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Help me, and my team, strengthen our non-fiction writing skills
February 4, 2013 10:25 AM   Subscribe

I lead a team of podcasters. They're all great people--intelligent, articulate, and very good speakers. We now wish to translate our spoken success to the page, and our early attempts have shown that despite the successes we have as speakers we're finding our writing skill (specifically in regards to concise, clear, engaging, and personable communication through the written word) is in need of honing. I need suggestions how to do that.

To be more specific, what we are trying to write are nonfiction reports and reviews of all types -- movies, books, music, television, live events, products, we as a group review all of these.

I have a journalism background and am familiar with the ways to write a news article, but (a) my training is approaching 20 years old and I'm out of practice and (b) we're not really trying to write news that starts with an informative overview then drills into details and quotes. We want to write readable, catchy reviews.

I have read this and this where this was asked previously.

I do know one tact is to write more, but the key is to get feedback on the writing. To that end, I was wondering if an online class would be appropriate for us to take as a group (as we are spread across the country), or if we should find local seminars and writing classes that are in person? In either case, what should we take? I feel grammar basics need to be reinforced for the entire group, but beyond that what we are writing is neither news nor fiction, and I wasn't sure what type of course might best aid us in our goal.

Also are there any online groups that might be appropriate resources for aid? I haven't found any in my Googling but may be thinking in too strict of terms.

Thanks in advance for any advice offered
posted by arniec to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
we're finding our writing skill (specifically in regards to concise, clear, engaging, and personable communication through the written word) is in need of honing.

Have you tried honing each other's stuff? Some sort of double-anonymous editing queue -- where the reader doesn't know who wrote it and the writer doesn't know who edited it -- might work wonders. After all, you're all part of your own audience, right? If everyone else in the group can read the review, then probably most of your audience can.

Adopt a style manual. Whether you take someone else's (AP, Strunk & White, Government Printing Office... there's tons out there) or make one yourself, having an objective "Our official style guide says not to use 'whether or not'" reference handy will help everyone. However, remember that the point of communication is to put forth an idea to an audience. Sometimes, you have to break the rules, but you have to know why you're breaking the rules first.
posted by Etrigan at 11:21 AM on February 4, 2013

Don't Be a Draft Dodger

For me, the secret is to write multiple drafts. If I wrote collaboratively, as your group does, I might have team-members redraft each-other's posts, just to shake things up a bit. As a lone-wolf writer, I simulate this by taking breaks between drafts, so that when I redraft, I return to my writing (somewhat) as a new person, disconnected -- at least in time -- from my previous draft. Sometimes, the fact that I'm a little hungrier, happier, or hornier (or less hungry, happy, or horny) than I was when I last worked on it makes a difference. It gives me a new slant on the topic.

Take a Dump

The first draft is a data dump. I don't worry about style at all. I don't worry about boring the reader. I don't worry about spelling, grammar, or the specter of Mrs. Agnew, my 4th-grade teacher, marking up my paper with a red pen. I just spew words onto the screen. It's so much easier to edit than to write, so I give myself something to edit.

Be Loud and Be Proud

Next, I read my draft out loud and reword any sentence that sounds like writing. My goal is to be able to read it over the phone and have the listener feel I'm just talking to him. From this point on, I read all my drafts out loud. This is vital, vital, vital! It's so important that if I have to be quiet -- if I'm writing in bed next to my wife snoozing next to me -- I at least move my lips while I'm reading, just to experience my writing as speech. Not all writing needs to sound conversational, but I recommend doing this anyway, even if you choose a more writerly style in the end.

The Best Word Processor is Gmail

By the way, as silly as this sounds, I sometimes find it easier to write conversationally in an email to a specific person than when I write in a word processor to a "general reader." So try having your team write that way. By which I mean each member picks another member to write to, opens up gmail, and writes a draft as a letter, really making it personal: "Hey, Fred. I saw a movie last night I thought you'd like..." The goal should be to entertain Fred and much as too inform him. Later, the writer can redraft his gmail into a "to everyone" essay.

