Monday, January 10, 2011

Snow (Writing) Lessons: Part One

Just about any day, I have a backyard and beyond of birds. But I also have woods, full of tall, spindly pines, wild dogwoods, sycamores and lots and lots of vines. So this amazing array of birds, zipping to and fro outside my window, blends in to the background hues of greens, browns, golds and reds. I know there are birds out there, but I often miss them unless they alight on my deck.

Not so this morning. Against a backdrop of six inches of pristine snow, I could see the red-headed woodpecker, hopping upside down up the tree branch. I caught a pair of cardinals, dashing in and out of the trees. Fat robins, wrens, and blue jays danced among the bare limbs or skimmed the snowy ground blanket. And I watched the birds, thinking how easy it was to spot them. And then I thought...what a great writing lesson!

How many times have you written something you were sure was scathingly brilliant, only to find that when you pulled it out later, it was spotted with writing flaws? That's because, when we read our own words, we zip through, missing the errors amongst the jumble of lovely words. So, here's a few of the tricks I use to catch those writing flaws, making them stand out like...well, a cardinal in the snow.

*Read aloud. Those turns of phrases that read so smoothly in my mind might come out clunky when I read aloud. If my tongue trips over words, the reader (or editor) will trip over it, too. On the way to the reject pile.

*Work backwards. When I finish a piece, sometimes I'll read from the end to the beginning. It makes my brain stop trying to make sense of what I'm reading and instead, focuses on technical errors. Like writing "there" for "their." Don't you just hate it when you do that?

*Use the FIND function. You know how we all have favorite words, or little expressions that we love so much, they show up in our writing like our companionable, pet pooch? With me, it's the conjunction "but." I LOVE to start sentences with but. Trouble is, too much of a but is (a matter of taste, I know) NOT a good thing. So I use the FIND function, plug in but, and get rid of those extra buts. If you have a problem with passive voice, plug in "was" and see how often that passive indicator comes up. The FIND function is a wonderful thing. Using but as the example, not so much.

*Get critique. Join a group or find an online writing buddy. Heck, ask that friend who can't hide the truth from you. The point is, get another pair of eyes on your work.

I have a children's critique group where one member always catches repitition of words. And I'm always surprised when I do that. But I'm in good company. Last night, while reading a very fine and famous author's YA novel, I came across a line with "cacophony" in it. Now, that's one of my favorite words, and it really punched up that scene. But one page later, the author used "cacophony" again. Suddenly that punchy word seemed kinda boring. Too bad he didn't have Debra in his critique group.

I always get the Beneficent Mr. Hall to read my humor column. Not because I listen to a word he says...I mean, the man depends on me for food and creature comforts. He is NOT going to jeopardize that with a bad critique of my column. So, he always says, "It's fine."

I don't pay any attention to his words, but I watch him like a hawk while he reads the column. If he smiles, or makes a funny snort/chuckle, I know my column's golden. If he reads it through, blank-faced, I snatch the paper back with a "Fine. I'll rewrite it!" ("And P.S. Dear, dinner is going to be late!") So, if you can't get a writing critique partner, find a friend who's either a. very blunt or b. totally lacking in a poker face.

If you've got an error-finding, cardinal-in-the-snow trick, I'd sure love to hear it. I need all the help I can get. (I took out three extra buts from this one post. Seriously.)