Small Things That Can Transform Your Writing

September 30, 2010

I’ve often been asked if there’s a manual I use when I revise my work.  Years ago, I happened upon William Zinsser’s, On Writing Well, and his discussion  of the small changes you can make that will make a huge difference in your writing has been invaluable to me.

Buy the book.  Use it.  But here are my notes on Zinsser, the “cheat sheet” I consult before I move from early drafts to later work.

To begin, remember the axiom that I learned from Mitchell A. Leaska in graduate school at NYU:

Everything in a published work – every word, mark of punctuation, paragraph break, space break – is there by choice, not by chance. Which means that when you’re revising for your final draft, you have to make a choice about everything.

1.  Verbs

Zinsser suggests using active verbs instead of passive verbs to make a piece come alive.  “Joe saw him” instead of “He was seen by Joe”.

Writers often use more verb forms than they need:  “They don’t hesitate to ask questions”; instead, say, “They ask questions.”  If they ask questions, they don’t hesitate to ask them; if you mean they’re bold or shouting, say it: “They shouted their questions at the speaker.” “She was in the process of running”; say “She was running” – the “ing” means “in the process.”

Use precise verbs, not ones that hedge.  Not “The president of the company stepped down”; “The president of the company resigned” or “was fired”.

2.  Adverbs

Zinsser suggests most are unnecessary.  I think sometimes an adverb is used in an early version as shorthand for something that needs to be said more precisely; when you revise, and you see an adverb, think of it as a warning that you might need to say something else.

“Blare loudly”; “blare” conveys the meaning by itself.  If there’s more noise than just blaring, then write another few sentences.

“Totally flabbergasted” – you are either flabbergasted or you aren’t.  Watch “totally” – it often is a key that the feelings are intense and need to be discussed, perhaps, using images or in some other way.

“Perhaps”; I suggest getting that out almost always.  It diminishes your authority as a narrator.  In memoir, if you want to indicate that maybe this happened, maybe it didn’t, you owe the reader a few sentences; I wouldn’t hedge with perhaps.  Tell the reader fully that you’re not sure about this; it might have been this way, or it might have been that.

“There for me,” as in “She was there for me” – what does that mean? Precisely how did she help?

3.  Adjectives, Especially Those Used in Clichés

According to Zinsser, many are unnecessary.  He suggests a writer uses them as a shortcut when they want their work to appear lush or poetic.  Often, writers use them when they might be searching out the right image, simile, or metaphor

“Sleepy lagoon” – a cliché; just use “lagoon”; and work hard to describe it specifically so it’s not generic.

“Caring mother” – how does she care, precisely?

“Dysfunctional family” – tells us nothing.  We need to know the precise ways in which the family is dysfunctional.  Adjectives are sometimes a shortcut to a long story.  Tell it.

4.  Inappropriate images, similes, metaphors

As you revise, watch that these don’t take the reader into another narrative; watch, too, that they don’t patronize or misrepresent; watch that the picture you’re making is possible on a metaphoric level.  An example: “Her room looked like a cyclone hit it” – well, no, if you’ve seen pictures of the devastation wrought by cyclones.  Be precise.  “Her tears etched roadways in her cheeks” – well, no, they can’t do that.

5.  Little Qualifiers

Zinsser includes a bit, a little, sort of, kind of, rather, quite, very, too, pretty much in this category.  If you write that someone is “a bit confused,” something is “pretty expensive,” “something is “quite lovely,” something is “rather ugly,” revise.  These undermine the writer’s authority – you need to know just how confused someone is, exactly how much something costs, what lovely means, what ugly means, and that requires a few sentences.  Little qualifiers often tell the writer (on revision) that there’s some ambiguity or complexity here, so write it out.

6.  Punctuation

Period: Zinsser says that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.  But one problem beginning writers make and many writers make in their early drafts is trying to make one sentence do too much work.  Don’t confuse this with writers who know how to make a long sentence work by tugging you from one idea to the next.

A sentence that is trying to do too much work goes like this: someone is traveling on an airplane from one continent to another to meet someone they used to know from grammar school who is now married to a former lover who used to work at Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side about the time the speaker was attending classes at Hunter with a teacher she really loved because it was the first time she learned she could write.  You get the idea.

You are “teaching” your writer about your world.  Go slow.  Tell them one piece at a time.  Fully.

Exclamation point: Zinsser says not to use it.  Ever.  It sounds gushy, sophomoric, like a “bodice ripper.”  One of my editors allowed me one exclamation point per 500 pages but preferred none.

Here’s why: “She clutched her letter to her chest.  Samson was alive!  After all these years!”  An exclamation point is the hallmark of writing that most of us want to avoid.  But there are genres – romances, for example – where you can use all you want, and make pots of money.

Semicolons: I’ve noticed that this seems to be dropping out of much writing.  Semicolons are used to mark “deletion transformations” – a part of the sentence is left out.  “She hated Yardley: his hair; his face; his nose; everything about him.”  What’s left out is “she hated.”

Some writers use it to mark a “pause” different from a period that indicates a loose connection.  Zinsser believes it’s a dated mark of punctuation.  I like it; Virginia Woolf loved it. (Note the semicolon and the loose connection.)

Dash: The dash can be your friend.  You can use it to indicate something that just came to you.  It indicates there’s a rush of ideas.  It indicates interruption.  I like it; I use it.  Here’s Carol Maso: “The dream of these days – how unable to lift myself from it – this feeling of impossible fullness.”  Here’s me: “I don’t know if this is true – I had given Jill a belt – but I am compelled to say it.”

Parentheses: I love them.  Zinsser believes the dash should be used instead.

