Turn of Phrase

Merriam-Webster, the be-all and end-all of word definitions, capitalizations, and spellings, defines turn of phrase as a way of saying or describing something.

One of the key aspects of being a writer is your turn of phrase. As a writer, if you can't say what you want to say well, no one will listen. If you aren't able to articulate points 1) clearly, 2) concisely, and 3) engagingly (I couldn't think of a good c-word for that one), not many people will read your writing. When you're a writer you have to think before you write, consider the implications of what you've written, and study the back story of what you're covering so you know the whole story.

After all, you want to give the correct impression and send the right message. Writing is a big responsibility.

It's not difficult to pick it out when another writer has good turn of phrase, because their writing makes you want to keep reading or makes you stop and think. It's inspiring because if someone else can do it well, you can do it well too.

The best part about writing is that no matter how you feel about your skills today, there's always room to improve. It's all about 10,000 hours and not stopping when you get there.

*Not a writer? Try replacing writer and writing in the paragraphs above with your noun and verb—politician, librarian, professor, businessman, doctor, pilot, actor—and see if it doesn't apply to you too.

You're Born with Talent

I have written thousands of words today, but promised myself I'd write a post before I a) cleaned a little more and b) went to bed. Thankfully, the post doesn't have to be long. You'll probably like it better if it's short. So will I.

They say you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient at anything. That means we're all good at sleeping, and probably before anyone gets too old we're experts at eating too. You're likely also a pro at bathing and breathing, but what do you do that you had to learn (suspend the detail-oriented side of yourself that reminds me you had to learn to eat and bathe)?

What are you good at? What do you want to be good at? What can you do that takes specific knowledge?

Choose something to become an expert at, and then practice. You're born with talent, but you earn skill.

Settling Down to Write

Sometimes, the hardest thing about settling down to write is, well, settling down to write.

I usually finish dinner, put the dishes in the sink, and sit down to start—then get distracted because I want to clean or cook or draw or read or go outside, or all of the above. These desires seem especially prevalent when I stop moving and start thinking about words.

Sometimes, I give in to my chore-oriented urges. I promise I'll just do something else real quick, but inevitably it takes more time than I planned and soon my train of thought is derailed before it left the station. Gone forever.

The longer and the more I write, the more I realize two things:

To become a better writer, you have to have staying power. If you're getting up and doing something around the house every ten minutes, your writing will show it. It'll be disjointed, and only half-thought out, not to mention it'll take you five times longer to finish things. To get better at something, you have to stick to your commitment to improve, no matter what you remember needs to be done.

To become a better writer, you have to prioritize. When I finished The Cup during my senior year of college, I spent most of August, all of September, and the first half of October inside hunkered over my computer, watching longingly as the autumn days passed in all their charm and mystique. You have to practice to get better, and if you're serious about getting better, you'll have to say no to other things.

When it comes down to it, writing follows the rule of everything else in life: if you want to get better, you have to make some sacrifices.

Why you should work together

Usually, people live in one of two camps regarding their level of attention to detail. 

Big picture people. Give a big picture person a task, and immediately they're dreaming big. Huge. "And so in the next five years, we'll completely restructure the organization to sell ponies instead of pianos."

Detail oriented people. Ask a detail person to finish something, and two days later they'll tell you the most granular facts about every individual component. "And the steps leading down to the riverwalk on this miniature model of Chicago are all exactly .4 centimeters deep."

The best thing you can do, in writing and sometimes in life, is find your opposite, and ask these questions:

To the detail-loving writer: What's the overall point?

To the big idea writer: How will you get there from here?

It will take patience, understanding, and a enormous amount of intentional communication—but in the end, both of you will be better.

How to Get Better

I'm still reading On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Today's excerpt:

Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself.
No rule, however, is harder to follow. It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.
Telling a writer to relax is like telling a man to relax while being examined for a hernia, and as for confidence, see how stiffly he sits, glaring at the screen that awaits his words. See how often he gets up to look for something to eat or drink. A writer will do anything to avoid the act of writing. I can testify from my newspaper days that the number of trips to the water cooler per reporter-hour far exceeds the body's need for fluids.

The best way to sound genuine in your writing is to write constantly. It's like anything else in life that you practice: playing piano, baking, drafting blueprints, etc. The more you do it, the better at it you'll become.

Ya Got Lipstick on Yer Teeth

Lipstick is messy business; it often gets on teeth, and since I pay attention to detail it's quite distracting to me. I always want to lean over with a tissue or something and say, "Here, let me get that for you."

