November 23, 2014

Once is more than enough

Almost no one eats the same for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most of us pick up the remote when we realize we have already seen the episode on the screen. And we can probably all agree that if the local department store only carried socks, we would not be regular visitors (even if we like socks).

We are no different when it comes to what we read. Words are a reader’s sustenance, entertainment and shelter. And one of the reasons a reader engages with a writer’s work is the same impulse that compels us to stare into the refrigerator and wander the aisles of the grocery store: We want to be stimulated. But we also want to be have a desire satisfied. Give us stimulation alone and we are overwhelmed and retreat. Satisfaction alone and we begin to feel like we do after way too much mac and cheese. Sure it was good, but was it good for us?

Yet, if we can get just the right amount of the perfect, food, complete with complex flavors and ingredients, it’s heaven. We remember that experience. We want to return. We want that feeling again. We keep going back.

Our challenge as writers is to offer our readers that perfect balance in our creations. The words we use must be complex but not overwhelming, comforting but not empty of mental nutrition. How long do you think your readers will hang around if your writing is sprinkled with the literary equivalent of “Weapons of Mass Destruction”? You know the ones I mean — meaningless but repeated to the point of annoyance.

When we write, we must consider each word from the largest to the smallest and ask, What does this word add? What does it take away? Why am I using it? And perhaps most importantly, Have I used this word so often that my readers are being forced to retreat in defense of their mental health?

The following examples are taken from daily newspapers. Although few writers on the Web write regularly for newspapers, the precision and directness required of daily journalism offers every writer an opportunity to consider how to make each word count. Sadly, these writers (and their absent editors) are offered as cautionary tales rather than examples of writing success.

Staff suggested a $100 annual permit fee, but two council members said they thought a higher initial permit fee, such as $200, might be appropriate, with the fee then dropping to $50 annually thereafter.

In case you were wondering, this sentence about a fee. The first clause tells us the sentence is about a fee so the repetition is unnecessarily mind numbing. Using a variety of words, beyond making the sentence more likely to hold the reader’s attention, would also allow us to tighten.

Consider this rewrite: Staff suggested a $100 annual permit, but two council members said they thought a higher initial cost, such as $200, might be appropriate, with a $50 annual renewal fee thereafter.

Later in the meeting, Superintendent Collins presented a special report on the on-going investigations at Helix High School. Collins reminded everyone that these investigations were not completed yet, and that they are expecting a report in December. He said that Helix has been cooperating with the investigation. He said that no one should leap to conclusions or speculate about the outcome of these investigations.

Did you get that there is an investigation going on? The problem here is not simply the repetition of “investigation,” which is somewhat akin to pencil tapping during an exam, but the chronological feel of the sentences. And then he did this. And then he said this. And then he said this. Remember, it is okay to compress what happened if you are not altering facts or time line.

Consider this rewrite: Superintendent Collins discussed the on-going investigations at Helix High School, which he said the school was cooperating with. A full report is expected in December.

NOTE: This paragraph needs a single sentence to explain the nature of the investigation, which is missing in the story. (This would be true for any writer. Don’t leave your reader wondering what the heck you are talking about.) It also needs to include Collins’ first name and needs to use quotes if he/she said “leap to conclusions” or “speculate.” (This is more an issue for journalists, but every writer can take a lesson: If people’s words are compelling, USE THEM!)

Jennifer Freeman’s family always makes a point of getting together for Thanksgiving each year.

“It’s a family tradition,” said the Hart County resident.

There have been very few times the family has missed being together for Thanksgiving. The times they didn’t get together were due to illnesses.

In case you missed it, these folks get together. Every year, together. Except when they don’t, together. At this point, you should have a good idea of how to fix this, but one quick point: Thanksgiving is every year so every year is unnecessary in the sentence.

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