I use parentheses to flash forward.  I do it on page 153 of Vertigo and it goes on for four paragraphs.  The little story in the parentheses is about a sweater a boyfriend gives me and what happens to it when I go to college.

I use parentheses for back story.  “She is raising both my sister (born the previous February) and me.

I also use them for the important, hidden story.  On p. 161 in Vertigo, I tell the story of how my friend Susan gets dressed next to me in gym and I see bruises on her, so I know she’s beaten.  I like the irony of putting important material in parens.

7.  Mood Changers; Time Changers

Many beginning writers don’t take advantage of using these to orient the reader.

But, Yet, Still, However, Nevertheless, And, Though, Although, Too. These are the words indicating you understand the complexity of your story, the relationship between one thought and another.  You love him; still, he makes you angry.  You want to write; but you worry about how to support yourself.  And “and” is terrific at the beginning of a sentence.  If you’re rushing through “primal” feelings, a series of “ands” can indicate this.

Now, Later, Years later, For years, Earlier, Before, Today, Usually, Never, Meantime, Before, The next month, The following year, etc. The reader needs to know when events in your narrative happen in relationship to one another.  Use these words.  “Now I live in New York.”  “Before I married, I lived in New York.”  “Years later, I learned.”  These are often missing from early drafts (which sometimes seem to exist in the eternal present or past).  Insert them as you revise.

8.  Contractions

They warm your style.  “He won’t go.”  For formality, don’t use them: do not use them.

9. Words for Family Members

Give them thought.  I prefer referring to parents as “mother” “father” throughout, avoiding, “Mum,” “Mom,” “Mommie,” “Mumsy.”  What you call your mother is what you call your mother; if you want your reader to slip into your story, remember that s/he might not use this term.  And I try to avoid it in direct address too.  It seems sophomoric to me.  But that’s a personal bias. You might want to write something about what you call relatives if it’s a cultural issue.

10.  Concept Nouns; Abstract Nouns

Zinsser says these kill good writing.  “The common reaction is incredulous laughter.”  Revision: “Most people laughed though they don’t believe the speaker.”

Check to see if you use abstractions as nouns so it’s hard to figure out who is doing what to whom.  “Our love was on  the wane.”  Revision: “We didn’t love each other as much as we used to.

Often, using these nouns passes for “smart writing” in college or graduate school where, sometimes, writing so that no one can understand what you’re saying is prized.  Creative work demands clarity.

11.  Creeping Nounism, “Smart” Nouns Instead of Simple Ones

Zinsser says people are using more nouns and fancier ones than they need.  Students study “subject areas” not “subjects.”  “Precipitation activity” not “rain”.  “Money problems” not “is broke”.  “Preemptive strike” instead of “we bombed them”.  “Ground forces” instead of “soldiers.” On the radio – NPR, especially – experts talking about “individuals” not “people.”

This language hedges, obscures, tries to be smart.  This is the language of law, politics, administration, some (many) literary scholars.  Not the language of creative work.

12.  Overstatement.

Don’t do it.  Especially at a crucial moment in your manuscript.  Less is always more.  The reader will “get” the emotion.  The reader will be turned off by effusion.  Readers often feel manipulated by this kind of language.

“I knew then I would love him forever.”  Forever is beyond the amount of time any of us will live.

13.  Quick Fix.

This is one of Zinser’s brilliant suggestions: if a sentence is giving you too much trouble to revise, delete it.  You’ve probably said it earlier or later.  I use this rule.

14.  Paragraphs.

This is how much information you expect your reader to take in at a gulp.  Look at the length of your paragraphs.  Are they too long?  Do they vary?

Starting a new paragraph tells the reader we’re on to a new subject or the elaboration of one introduced.   Although there’s at least one example in Kathryn Harrison’s The Mother Knot where two subjects are included in the same paragraph to great effect, indicating Harrison groups those two subjects together when she thinks about them.

15.  Wide Space.

The wide space, in a manuscript, is your friend.  It indicates juxtaposition, a shift in time.  It lets the reader pause before getting on to the next piece of the narrative.

This may seem daunting, but in time this kind of attention to your work will become second nature.

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4 Responses to “Small Things That Can Transform Your Writing”

  1. Danielle Says:

    Looking back on old work, even pieces I’ve written last year, I see a lot of Zinsser’s rules broken. I was trying too hard: too hard to make the piece sound poetic and beautiful, too hard to control it. I wasn’t letting it write it itself like I should’ve been doing.

    I want to try and use parentheses more. I wasn’t always fond of the idead. I felt like they just indicated information that didn’t necessarily have to be there and could be skipped over, but now I feel it will add complexity to the piece and enrichen it.

    • writingalife Says:

      But remember, Danielle, looking at Zinsser’s “rules” happens at the final stages of the project, when you’re revising just before releasing to the world. Until then, break all the rules — if rules they are — you’re not to think of them until the final revision. I’m now on my eleventh draft of a piece called “Man O’War’s Man” and I haven’t thought about the phrasing of the piece until right now. I’ll probably have one to two more revisions. But at the earlier stages of the manuscript, I was simply concerned with getting the material down, getting the order right — all the stages I talk about in Writing as a Way of Healing. Come to think of it, it might be worthwhile for me to post about stages of the writing process.

  2. Daniella Says:

    You’re right. It’s like I’ve been saying: trying to control too much and not letting the piece write itself. I’m having a ton of fun writing and experimenting. I just still have some old habits to break.

  3. xxnettie09xx Says:

    I never really thought of using the wide space before. I’m going to try to use this in some of my writing. I’m so use to writing academically that I never really thought of using that space as a gap for time. I need to remind myself that I am writing something that is creative and not formal academic writing. This entry just helped me realize I need to remember that I am writing a form of art.


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