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Advice from the Competition

Posted on Wednesday, September 30, 2009 at 2:33 PM

Useful tidbits taken from other publications invested in the art of writing.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I'm not sure how well this will go with my bosses here at Editors Only, but I'm going to share some useful tidbits garnered from publications that deal with matters of writing, publications that might be said to compete with this beloved newsletter of ours.

But my philosophy of learning is to read widely, and I admit to paying for subscriptions to other sources that can add to my trove of helpful examples and precepts.

Fact vs. Truth

For instance, there's The Writer's Chronicle, put out by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. In its September 2008 issue, the month in which I am writing this column, I find a conversation with Scott Russell Sanders, the distinguished essayist and someone I'm privileged to know. Here's just one telling lesson in an interview bulging with them, his response to the question: how do you define or distinguish between "fact" and "truth?"

"Facts are data; truth is the sense we make of the data," Sanders says. "And the sense we make should always be open to revision, to new evidence, to further discovery. The writer of nonfiction has an obligation, I believe, to be faithful to the facts, so far as they can be known or reconstructed. Wherever possible, one should test one's memory against other sources -- journals, photographs, scholarly works, news accounts, the testimony of other people. At the same time, the writer of nonfiction has an obligation to search out the meaning of an experience, to interpret the facts."

Find Inspiration

In the July 2008 issue of The Writer, another always useful compendium of advice, Michele Acker, a science fiction and mystery writer, suggests we "Find a New Perspective" to keep ourselves fresh. Her article offers five steps toward renewed inspiration: get out of the rut, pay attention, learn new things, hang out, and travel. "Writing is a solitary business," argues Acker, "with little to stimulate our writer's brain. But it doesn't have to be," if we follow her counsel.

There's not much new in what she tells us, but the filler material under the above headings are useful reminders. Take the first follow-up paragraph after "Pay attention." Acker says: "You may think you already pay attention, but do you really? When was the last time you looked at a building's architecture, really looked? Do you know how old it is, how it was built, or who designed it? When was the last time you noticed the beggar on the corner, that abandoned lot across the street, or the way the sun shines through your bedroom window? You see those things so often that you barely notice them anymore. Start noticing again. You'll be surprised at what you see."


Quill, the magazine published by the Society of Professional Journalists, devotes a number of pages each issue to columns handed out to ever-changing writers. In the June/July 2008 issue, under the rubric "News Gems," Jon Marshall, a Chicago area-based writer and teacher, notes: "Stories come alive when readers feel like they're at the scene of the action." He proves the point with various samples, one by Jeanne Marie Laskas, taken from GQ magazine, about a landfill near Los Angeles. Marshall keys in on the use Laskas makes of nouns, in her case, meaning cogent details:

"This is a 100-million-ton solid soup of diapers, Doritos bags, phone books, shoes, carrots, watermelon rinds, boats, shredded tires, coats, stoves, couches, Biggie Fries, piled up right here off the 605 freeway. It's a place that brings to mind the hell of civilization, a heap of waste and ugliness and everything denial is designed for. We tend not to think about the fact that every time we toss out a moist towelette or an empty Splenda packet or a Little Debbie snack-cake wrapper, there are people involved, a whole chain of people charged with the preposterously complicated task of making that thing vanish -- which it never really does."


And that leads me to another such column, one from the May 2008 issue of the same publication," this on a "Words and Language" page filled by wisdoms from Paula Larocque, author of various books on writing. She deals with description, whose goal, she says, "is to replicate something clearly, briefly, and suggestively, so the reader sees and senses what the writer saw and sensed."

Larocque goes on: "Good description is fast, spare, specific, and showing. Poor description is slow, wordy, vague, and telling. That distinction between showing and telling is particularly important. Telling fails to create an immediate and vivid mental image; rather, it offers a conclusion, which readers may not accept because it's not their conclusion. Telling interprets, while showing creates a convincing picture."

An important reminder lesson, wouldn't you say?

3 Big Questions

Ragan Communications' monthly Corporate Writer and Editor contains, as does each issue, a "Back Talk" column by its co-editors, Mark Ragan and Jim Ylisela. Tackling the subject, "How to Write Something Someone Will Read," these two gentlemen urge their readers to ask themselves "three BIG questions every story needs to answer."

"Big Question No. 1," they write, is, "What's it about?"

"Really Huge Question No.2," they continue, is, "Why should anyone care?"

"Massive Question No. 3," they add, is, "How can I get your attention?"

These are precisely the right questions to ask ourselves as we sit down to write anything that we want our readers to read.

In support of their first question, Ragan and Ylisela, say: "Sounds obvious ... but how many stories have you read -- or written -- where you just weren't sure what they were supposed to be about?"

Of their second question, they reason: "If you can't tell me why someone in your audience should care, then why are you bothering?"

And concerning the third, they sagely follow with: "If you know your audience, then you should know the best way to reach them. That means figuring out the best medium for the story and then packaging it to get their attention."

Beware of Modifiers

The August 2008 Writer's Digest includes Bonnie Trenga's regular column, "The Sentence Sleuth," devoted on this occasion to "News of the Weird Modifiers, Reports of misplaced modifiers amuse and confuse readers."

"Pick a modifier -- any modifier -- and you can misplace it," Trenga argues. She provides numerous and often comic examples, then concludes: "You don't want readers to laugh at your sentence structure or to think you're imprecise. Misplaced introductory modifiers, like this one I found recently, can be hilarious: 'Growing from a pile of sticks and mud, we found several stands of large mushrooms.' How great would it be if people could grow from sticks and mud? If you're writing science fiction, go ahead and use that line. Otherwise, watch your grammar."

Less Is More

James Kilpatrick, in a recent outing for his syndicated "Writer's Art" column, addressed "the deployment of 'whether or not,'" this following a query from a reader: "Is the 'or not' always redundant?" Yes, answered Kilpatrick, it is "usually redundant, and, yes, redundancies are usually barnacles on the hull of sturdy prose -- but! The court looks upon the usual 'whether or not' as ... a benign redundancy. In many constructions the 'or not' is essential: 'I will marry Mr. Rassendale, whether or not you approve!' The first rule, as always, is to eliminate unnecessary words. The second rule is to remember that 'necessity' is defined by the pen of a careful writer."

Kilpatrick always contributes sound advice. I hope you can find his column where you are.

Editor's Involvement

Finally, in a recent issue of Creative Nonfiction, another source of guidance and exemplars, I found an interview with Michelle Wildgen, senior editor of the literary journal, Tin House. She was asked about the extent of her involvement in editing a work.

"I'm there to respond," she says, "not to generate words. I prefer to note my response and leave it to the writer to decide how to address the issue, though I might throw out some ideas. The purpose, then, is not to force my suggestions down his throat but to air out the underlying issue so he can decide what to do... I may go a few rounds with a writer on an issue we both feel strongly about, but I have to be aware of when I'm getting too invested in making a point rather than remembering that the writer should make the choice. In the end, his or her name is on the piece, not mine, and I try to remember that. Ultimately, it is up to the writer. They have to come through."

Of course, that depends on how proficient the writer is.

Thoughts for you to contemplate, taken from other publications invested in the art of writing.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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