Of course, that would be socially unacceptable (I think. I've never tried, actually. Let me know if you have and how that went for you.).

I have a friend who says that 'girl code' is to run your tongue over your teeth, then the other lady will know you're telling her she has lipstick on her teeth and she'll do something about it. Apparently I got the wrong 'girl code' curriculum, because I would just wonder what they were doing.

It seems like it would be embarrassing for the lipstick wearer, probably lower than the 'booger in the nose,' but higher than 'your shoes don't match your belt.' This adds to my inability to say anything, because you never really know how someone will react. Presumably they'd be grateful . . . but you never really know.

Mostly I'm in a state of eternal limbo, because I'll always be distracted by lipstick on women's teeth, and I feel like I can't do anything about it.

But this isn't really about lipstick on teeth.

When you're reading a story, extra words are like lipstick on someone's teeth. They're distracting, you can't quite figure out what to do about them, and you're vaguely embarrassed for the writer.

When you're writing a story, extra words seem so easy—they make your stuff sound fancier and look cooler, and big words seem to equal intelligence these days.

But, remember, anything that does not drive your writing forward is unnecessary. It's like Strunk and White consistently drive home in Elements of Style

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Adding extra words is like lipstick on teeth: awkward, unnecessary, and very distracting.

Edit ruthlessly and your reader will appreciate it for the clarity, speed, and brevity—just like we all appreciate when the lady realizes her teeth are stained bright red and wipes them clean or licks them or does whatever women do when they realize their teeth are covered in lipstick . . .

What Takes My Breath Away

A lot of things in life take my breath away:

  • The "Hallelujah Chorus," from Handel's Messiah. I've heard it probably a thousand times in my life—and my heart still swells with the crescendo and glory of the conclusion.
  • The sunrise every morning, even though I can't see most of it through tall buildings. That's the biggest reason my heart longs for the country.
  • The memory of people I know and love who are in heaven—and the knowledge that someday I'll be there too.
  • Curtis's face when he buys me flowers, or does the dishes, or sees me after I've been at work all day.

There are more, many more, but then you'd be bored and I'd get too distracted.

As a writer, I'm constantly looking for other writers who can make me feel and take my breath away. I read a lot of things every day—and many of them leave me completely unmoved. Writing can be perfectly functional, but it can still leave me uninspired and uninterested. It's a consistent treat to read something excellent.

Today, I read three things that took my breath away.

The first is a casual obituary, more of a tribute, written by Jerry Jenkins about Kent Puckett. I started reading by accident, as I flipped through a 7-year-old publication looking for ideas for a project I'm working on. What began as a casual glance turned into elbows on the desk and complete absorption. I've never heard of Kent Puckett until today—but after reading a 400 word tribute, I feel like I know him. I'm happy for him that he's in heaven, but suddenly I'm missing someone I've never met. Jenkin's concluding remarks are as follows:

Kent said, “Yeah, I’m trying to take care of myself. Who knows, I might live to be a centurion.” I only wish he had.

This marks an outstanding piece of writing. Well done, Mr. Jenkins. (Click here to read the whole tribute.)

The second is an email from a friend. Writer's block is something I write about with relative frequency, because I experience it with relative frequency. Whenever I have it, I write about it. It's always vaguely startling when someone tells you something about yourself that you didn't know. Then when you hear it or read it, you can actually hear the thud of the hammer on the nail. Today, a friend gave me advice on writer's block—but it was really advice about life. After rereading the email a half dozen times, I printed it off to put in my special book of writing that has warmed me, cheered me, chilled me, and inspired me. It concluded,

Those aspirational writers—the ones wearing a French beret and listening to Miles Davis and sipping lattes at Starbucks while waiting for inspiration to strike—they’ll never get it, because they don’t have the discipline to crank out 2,000 words a day, every day.

I promptly threw out all my French berets when I got home. (Just kidding. Haven't owned one since I was a kid—my brother got me this cool maroon beret for either Christmas or my birthday one year, and I wore it every day until the Fourth of July. I think since then it's gone the way of all the world.)

The third and final is a book. For my birthday, Curtis (he's very wonderful) got me How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz. After opening it and seeing the font and and formatting (and because the cover is BRIGHT ORANGE with BRIGHT YELLOW letters), I checked the copyright date. It's 1981. Almost dinosaur ancient—but, my parents are proof that good things did happen in the 1900s before I was born, so I kept reading.

