Streaming for the exits

I am going to talk about why a moviegoer might ask for their money back.

“What does this have to do with how to improve my writing?” you ask. Well, in becoming a better writer, sometimes you need to look at where your writing succeeds—not only at the places where it could stand improvement.

Have you ever walked out of a movie before it was over? If you answered “yes,” can you recall why you got up and left? What was the reason?

Back in my early 20s, I took a girl on a date to see a movie called The Perils of Gwendoline, which looked okay in the coming attractions. “Gwendoline” was played by the young and attractive Tawny Kitaen and the film looked like a lightweight Raiders of the Lost Ark with a dash of Rocky Horror Picture Show…if you can imagine that. Okay, Perils of Gwendoline, here we go!

And we went alright: We were outta that theater 20 minutes after it started and we were not the only ones.

Was there something particularly offensive about the movie? No.

Did its production values look as if it had been shot on Super-8 film and edited with a butter knife? Not at all.

The problem was that it was uninteresting. Boring. Gwendoline failed to “hook” a significant part of the audience, who went streaming for the exits. (My apologies to the cult following that Gwendoline has developed over the years. Perhaps I would view the film differently today than I did then.)

On the other hand, I was transfixed by a movie released the same year called Repo Man—a quirky indie film with a largely then-unknown cast (save for a barely-known Emilio Estevez and perhaps Harry Dean Stanton—if you were an aficionado of character actors). The plot (“Find the Chevrolet with the aliens in the trunk!”) was on the thin side. However, what it lacked in star power and plot line, it made up for with a significant quantity of interesting things that grabbed your interest and kept you interested.

(Interesting, isn’t it?)

In my last blog entry, I talked about redundancy and overwriting—using seven words to say what could be said with three or using the same sentence structures over and over. In pointing out the shortcomings in your own or another’s writing, it’s sometimes very easy to overlook what’s already good.

I took those redundancy examples from a manuscript that became a book called Across the Hall: Real Love the Right Way by author Monique Francisco. But far more important than being a source of such examples, Real Love is a great example of how a good story trumps any technical flaws. Francisco weaves three plot lines and takes the reader up and down the emotional roller coaster: I hissed at the “bad guy” and fell in love with the good guy(s). It held my interest, without effort, and it’s not even a genre I commonly read.

So, Francisco might have had a few things to learn about tightening up a sentence or a paragraph (we all did at one time or another) but there was little I could tell her about how to improve her storytelling or how to improve her book.

Q: What can you do with a perfectly-punctuated yet dull story? A: Use it to start a fire.

The story is the most important factor.

You can always find an experienced freelance editor to correct the grammar, punctuation, etc. (Hey, an experienced freelance editor writes this blog!) You can even find an experienced freelance editor to work with you on the overall flow of your story. (That’s called “content editing” or “substantive editing.”)

So, the moral of the…story is to have a story to tell and to tell it well and interestingly. The rest is technicalities.

Contact me if you need a freelance editor or copywriter.

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Steve Wagner is a Los Angeles-based freelance copywriter and editor whose clients include American Songwriter magazine, The Hard Truth magazine, the public relations firm MWPR, in Burbank, CA and the diversity consulting organization Global Collaborations, Inc., in Houston, TX. If you are seeking a professional editor, contact him at swagner (at) writer-editor-etc (dot) com and he will be happy to talk with you about your project.

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Redundancy strikes…again!

Let’s take for granted that you write for the sake of your reader. You have a feeling, an image or an idea. You write, consciously or unconsciously, so that the reader will feel the feeling, see the image or duplicate the idea.

Words are plentiful and free, hence there is no penalty for giving your readers more of them and likewise no benefit from conserving them.

Or is there?

Correct answer: if you can achieve your aim with five words, there is no added benefit for anyone in doing it with 11 words.

Consider that you, as the writer, are Point A and the reader is Point B.

In writing, as in geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Between you and your reader, the straightest line is the one that uses only as many words as is necessary. More often than not, when the writer does not take the shortest distance, the result is redundant or “overwritten” text.

(I can just hear some people reading this and saying “Oh, so we’re all supposed to write like Hemingway, in five-word sentences, eh?” That isn’t what I am suggesting but, then again, Hemingway is one of the most widely-read authors of the last 100 years, so….)

For some, the idea of the shortest distance makes perfect sense when traveling from St. Louis to Los Angeles but may not be as clear when applied to writing.

I will illustrate my point with examples taken from a recent editing job I did for a client. But first, a disclaimer: Despite some redundancy, this author displays a strong ability to tell a story, weave a plot and cause the reader to feel various emotions. So, while I am about to point out a few flaws, none of them subtracts from this writer’s innate talent.

Examples: 

1. “She ordered a cranberry juice; she was always the designated driver by default just in case.”

“Default” is a noun meaning “a preselected option that is adopted…when no other alternative is specified.” This usually refers to settings on a computer or other device or system but could also be applied to people (i.e., “The response of ‘whatever’ was his default to anything his mother suggested.”) In this author’s sentence, the phrase “by default” is used with the meaning of the noun. However, the phrase “by default” means something different than the noun “default.”

Additionally, “always” implies a default; there’s no need to state it.

