Sharp writing is the aim and achievement of all good writers. Experts often cite Mark Twain’s famous quote, ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one’ to punctuate the importance of brevity. However, we are often not told how to write sharply because writers aren’t partial to sharing lollies. Well folks, today it is lollipops all round as I share a few secrets of the trade…
When I was in my early twenties, I sat down with the Director of a Wiggles Movie, whom was kind enough to read a feature film script I wrote. His feedback was, “This is a steaming turd”.
Now, he could have just said, ‘turd’ but he went one step further – clearly the adverb was necessary to convey just how much my work stank.
After crying my guts out for three weeks, I resolved to refine my craft.
If you’re keen on honing your skills as a writer, here’s a few exercises that I found really helpful:
Choose a short essay or a newspaper article about 800 – 1500 words.
Read the story first.
Pick up a highlighter and go back over the story and highlight the most important information i.e. what is critical to understanding the crux of the story.
Try to reformulate the essence of the article, without losing crucial information, in 200 words.
Another reformulation exercise is to reduce a long paragraph to one sentence. Just to be an ironic smarty pants, I have cited Mark Twain as an example:
“To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself…Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph,” Mark Twain.
This quote can be reformulated without losing the sense and meaning of the quote –
“Anybody can have ideas, the difficulty is to reduce it to one glittering paragraph,” WordSmith Jo.
Say it aloud
When you have finished a sentence, read it out loud. A great sentence has a natural rhythm (meter) and should flow smoothly. Anything that jars the reader indicates a word or syntax of the sentence is not working.
Try to write first as you speak, and then go back and refine it. This helps to keep your tone natural, and it will help you to find your ‘voice’ as a writer.
My old English Professor once told me that writing is re-writing. Don’t get too attached to your copy. By all means, write it, admire it, and then walk away from it for a day. When you come back to your copy, you’ll start to see the flaws. Wield your red pen like a bloody axe and chop long complex sentences into more simple, shorter sentences.
Read the Classics
Read as many books from the Western Canon as you can. Just as a painter studies under a master, so too does an aspiring writer study the greats. Never be too proud to learn from someone else better than you.
Till next time, crack a whid!