Put a Bun in the Reader's Oven

I make a sensuality pass. Humans are sense-based creatures. We experience the world through taste, touch, smell, hearing, and vision. My job as a writer is to say whatever I have to say in "images" (by which I mean pictures, smells, sounds, etc). I can't always do that, but the more often I'm able to evoke an image in the reader's brain, the more successful I'll be. This is doubly-important when writing about abstractions. I wrestle with them until I can -- somehow -- tie them to something the reader can grasp in his hand, listen to, sniff, stroke, make love to, or lick.

If a sentence has no image in it, I brainstorm ways to add one. Sometimes I fail. I just can't make every sentence into a back scratcher or a dollop of Cool Whip on the tongue, but if I've gone a whole paragraph without biffing, boffing, or boinking the reader, I know I'm in trouble.

There are two chief methods of projecting images into the reader's brain: the first is via concrete details. This is the "show don't tell" rule. In other words, when writing about movie theatres, make sure you allude to gum under the seats and sticky floors. When abstractions are unavoidable, try shifting to Method Two which is the use of metaphor.

I Never Met a 4 I Didn't Like

Beginners associate metaphor with "poe-tree," and, indeed, there are all kinds of hifalutin uses for metaphors. But their everyday use is adding sensual spice to abstract soup. As when, perhaps, you explain finding the lowest-common denominator as being like buying one cap that fits the heads of all players on the baseball team.

I brainstorm metaphors by making lists. I free-associate around a topic. This is something you could do as a group, finding abstract, non-sensual sentences and asking all your writers to help come up with metaphors. The subject is X. What real-world thing is X like? Just remember that the point of the metaphor isn't to abstract the abstraction -- it's to ground the abstraction in mud and sand. The point of a metaphor is to get the reader's hands dirty.

Metaphors We Live By

Here's an advanced trick: I sometimes do an "Metaphors We Live By" pass -- a technique I've named after George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, authors of a landmark work of Linguistics called -- you guessed it -- Metaphors We Live By. Their thesis is we naturally think in metaphor. We use metaphors in practically every sentence we write, without even noticing we're doing it. For instance, I might say, "I'm going to finish this project" without noticing that I'm using travel ("going") as a metaphor for bringing a project to completion -- and, in fact, that I just used conveying ("bringing") as a metaphor for the same thing!

If I have time, I go through my prose -- hey! I just possessing ("have") as a metaphor for duration and tunneling ("go through") as a metaphor for editing! -- locate all my unconsciously-used metaphors, and broaden them.

For example, here's an earlier bit of this post:

"By the way, as silly as this sounds, I sometimes find it easier to write conversationally in an email ..."

Here are some of the metaphors I used without think about them:

"By the way" -- I am evoking a location "by the side of a road" as a metaphor for a parenthetical thought.

"As silly as this sounds" -- I am using sound as a metaphor for printed text.

"I sometimes find it easier to write..." -- I am using object location (finding) as a metaphor for intellectual discovery.

Here's my rewrite, with the metaphors broadened: "As I'm driving this post from point A to point B, I'm going pause at the halfway point and take a detour, as there's an idea on the scenic route I want to show you. This may sound sillier than a Stradivarius accompanied by a kazoo, but when I'm lost in the forrest of generalization, I sometimes find my way home by writing an email ..."

I am suggesting you use this as a finished piece. Rather, it's a method of discovery. It forces to you examine the deep structure of the building you've raised, and it may help you come up with new ideas that surprise you. They will be organic ideas, because they will have grown from seeds you planted in your writing to begin with.

Games People Play

Whether you try this exercise or not, I urge you and your team to play. It's vitally important that you incorporate play in your work, because it's through play that you make discoveries. It's through play that you surprise yourself. And if you surprise yourself, you'll surprise your readers.

So, in addition to (or instead of) using my metaphors exercise, try making a rule that, for a day, no one is allowed to use words over one syllable. Or make a temporary rule that every pair of contiguous sentences must rhyme. Or that all writing that day must somehow include the word "duck," but in a seamless way that feels totally natural to the subject at hand.

Who's On First?

I make a "who did what to whom" draft, checking each sentence to make sure the reader can easily tell that the subject verbed the object. One risk of conversational writing is that sentences can sometimes get too baroque, as they do when we speak, with all sorts of side-tracks and parenthetical phrases, which sometimes obscure the structure and force the poor reader to juggle too many cognitive balls at one time. Not all sentences need to be "Dick sees spot run," but if you're going to beat-around-the-bush, you should at least be aware that you're doing it. Have your team go sentence-by-sentence through the latest draft and ask whether subject, verb, and object are separated by sidetracks. See if the writing comes into focus by moving those major players closer together.

