Monday, October 26, 2009

Make Every Word Count! by Marjorie Flathers

Marjorie Flathers is an accomplished author, and I'm proud to call her my friend. It is a delight to know Marjorie and a privilege to learn from her expertise as a writer!

This knowledgeable free-lance writer has been published for over 27 years! Marjorie's work has appeared in print well over 300 times in a variety of magazines, newspapers, e-zines, and anthologies for writers and knitters. This writing pro has a degree in English, and is a source of inspiration as well as knowledge about the world of publishing. She has graciously permitted me to present another helpful post for those of us who are just a bit too wordy! If you want to make every word count---pay close attention!

Here's Marjorie:
Years ago, when I was just beginning my writing career, I heard the advice, “Make Every Word Count.” I tried to put this tip into practice, with varying degrees of success. But, about 8 years ago, when I began writing short, short (300 words!) stories for the “Kids’ Reading Room” page of the Los Angeles Times, I knew it was truly time to make these words of wisdom work. In other words, this was when push came to shove!

At first, I didn’t think I could write a complete story (beginning, middle and end) with such a limited word length. I was already writing the longer (1500 words) 5-part serialized stories for that page. This was my specialty, I thought. But then the Kids’ Page editor called me and said she desperately needed stories for the Sunday page (where these shorter ones were featured) because “writers don’t want to tackle them.” Would I? Well, what could I say but “Yes!” And, I soon learned that the skills I was developing writing these stories would also apply to longer stories for children, for adults, and even for non-fiction.

Here, in brief, is how I approach what sometimes seems a daunting task.

To begin, I write a rough draft, not worrying about word length. I just get everything down that I want to say, remembering that any story or article is basically opening with “A” and closing with “C.” However you decide to get from “A” to “C” is “B.” This formula works with just about any manuscript.

Then, I ruthlessly cut out adverbs and adjectives. These are weak words that we (I) tend to use when we don’t believe our writing is strong enough. We want to make sure the reader “gets it.” The more we eliminate these words, the more we are forced to make the nouns and verbs work harder.

Next, depending on the word length I’m working with, I substitute dialog for narrative. Some narrative is, of course, necessary, but most readers do prefer dialog, and it makes a story come alive.

I also make sure I haven’t said the same thing more than once. This is an easy trap to fall into, at least for me, but once is enough! At this point, I need to put the work aside for a day or more, come back to it with fresh eyes, and once again, make sure I’m not relying on over-explaining instead of using forceful, active words.

Next, I re-work the opening to make sure it’s powerful, attention-getting, and sets up the rest of the story or article. This is where words are crucial. One carefully-chosen word can make all the difference.

Now it’s time for the Final Cut. Once again, I set the story aside for a few days or even a week. (You can see deadlines need to be planned for accordingly, but it’s most important not to skip this last step!) When I come back to my manuscript, I read it with fresh eyes, as someone reading it for the first time. I make sure it holds together and that every word pulls its own weight.

The great Richard Peck once remarked that when we don’t “write tight,” when we over-explain, we are, in fact, “begging” the reader to understand what we are saying. It’s only when we make every single word pull its own weight that we gain the confidence to know the reader will understand. Our writing will be compelling and when it comes to writing, less is definitely more!

This approach works for me, as (among other acceptances) I have just submitted my 20th story to the L.A. Times! Thanks to Sherri for asking me to share these tips with all of you, her readers.

c October 2009 Marjorie Flathers


Janet said...

Nice article Marjorie. I write stories for children and try to write tight. It usually takes quite a few revisions to get it down pat.

Gloria McQueen Stockstill said...

Marge, great article!! It is obvious you have learned your craft, especially in the area of writing tight.


Sheryl Crawford said...

Marjorie, with this informative post you've given us a "class" in a nutshell! Why am I NOT surprised? (o; Thanks for sharing and teaching with this great article!

Anonymous said...

The strategy also works with term papers, business letters, etc., etc. My theory is to write what you want to say in whatever words you can find to get it on paper as it is easier to edit something that exists than what is still in the head ... and when you whittle it down to the essence, you'll find you've cut out about 90% of what you know about the subject... and the lean core will capture the attention of the reader. ~ Bonnie

Nancy I. Sanders said...

Marge, what great tips and helpful advice! Definitely from a pro. Smile. Hugs, Nancy

Catherine L. Osornio said...

Terrific article, Marge! Thanks for sharing all the tips and advice that were so successful for you.

Catherine :)

Veronica said...

I'm glad to hear that something as few as 300 words takes more than two weeks to write! Your well written stories give the impression that the words just flow from your pen.

You are a master at short story. Thanks for letting us take a peek at your technique.


Anonymous said...

Thanks to ALL for your very kind comments on my guest post. I truly appreciate your taking the time to read it and let me know your thoughts. I enjoyed writing it, and I'm glad all of you enjoyed reading it. And thanks to Sherri for presenting me in such a very favorable light :-) A great experience! Marjorie

Marilyn Donahue said...

Marge, this is a superb article. I try to keep my work tight, but this reminds me that I'd better keep an eagle eye on my adjectives and adverbs. I know lots of people will benefit from your words!


Marilyn Donahue said...

Marge, this is a superb article -- a good reminded to keep an eagle eye on our adjectives and adverbs. Lots of people are going to benefit from your words.


Marilyn Donahue said...

Marge, what a great article! Full of good advice -- which I plan to take. Lots of people will benefit from your words.


Write2ignite said...

Great article! Thanks for sharing all your advice. It's good stuff!