, "Kill your darlings." Adverbs were some of the darlings to which he was referring.

When you overuse adverbs, it weakens your writing, whether you write fiction, hard news, essay or poetry. For example, instead of, "She cried really hard," say, "She sobbed," or, even better, "Sobs wracked her body." See how much stronger an image that creates? The reader can envision what you're writing about.

Of course, in the throes of creativity, it's difficult to stop and weed out all the adverbs. I don't suggest you do that. Rather, once you've captured your thoughts on paper, go back through and pick out each adverb and put it through a test. Can the verb-adverb combo be replaced by a stronger verb? If so, replace it. If you can't find a stronger verb, see if the adverb is even needed. Often, it won't be. For example, in the phrase, "He was terribly handsome in a forbidding kind of way," do you need the word "terribly"? No. When you say, "The play was hugely successful," do you need to say "hugely"?

It's your writing. Why don't you decide?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Creative Focus

When you think of creative writing, you may not think of focus. However, focus is essential to all writing, and the creative exercise is no different. Without focus, you're wandering in a mire of tangents and rabbit trails that will leave the reader confused and frustrated.

Different writers achieve focus in different ways. Some focus their writing by creating detailed outlines of what they want to say. Others begin with a vague idea of where they want to end up. Others only get an idea and start writing. All different techniques, all valid, and all offering their own challenges when it comes to focused writing.

I don't know which method you prefer. Maybe you don't even know. Here are some tips, though.

1. If you work from an outline, then make it as detailed as possible and stick with it. Your focus may change during the writing; that happens. If so, rework your outline so you remain on track with the new focus of your writing.

2. If you start with a vague idea of your ending, or no idea at all, go with the flow. Then, you'll have to go back and rid your writing of the inevitable rabbit trails and tangents that have shown up along the way. It will be difficult. As Stephen King says, though, “Kill your darlings.”

Finally, focus means using the correct words to convey your meaning. We’ll talk more about words later, but for now, remember this: make every word count. Your readers will thank you.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Power of Observation in Creative Writing

Creativity isn't just about waxing eloquent about the beauty of a woodland stream or a rugged seashore. In fact, the most difficult creativity is often the most rewarding: being creative with the everyday aspects of life. That means being observant about everything -- and I mean everything -- around you.

Start with this exercise:

Sit down on in a park, the mall, Starbucks -- wherever there are a lot of sights, smells, sounds. Use all five senses to take in your surroundings. Do you hear the scraping of dry leaves or the hiss of the espresso machine? Do you smell the richness of damp earth or the aroma of coffee, or are you overwhelmed by the cologne of the man sitting next to you? What does the bench or chair or ground feel like under you.

Take it all in. Then write! Search for the best word to describe every single sight, smell, gesture, feeling, sound, and anything else you can think of. If your writing is missing any of the five senses -- sight, smell, sound, touch, and even taste -- go back and rework it. Creativity through observation is a lot of work, but once you've mastered it, your writing will be all the richer and more rewarding for the addition.