Posts Tagged 'Writing Tools – 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer'

Get the Name of the Dog

2009-05-12I’ve started editing one of my novels again and have pulled out my editing bible to help me get back into the right headspace. It’s an unassuming but brilliant little book called Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark. I suggest everyone buy themselves a copy (I get no money for that advertisement). One editing tool I particularly like was conjured the other day during a conversation with my fiance. It happened after he’d read a review I did of Kathryn Apel’s delightful debut picture book, This is the Mud!, and went something like this:

Andrew: He he he

Me: *frown* What are you laughing at? (I can tell he’s laughing at me, rather than at something wonderfully witty I’ve written)

Andrew: You said ‘beef cow’ in your review

Me: And…

Andrew: Why wouldn’t you just say cow?

Me: Because it wasn’t just a cow. It was a beef cow.

Andrew: You’re so clever, intelligent, witty and wonderful. No wonder I’m marrying you (or something to that effect)

Anyway, the point is that I included that detail because if I’d just said ‘cow’, people would have automatically imagined a black and white dairy cow. When writing is unspecific, people’s minds automatically generate stereotypical and uninteresting landscapes. Small details are an immediate way to conjure vivid images, helping the viewer to feel as if they’re standing knee deep in mud in that paddock with a looming great beef cow. The writing tool this conversation reminded me of in Clark’s book is:

Get the Name of the Dog: dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses

The name comes from a journalism office, where the editors would remind their reporters not to return to the office without “the name of the dog” – not because they would necessarily use the detail in the story, but as a reminder to keep their eyes and ears open. Clark also says that “when details of character and setting appeal to the senses, they create an experience for the reader that leads to understanding”, and gives a range of fascinating examples highlighting just that.

All this sounds simple enough, but I still find non-specific nouns lurking in my prose, even on the third read through: flowers and coffee and women that should be tulips and espresso and spinsters. Small details that immediately change the way a sentence rings. Words that give a clear image and conjure a mood the reader can’t mistake. When you say that your protagonist kicked a can, do you want us to see an indifferent nudge with the foot, or a moody thrashing? As a reader, I get annoyed when there isn’t enough detail – my mind automatically fills in the void, and if I’ve gone in the wrong direction, I get frustrated when (a few lines on) they reveal what was actually meant.

Specific, simple, sensory details – quiet but vivid writing – is some of my favourite prose to read. Now back to editing my novel in an attempt to achieve just that…

Editing Bible

2009-05-12There are many different stages of editing. With my mentorship novel, I (thankfully) have finished the huge, plot altering style editing. Over the last 8 months I have done numerous rewriting drafts, crafted all my characters carefully, explored the hidden folds of my world, reordered plot points and polished the pacing to a high shine.

Next step? The final fiddly edit, a whole other realm of editing. It’s about tightening, pruning, fastidious shaping of sentences, dialogue, the five senses, and making your prose sing. For this stage, I have discovered an editing bible: Writing Tools ~ 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark.

This book smoothly guided me through the final fiddly edit, reminding me of old techniques I’m familiar with and introducing me to new ones. It’s beautifully set out: each tool has several pages devoted to it, with clear explanations and examples. I’ll likely reread this book again before I begin editing future novels, or at least skim the title of each tool as a quick way to get into that head space. Here are some examples from the ‘Nuts and Bolts’ section:

  • Begin sentences with subjects and verbs: “Make your meaning clear early, then let weaker elements branch to the right”
  • Activate your verbs: this is something I think I’m quite good at, and yet with a gentle reminder, I still found many weak verbs hidden in my prose
  • Take it easy on the -ings: this was new to me, but I found it to be a powerful tool in making my prose more immediate
  • Fear not the long sentence: a good reminder, as I tend to use shorter sentences, whereas a variety offers a more dynamic paragraph
  • Establish a pattern, then give it a twist: “Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain”

Other great tool titles include: Get the name of the dog, Climb up and down the ladder of abstraction, and Place gold coins along the path. On an aside, yesterday, in the middle of editing, I left my desk for just a second. My adorable yet cheeky little pup, motivated no doubt by the lure of the winter sun splashing over my desk, discovered how to jump from my chair up onto my writing desk. I literally found him as captured below, red pen in mouth, crouched over the chapter I was editing. Now on first glance it may indeed look as though he is simply chewing my pen, but I like to think he was trying to help me edit…

2009-05-12a


About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

Released Sept 2012:

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