And it's absolutely excellent. It's a personable, humorous, helpful how-to book about writing, publishing, and editing, but mostly writing. It's spectacular. The title of chapter three:

The changing marketplace
I’m sorry, but we’re no longer buying epistolary Gothic espionage novels set on the planet Mars in the seventeenth century. Readers seem to be tiring of that genre.
— Dean Koontz

I've added something else to my list of personal goals: I'd like to learn how to take someone's breath away (in a brief, good sort of way) with my writing.

Chasing Humanity

I wrote a whole post about how great writers can make their readers feel the whole range of emotions—then I read it, and it didn't make me feel anything besides boredom. I tightened it up (because editing), and here are the final nuggets:

She could make the obit of a woman who spent her life looking out the window fascinating.
— The Dead Beat

Lots of writers go to school to learn the mechanics of writing without learning the soul of the art. Many times we miss the point of perfecting the art because we're so focused on the craft. Writing isn't about the mechanics—it's about the art.

A good writer can suppose a feeling, and write correctly about it. A great writer can feel the feeling, and make you feel it too.

Writing about people well is understanding beyond what you've experienced, feeling what you can't imagine, and taking on someone else's pain, joy, or heartache.

To be a good writer, you have to write good. But to be a great writer, you must learn how to understand people and write their feelings into your good writing.

That's chasing humanity and sketching it out.

Ps. I'm reading a fantastic book about writing obituaries right now that's prompted this mumbling jumble of semi-insights.

Writing Through Hard Stuff

It's good to write about some things while they're fresh—the pain of the breakup, the excitement of an unexpected gift, and the solemnity of loneliness. 

Other things take some time to process and mull over, before you can form anything edifying.

The quick writes are the pieces that help a writer's constitution. It's like being a short order chef; going quickly from one thing to the next keeps the brain stays oiled and the fingers spry. 

The things that take more consideration clog the mind, because even though you're trying to write, your mind isn't in it. It's like trying to write through writers block, only worse because you don't even care a little bit about what you're saying. You want to sigh and give up and cry, because everything you've ever tried is just NOT WORKING.

And maybe sometimes you do, because writing is impossible. Then it's sweat pants, ice cream, trusty spoon, and Hallmark movies till spring comes again.

Because after all, maybe no one even cares if you write or not.

But there are bursts of inspiration and thunderclaps of conviction, because, after all, you are a writer. It's what you were born for, it's what you love, it's what you do best. It doesn't matter if people care or not, because you don't write for them. You write because without writing, you aren't you. Without writing, you don't think, process, and express. Without writing, there's a void in your soul.

That's why, even when you can't afford to share any brain space with the little things, you write anyways. Even if you're writing about bubble gum, grass clippings, and getting dirt in your eyes, you write anyways.

It's what makes you a writer.

Omit Needless Words

William Strunk wrote (E.B White edited and added to) a small book called The Elements of Style. It's filled with practical points for becoming a better writer, and it's a necessity for every writer's tool belt. It's not wishy washy, indefinite, or outdated, even though it's nearing 100 years old.

Much of it is instantly applicable, but (in my opinion) nothing more than the directive regarding word usage.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Writing is any man's game, but not every man's masterpiece. Needless words separate the mediocre from the good, and the good from the great.

A few ways to omit needless words (and become one of those great writers):

#) Edit. Seldom is anything slim enough in the first draft. Or the fourth. Or the seventh. Put it aside for a few days, then come back to it. Several times. You'll be surprised at all the unnecessary words you use.

#) Give yourself a word count. In college I took an editing class. We had a guest lecture from a teacher who gave us the assignment to condense a famous 350 word story into 100 words or less, but preserve the intended meaning. It was difficult, but not impossible. Having a limit is a good way to learn discernment. If you're thinking does this phrase really matter, it's likely that it doesn't.

#) Say it a few different ways. Good writers will come up with several ways to say something before they settle on their favorite, or combine a few of them. This ensures the best content and the best style.

#) Be hard on yourself. All through high school I had a running joke that letting people edit my writing was like watching them kill my children. Morbid, I know. But every writer knows the feeling—watching words get cut is like waiting in line for cake for four hours, and watching the person in front of you walk away with the last piece. It's miserable, hopeless, and depressing. But when your final draft is slick and clean, it's worth it.

#) Practice. It wouldn't be one of my how-to lists if I didn't tell you to practice. Ballerinas don't get good sitting on the couch. Chefs won't improve if they only make instant pudding and grilled cheese. Children don't learn how to walk without falling over. A lot of times.

Get rid of those words. Nobody wants them anyway.

Purchase The Elements of Style. If you don't own a copy, you need one. Non-negotiable.