Lastly, “in case” is also unnecessary: Sober individuals are the designated drivers because it is understood that the other passengers are going to drink. It’s not an “in case” scenario but a predetermined selection.

So, it’s only necessary to say “She ordered a cranberry juice; she was always the designated driver.”

2. “It dawned on him and he realized that he had never been involved with anyone worth the consideration.”

The expression “dawned on” means “become evident in the mind” or to understand. Hence, one only needs to say:

“It dawned on him that he had never been involved with anyone worth the consideration.”

3. In some cases, the writer may reiterate who is being written about, when the reader already knows:

“Getting ready for church was a pretty uneventful thing for her: simple dress, comfortable shoes, combed hair, a few accessories, perfume and out the door.”

In this section of the story, the reader already knows that main character is getting ready, so no need to mention “her.” Also, the writer has already named the “thing.” It’s “getting ready,” so no need to reiterate it:

“Getting ready for church was pretty uneventful: simple dress, comfortable shoes, combed hair, a few accessories, perfume and out the door.”

4. Another form of redundancy is the use of the same sentence structure over and over. In this case, the author starts nearly every sentence in this paragraph the same way:

“She stretched and groaned as she turned over on the sofa. Jerking back after almost tumbling onto the floor, she sat up on the edge of the sofa. She was stiff from the awkward position she had laid in. She felt in her pocket and retrieved her cell phone. 7:45, if she rushed she could still make it for the 8:30 service. She hurriedly dressed quickly into a brown wool sweater dress with brown boots and was ready in record time. She dashed her face with a few strokes of makeup to help minimize the tiredness under her eyes.”

It’s clear from the first sentence that “she” is the subject.

Using the same sentence structure over and over can create a static effect, similar to a melody with only one or two notes or a movie where the camera is still and none of the characters moves much. If you want to hold your readers’ attention, vary sentence structure:

“She stretched and groaned as she turned over on the sofa and, jerking back after almost tumbling onto the floor, sat up on the edge, stiff from the awkward position she had lain in. Reaching into her pocket, she retrieved her cell phone. 7:45. If she rushed she could still make the 8:30 service. After pulling on her brown wool sweater dress and brown boots, she dashed her face with a few strokes of make-up to help minimize the tiredness under her eyes.”

My suspicion is that redundancy and overwriting are the products of a desire to be perceived as “sophisticated” or from assuming that the reader can’t “connect the dots.” I will admit I have been guilty of this (particularly the latter) myself. Eliminating them and becoming a better writer comes with awareness and practice: Write, write and write some more but then go back and re-read and re-write. I suspect that you will usually find things such as the above examples and perhaps others.

If you don’t care to review and rewrite, you can always hire a freelance copy editor (like me) to do that.

Here are some testimonials from my clients.

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Steve Wagner is a Los Angeles-based freelance copywriter and editor whose clients include American Songwriter magazine, The Hard Truth magazine, the public relations firm MWPR, in Burbank, CA and the diversity consulting organization Global Collaborations, Inc., in Houston, TX. If you are seeking a professional editor, contact him at swagner (at) writer-editor-etc (dot) com and he will be happy to talk with you about your project.

The importance of doing

You can read, read, read books, magazines, articles and how-to’s on your subject of choice but when it comes to learning to do something, nothing takes the place of doing.

There is something that occurs for a person when they actually perform the little and then big actions of a desired skill that provides as much or more “know-how” than spending a lot of time reading about it. Surely, one needs to read and gain the history, theory and other aspects but the doing is what gets it under your skin.

That is how I began editing: One of my superiors threw some written material at me and asked me to check it over. I started editing by doing it.

This applies to writing as well. There may be no subject in the world that is written about as much as the subject of writing itself. However, the most one will ever learn about writing will be while engaged in the act of writing.

This is not my big original idea but one that I have proven to myself over time.

My writing began to spiral out of control.

My writing began to spiral out of control.

Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was a devoted follower of author Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and its guidance and writing exercises. I carried a dogeared copy of the book, a spiral-bound notebook and several pens in my backpack no matter where I went and I did those exercises,to become a better writer, daily for four or five years, filling up notebook after spiral-bound notebook. In doing so, I “wrote out” a lot of the  clutter that can get in the way of clear communication. Writing is much easier now. I did it by doing.

This “doing” idea was summed up by the words on a t-shirt I saw while standing in line at a Starbucks in Venice, CA in 1993: “The key to writing is writing.” That seemed too simple but the big truths usually are. I didn’t get the full understanding of what it meant until I had been doing it for a while.

So it is with cooking, playing the piano, starting a business, editing a book, etc.

The key is to do a little bit and gradually do more and more. Don’t get upset if you don’t knock out a novel at your first sitting.  Do a little and then a little more. Pay attention to what you’re doing. Sooner or later you will find you have a “feel” for the activity that you didn’t have when you started. You will be able to do it.

Remember to do: It’s the secret of good writing.

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Steve Wagner is a Los Angeles-based freelance copywriter and editor whose clients include American Songwriter magazine, The Hard Truth magazine, the public relations firm MWPR, in Burbank, CA and the diversity consulting organization Global Collaborations, Inc., in Houston, TX. If you are seeking a professional editor, contact him at swagner (at) writer-editor-etc (dot) com and he will be happy to talk with you about your project.