Writing Craft

1 + 1 = 1/2

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Carroll County News

What if there existed a magic pill to make you a better writer? Interested?

What if this magic pill were a little “chewy” and took some effort to work through? Still interested?

There’s not a pill, as you’ve guessed. But there is a process. It separates great writers from good ones, and good ones from blah ones. Great writers discuss the absolute necessity of it. Most beginning writers ignore it.

When you attend an open reading and as the writer walks up to the microphone, he says, “I wrote this today,” you should slip out to the bathroom. Because that writer has neglected this essential process. And without it, we’re going to face paragraphs of blah blah with a few shining sentences, if we’re lucky.

Anything I wrote today is brilliant or utter garbage, and my opinion is not based on the writing itself. My opinion of my recent output is more a result of dopamine or serotonin or those other mysterious chemicals that ebb and flow in our brains. How much of the good stuff is sloshing around up there at any moment is what colors my delight — or despair — about my writing.

So I ignore that voice from amid the vagaries of my inner weather. I put today’s writing aside until I can consider it as if it were someone else’s work.

Then, I begin the editing process. The magic ritual that assures me that this is the best writing I can do.

But what is editing? Many aspiring writers don’t edit because they don’t understand how. They believe editing is reading through the piece, looking for typos or changing an occasional word. They don’t understand that editing is a rigorous — but learnable — step-by-step process that goes far deeper than a surface scan.

Multiple issues are addressed by proper editing. I focus on only one thing at a time. In future columns, I’ll show you what weaknesses to seek out in your writing and how to remove them.

Here’s the first principle: 1 + 1 = ½

Regurgitation is not pretty. When you’ve shown us what happened through a dramatic scene, and then a character relates it again in dialogue, that’s regurgitation. You tell me a character is sad. Then you tell me he’s depressed. Then you say he’s despondent. That’s regurgitation. (You shouldn’t be telling me anyway, but that’s another lesson.) Repetition weakens your writing by diffusing its power.

1 + 1 = ½ is a principle applicable to at any level of writing. Two sentences that say basically the same thing. Two paragraphs that convey the same information. Two conversations that rehash the same emotions. Even an unnecessary adjective. Or the repetition of an adjective. Here’s an example from my own writing.

Strasbourg at night was so beautiful, Koob felt sad. He hadn’t been raised with this kind of beauty. In the Kansas village where he grew up, the tallest structure was a grain elevator, and the night stretched away in all directions around the scattered lights of his hometown. Only the red taillights of the departing traffic on I-135 gashed the dark.

But Strasbourg dazzled. It shimmered. It glowed. From this distance, the twin towers of the 15th-century cathedral were tiny but perfectly mirrored on the flat, onyx surface of the Ill River. White glares, futuristic in their stark brilliance, intermingled with warm yellow orbs, the color of lanterns. He could see half-timbered houses. He could see the bullet train.

Examine that first sentence. What if I said, “Strasbourg at night was so beautiful, Koob felt very sad.” Is that sadder than the original? What if I said, “Strasbourg at night was so beautiful, Koob felt very, very sad.” Is that even sadder? Or is that, in fact, less sad? Is there not a poignant power in the simple and direct statement that Koob felt sad? Do the starkness of those three syllables, in contrast to the effusive surrounding beauty, not better convey the true condition of Koob’s heart?

Take a piece of your own writing and look for repetition, for useless adjectives, for any time that you convey the same information to the reader. Make every word fight for its life.

We study many aspects of the writing process, including editing, in the Community Writing Program. The next workshop is February 16 or February 19. See the complete schedule at For more information or to register, contact me at or 479-292-3665.