Remember that Pipe In Willy Wonka? What Would Have Happened If Two Augustus Gloops Had Fallen Into the River?

I make a Bandwidth Draft: humans have limited bandwidth. The famous number is seven (plus-or-minus two), meaning that we can hold five-to-nine simultaneous ideas in our working memories. In reality, I've found it to be way less.

This may be because, if you put two images in the same sentence, other aspects also take up bandwidth, such as parsing grammar and understanding the meanings of individual words.

In my day job, I write many emails that contain instructions. I've found that if a single email contains two instructions, at least half the people receiving it will ignore one of them. And I'm not talking about dumb or lazy people. I'm talking about very smart people with years of professional experience and advanced degrees.

If I write "Please come to the 4pm meeting and bring a pen," many will show up without pens or bring pens to the wrong meeting. I will have slightly better luck if I break the tasks in two separate sentences:

- Please come to the meeting at 4pm.
- Please bring a pen.

People seem to process a single sentence as a thought-unit, so if you pack in two ideas, you put one at peril, and you don't get to choose which one. It's a toss-up whether pens or meeting will win.

Even if readers receive both ideas, the two may dilute each other. "My favorite food is chocolate" is a stronger sentence than "My favorite food is chocolate, and my mom's least-favorite animal is the penguin."

If one of the two ideas evokes strong emotions, it may completely crowd out the other: "Please bring a number two pencil to the meeting, which will be about how some races are inferior to others." If you write a sentence like that, expect lots of people to come to the meeting without number two pencils. (They may, however, bring guns to the meeting.)

Maybe I Should Call Everyone "It"

Here's an uncomfortable result of narrow bandwidths: for years, I've been struggling with how to handle neutral gender in writing. I'm sad to say, I've yet to find a solution that works for me. I refuse to use clunky constructions like h/she or "hir", and I'm not happy with "they" as a singular pronoun.

My discontent has nothing to do with grammar. As I said, above, I consider my primary job to be evoking images in readers' brains. And when try out words and phrases, I must use my own brain as a proxy. It's the only brain I have access to.

I am incapable of imagining a they. I'm so influenced by my gender-obsessed culture, that when I think of a person, I imagine a man or a woman. I apologize to mixed-gendered people for saying that. It's biased, but true. "They" does not evoke an image -- at least for me -- the way "he" or "she" does.

Which leaves me with two options: I can use "he" (or "she") in all cases, or I can alternate between "he" and "she." Though I tend towards the former, I'm unhappy with it. I believe the many women who tell me they can't identify with "he." They tell me that they don't feel sentences like "if someone wants to please me, he should buy me candy" apply to them. Or, at least, they have to go through mental gymnastics to make that sentence apply, and those cartwheels and summersaults may use up some of their precious bandwidth. Which means less candy for me!

But I also am unhappy with "If you see a cop working a crime scene, don't distract her with questions." Because I have sexist defaults in my brain, I imagine a cop as a man. I know there are female officers, but unless I stop to think about that, a generic cop is male to my brain.

Which means that when I read that sentence, part of my brain is reacting to the surprise of finding "her" where it expects "him." It's a very mild surprise, but I'm aware of it. It's actually a pleasing surprise. As a Feminist, I'm glad the writer hasn't fallen prey to gender stereotypes.

Still, the surprise sucks up some bandwidth. My brain is trying to simultaneously think about the writer's fair-mindedness and the main point of the sentence, which is leaving cops to their work. That point is at least somewhat diluted by my thoughts about avoided sexism.

Some readers may think I'm being petty -- that the human brain has bandwidth enough to cope with little surprises like "her" while still following the writer's main point. And that may be true.

But my main concern (the reason I've gone on at length about this) is that writers think these matters through -- that regardless of what they decide, they take bandwidth limitations seriously and think about how much they are taxing readers.

