Thursday, April 19, 2012

Better the Second Time Around: Week 1

NOTE:  I am giving you information about how to revise, but be aware this often takes more than one session, and these assignments, which are given each week for the sake of the class, could easily take longer.  Not every person hoping to write their life stories will want the same level of revision either.  Feel free to pair these lessons in ways that help you and satisfy your needs.

Today, we're going to talk about one of the simplest ways to improve your writing:  being more specific.

Look at your piece.  Find a sentence.  What can be more specific?  Look especially at the nouns and verbs.

For example:

"Often our evening meals were interrupted by random noises outside.  We would look out the back door to discover our dog in the pool."

First, look at the nouns/pronouns:
  • meals
  • noises
  • we
  • door
  • dog
  • pool 
Several of those are boring.  By asking myself what is more specific, I can upgrade some of those words easily:
  • meals = suppers
  • noises = swishes
  • door = screen
  • dog = poodle
You don't need to upgrade every word.  Some will suffice.

That would change the passage above to "Often our evening suppers were interrupted by random swishes outside.  We would look out the back screen to discover our poodle in the pool."

Next, I can look at my verbs:
  • interrupted
  • look
  • discover
"Look" is terrible.  In fact, I try to avoid the following words which are simply too common:
  • be
  • have
  • do
  • look
  • go
  • come
  • get
  • made
  • take
  • see
I know that I will want to switch "look," but I don't like "we" either.  It is both boring and general.  I will need to review the whole sentence, so I will leave it.  "Discover" is okay, and so is "interrupted."  But "interrupted" isn't exactly what I mean.  In my mind, "interrupted" means to forcibly intrude upon.  The dog was in the pool, not at the table.  So I want a different word.  In this case, I may visit thesaurus.com for help.  Whenever you use a thesaurus, you want to do so with a bit of knowledge.  You are not looking for a completely new word but a spark for a memory of that word sitting elusively on the tip of your tongue.  I like "disturb," "distract," and "disrupt," even though they are the results of secondary searches.  Many times, my first search is fruitless.

Now, I get "[o]ften our evening suppers were disrupted by random swishes outside.  We would glance out (still thinking of changing that) the back screen to discover our poodle in the pool."


Now, I look at my adjectives and adverbs as well.  Could they sound better with my new nouns/verbs?

After these thoughts, my first rewrite looks like this:

"Often our summer suppers were disrupted by subtle swishes from outside.  A gaze out the screen door revealed our poodle wandering in the pool."

I like the sound better here, but I cannot "see" what's happening.  Now I try to think in images and actions.  When you think in images and actions, you often suddenly get a lot more words.

"During our summer supper, my little brother's eyes slide past his golden corn, dripping margarine between its two corn cob spears.  Mouth still open, he turns toward the curtains where subtle swishes waft in from the backyard.  Mom sweeps the sheers aside and chokes on a laugh.  We all rush to the screen to discover our aging poodle wandering in the wading pool, belly inches from the water.  She glances back to us as if to say, 'What?  I thought it was my turn now.'"

Oops, though.  I'm still missing something.  I've gotten more specific in my images, but not more specific in my character.

I think back to the intelligences.  The personal intelligences!  Dinner in my family is about interactions.  Time to put those in and characterize these people.

"During our summer supper, my little brother's eyes slide past his golden corn, dripping margarine between its two corn cob spears.  Mouth still open, he turned toward the curtains where subtle swishes wafted in from the backyard.  He's always noticed everything first, from the fire in the kitchen to the boys in the driveway for my sister.

"'What's that?' he asked.

"Mom swept over to the door.  Late as always and still moving things to the table, she hadn't even sat down yet.  She brushed the sheers aside and chokes on a laugh.  We all rushed to the screen to discover our aging poodle wandering in the wading pool, belly inches from the water.  She glanced back to us as if to say, 'What?  You got your chance.  It's my turn now.'"

It will need more revision later--I know I have repetitive words here and in earlier portions of the piece, but this is a good example of getting more specific in a revision.

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