Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Loosen Up and Have Fun
The best advice I ever got for my writing came from an editor at Reader's Digest (V., if you're still there, thanks!)
I'd submitted a proposal for a "popular" article on critical thinking. The editor liked the idea, but had a lot to say about my writing.
Until then, about the only writing I'd done was for technical journals. I thought I was pretty good. I'd studied enough foreign languages to have a good grasp of grammar. All I needed to do was change the content from a research paper to a novel.
"Loosen it up," the RD editor told me. For starters, she highlighted all the instances of passive voice as well as the lack of contractions. I had to go through and change every "did not" to "didn't," every "can not" to "can't."
Who knew that popular writing was so informal?
It's not quite as prevalent now, but in those days, passive voice ruled in technical papers. My colleagues and I wrote sentences that began, "A laser has been used for …" and "A methodology has been developed to … "
Here's a typical sentence from one of my articles:
"It was determined that the experimental apparatus was appropriate to brightness temperatures above 6000 K."
The idea was that science, being objective (LOL) should be presented in a detached, impersonal tone. The personality of the scientist, expressing indisputable facts, should not show through.
Now when I look at that sentence, I ask myself, Who determined it – me or 15 monkeys in a lab? What does appropriate mean – no bad language? What apparatus – a can opener, a laser, or a glue gun?
It's enough to make me want to rewrite my thesis.
V. also drew a circle whenever the same word appeared more than once in a sentence. "Use synonyms," she said. "Have fun with the language."
Here's an example from a 1975 journal article that was written – uh, that I wrote: "The tungsten sample was placed in the sample holder in such a way that the top and bottom of the sample fit securely in the sample holder."
You see what I mean. There's no room for misunderstanding here. But I can't say that I had fun with the sentence.
In the end, V.'s editorial committee rejected my critical thinking article, but her advice has seen me through my next career.
As I turned to writing fiction, I learned to relax, to loosen up and achieve a more personal, immediate tone. And I now have fun with language.
When I see manuscripts from students and other pre-published authors, I can always spot those who have a background in technical writing. For my fellow writers out there -- I wonder if your background has helped or hindered your fiction writing?