Given my concerns, it's strange that my favorite writer is Shakespeare, a man who packed so many layers into his lines, the reader's bandwidth fills and then bursts. If writing is meant to be read over and over, meditated on and discussed, my points above may not apply. They don't apply to most poetry. They don't always apply to fiction. They don't even necessarily apply to non-fiction, if it aims for something beyond mere reporting.

Again, my main hope is that writers think about bandwidth and take it seriously, not that they always make the decision to "keep it simple, stupid." As Shakespeare said, "suit the action to the word and the word to the action."

Secret Sauce

My final go-through is the Secret Sauce draft. My goal is to find some small way -- "small" being the operative word -- to surprise the reader in each paragraph. It shouldn't be showy or distracting, but I crack open the thesaurus and see if I can slot in an unusual word or two. Or I add in a joke or a strange (but appropriate) image. This could be great fun as a team project. What Secret Sauce can your team find to inject into each paragraph, so that when the reader sticks a fork in it and crams it in his mouth, he says, "That's-a one spicy meatball!"

Let's Hear From Some Other Folks

I'll end this with some quotes that have inspired me. Maybe they'll inspire your team, too. Here's the most important one:

"... The ego is the enemy of the imagination. Anything that you think about writing when you're not writing, is a product of the ego and is absolutely wrong. One hundred percent, all the time, wrong. And if take a step back and think how much time you spend trying to purify yourself in order to get ready to write, that's like 95% of the time. And the reason for that is the ego has a stake in perpetuating the behavior that you've already engaged in. We do not think our way to right action; we act our way to right thinking.

So what I do is I start writing. If I think about my writing before I start to write, what I'm really doing is justifying not writing, because ... I'm not writing. ... I'm going to find a way to keep not writing. So what I say is I don't have the idea yet; it's not fully realized yet... Not only that: I don't have pencils; my pencils are not sharpened; I don't have the right notebook. ... Whoa! Eleven-forty five already. Time for lunch.

... When you think about exercising, what you invariably say to yourself is, "You know, I'm too fat. What's the point? I'm too old; I'm too fat; I'm too old; I'm too slow; I'm too this; I'm too that..." And all you're doing is justifying the fact that you're not exercising."

-- David Milch, creator of "Deadwood."

You can decide if Milch is going overboard or not, but in my opinion what he's saying is basically sound. The more time you waste on "Which word processor should I use?" and "outlining," the less time you are writing. And it's all about writing! Honestly, if a member of your team is stuck for ideas, tell him to write about what he had for breakfast that morning. Writing anything is a step forward.

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." -- Anton Chekhov

"Some films are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake." -- Alfred Hitchcock

"Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it." - David Hare

"if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." - Elmore Leonard

Director Rouben Mamoulian (Love Me Tonight, The Mark of Zorro, Blood and Sand) remembers Ernst Lubitsch: "He was doing a film, and he explained to his writer that the beginning of the film had to show that this man had been married a long time and that he is kind of tired of it. He had gotten used to his wife and had a roving eye. So the writer brought him four pages of introductory exposition of character. Lubitsch looked at it and said, 'You don’t need all that.' He took all four pages out. 'Just put down this—the man walks into the elevator with his wife, and keeps his hat on. On the seventh floor a pretty blonde walks in, and the man takes his hat off.'"

"Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect."
-- Teller

"There is a great difference, whether the poet seeks the particular for the sake of the general or sees the general in the particular. From the former procedure there ensues allegory, in which the particular serves only as illustration, as example of the general. The latter procedure, however, is genuinely the nature of poetry; it expresses something particular, without thinking of the general or pointing to it." -- Goethe

"People are very good [at] thinking about agents. The mind is set really beautifully to think about agents. Agents have traits. Agents have behaviors. We understand agents. We form global impression of their personalities. We are really not very good at remembering sentences where the subject of the sentence is an abstract notion." -- Daniel Kahneman

"Begin with an individual and you find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created — nothing" - F. Scott Fitzgerald
posted by grumblebee at 3:38 PM on February 4, 2013 [15 favorites]

Read and read and read. For first rate non fiction you can start with John McPhee. Maybe you don't want to write about the sorts of things he does, but he has 'concise and engaging' down hard.
posted by TheRedArmy at 5:28 PM on February 4, 2013

Wow - grumblebee, that was fantastic!
posted by kristi at 9:45 AM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

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