Friday Flick: Validation

Validation short film screenshot

Click on the image to access the 17-minute film, “Validation,” a fable about more than the magic of free parking.

Therapeutic Draft

Fountain Pen image copyright Dre Schwartz, iStockPhoto #000005330500

Almost everyone I meet admits to a book-writing dream, usually a flaming bestseller about what the aspiring author has suffered: twelve chapters detailing the ordeal, and one on the happy ending, the wisdom gained, or the call for justice. Let me encourage you to do exactly that; write it out of your system before it kills you. Writing is definitely therapeutic for the writer. Amy Hartl Sherman expressed it perfectly in her award-winning six-word memoir: “Write it down. Set it free.”

After you finish that draft, set it aside awhile. After purging a story onto the page—for our own benefit—we begin the real work: the insightful pruning and shaping for the reader. In the early drafts, you’re likely to be more focused on yourself than your reader, on the ordeal rather than the wisdom.

Remember my Yearbook Effect? Readers look for themselves in you. Can they relate? Because you’re in the same boat, or because you made it to safe ground and found a life preserver to throw them?

Writing is life-giving. First save yourself. Then decide whether it’s ready for the world.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2010

Question the Preposition

Question Mark in Lucida Blackletter gold, created by authorRemember when teachers assigned papers by length, and adolescent ideas didn’t stretch that far? Did you turn “Japan exports transistor radios,” into “One of the prime exports of Japan would have to be the small portable appliance known as the transistor radio”? We relied on the passive voice, and padded our prose with prepositional phrases. Our teachers were proud. In most fields, the more college degrees one earns, the better one masters that verbose style.

Well, you’re here to unlearn that. Say it straight. We want to understand and enjoy every word.

Forgot what a preposition is? If you’re so young you never diagrammed a sentence, then you’re also young enough to remember Sesame Street’s lovable monster Grover demonstrating a few prepositions:  “Around, around, around, around, over, and under, and through!” Here’s a more complete list:

Try this. Take your next paragraph and circle all prepositions. Which can be dispatched? Which phrases can be condensed to a word? Which are still necessary for meaning or idiomatic flow? The goal isn’t to avoid all prepositional phrases, only redundant or flabby ones—those adding nothing to your meaning or musical cadence.

Here’s an example. (If you checked out the link above, you’ll recognize the source. To retain the hyperlinks, we’ll rule out one potential excision.)

This is a list of English prepositions. In English, some prepositions are short, typically containing six letters or fewer. There are, however, a significant number of multi-word prepositions. Throughout the history of the English language, new prepositions have come into use, old ones fallen out of use, and the meaning of existing prepositions has changed. Nonetheless, the prepositions are by and large a closed class.

Questioning prepositions and omitting redundancies trims it from 65 words to 35, or 54% of original length, still retaining acceptable prepositions:

In English, most prepositions are short words; some are phrases. Throughout the history of the English language, prepositions have been added or dropped, or have changed meanings, but are now classified as a closed class.

Please share your own revisions here. You can condense your own work or practice on someone else’s academic or corporate prose.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2010

Writing as Cloud Painting

Cumulonimbus clouds near Wyoming in Stark County 5/30/03
Cumulonimbus clouds near Wyoming in Stark County 5/30/03

Have you been cloud gazing lately?

Have you noticed that when you share the sky with someone else, you see more? Someone points to a catch: “There’s a crocodile! See? There’s the open mouth with the teeth, and the tail curves back around over there.”

Once you’ve been lead to see it, you can’t stop seeing it. It’s like great technical writing, the way each systematic description transfers one personal viewpoint to the whole group.

Sometimes the same cloud is reshaped like clay as it roils across the sky. Creative revision is like that.

Invite someone to play in your writing sky, and see what you can paint in the clouds together.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2010

How to get and give a champion critique

Report Card: Image created by author with a little help from the corner of a Mac Pages newsletter templateAt a writing conference, one author shared her simple method for teaching anyone (fellow writer or clearly not) to provide a helpful (and free!) critique. You teach your aspiring readers this secret code and set them loose on your manuscript: A = Awkward, B = Boring, C = Confusing, and D = Don’t believe it.

Well, that could eliminate the fear that your friends love you too much to call your baby ugly. I shared that code with my writing group, and we laughed. They’ve never resorted to using it; they pencil in questions or suggestions when I’m awkward, boring, confusing, or out of character. Their responses do point out what isn’t working.

But I believe it’s even more important (as a writer and as a reader) to identify what IS working. Then you can roll out more of the same: believable dialog, balanced reasoning, brilliant transitions, beautiful cadences. Shoring up the strong places is like hanging a gorgeous suit in your closet and measuring all future purchases against that quality.

By the way, don’t you love it when your readers award you smiley faces and LOLs? That’s what I really want to know! Did you laugh in the right places? Did you not laugh in the wrong places?

Writing and reading are a conversation, except it’s one long turn at a time. To give an insightful critique, simply converse with your full attention and personality between the lines and into the margins. Don’t try to guess how other readers might respond. This is your conversation, one-on-one. If you learned something, say so. If you need clarification, ask. If you’re ready to change the subject or the topic is beyond your expertise, yawn. The more you respond from your own perspective, personality, and background, the more accurately your writer friends can generalize their next readers’ responses, recognize their target readers, and revise for the best conversation starter they can ignite.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2010