Proverbial Adverbial: Bonsai That Dialogue!

We all know the well-worn phrase “show, don’t tell” as it relates to writing. It means many things. All taken together, I believe it urges us as writers to use creativity to paint pictures, describe a setting or character or move along a story plot, rather than just stringing together words like paste jewels onto a cheap chain.

I’m learning bonsai tree pruning, and it reminds me so much of the editing process. You do a snip here and there, stand back, look at the whole tree. Then you see another place that needs snipping, and another. At a certain point, you have a perfect balance between the architecture of the tree trunk and limbs and the flow of the branches and leaves. That’s what you’re looking for in your writing.

Bonsai pruning is like editing out superfluous words. Create spare beauty.

One of the ways we cheat as writers is to add words to nouns and verbs to be descriptive. When we’re novices, we think that the more flowery we make our writing, the better it is. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Today we chat about the adverb. You know, those pesky cousins of adjectives. To refresh, adjectives modify nouns (“the pretty girl”); adverbs modify verbs (“he laughed harshly”). I used to remember which was which this way: “ad(d) to a verb.” (Thus, making adjective the other one.)

As William Zinsser says in his classic guide to writing nonfiction, On Writing Well, most adverbs are unnecessary. Why? Mostly because they annoy the reader, and they can be crutches for us when we’re feeling uninspired, lazy, tired, or unfocused as writers. (My rule is that if I’m feeling any of those, I put down the pen, or walk away from the computer. A walk for fresh air, food, rest or some other nourishment is what I need before I can concentrate on the task of crafting language.)

Here are a few tips to pruning your weedy word garden of prickly adverbs, and some particular thoughts on creating great dialogue.

1. Give them some credit.

Your readers enjoy reading partly because it gives their minds a workout. Don’t do all the work for them. Leave something to the imagination. Trust that they will read the words and sense the tone on their own. Rather than making the picture clearer (a professional’s intention with all writing choices) it’s likely to make it muddier. As Zinsser says so eloquently: Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly; “blare” connotes loudness. Don’t write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there’s no other way to clench teeth. Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.

2. Choose active, colorful verbs.

Zinsser says verbs are the most important of all our tools. Probably no other language, he says, has such a “vast supply of verbs so bright with color.” Don’t choose verbs that merely work; select ones that vibrate with action. All the onomatopoeia words (the ones that sound like what they mean) are great examples of these, such as dazzle, twirl, scatter, poke, glitter, vex.

3. Less is more.

It may require an unfamiliar self-discipline to not want to over-explain (in life as well as writing), but it’s a habit that professional writers have over amateur ones. By use of redundant or otherwise meaningless adverbs, we obfuscate the clearest intent of our writing, and we underestimate the intelligence and imagination of our readers.

4. What she said.

The more journalistic approach (even if it is more repetitive) is to use simple verbs in dialogue to identify who is being quoted, such as said, thought or maybe noted. I wouldn’t get too caught up in trying to create variety with words like explained, observed or pondered. When you do, it clutters up your writing. The focus is meant to be on what the person thought or said, not the mechanics of explaining that it was a thought or comment.

5. No stone unturned.

This is why editing and revision is so critical to the best writing. You can indulge in all kinds of superfluity with your first draft; just make sure you go back through, more than once and at different sittings, to extract all those unnecessary words later. Then give it to your editor and let her get rid of that with which you just couldn’t part.
It was one of the first things we learned in journalism school, and it seems counter-intuitive, but if you read great writing, you’ll note that the best dialogue is presented with very spare mechanics—just enough to ensure the reader can keep track of who’s saying what. For example, Hemingway’s character conversations are infamous as a paragon of crisp dialogue writing. He could create pages of dialogue with nothing more than the actual quotes themselves. It would look like this, and the pace was lightning-fast:
“I told you I wanted nothing to do with her.”
“Well, I thought you were just kidding.”
“Why? You know I don’t kid.”

Of course, this sparsity only works when there are two participants in the dialogue; as soon as you add in a third there’s no way to know who’s speaking. And even if there are only two characters conversing, you can’t go forever. If the reader wants to stop mid-conversation, she would have to mark the speech where she stops and indicate who’s speaking so she’d know for the next time she picked up the book.

But in general, nearly all writing can benefit from these tips. My favorite mantra is: To get spare, you need to pare.

A Mantra for Clean Writing: To get to spare you need to pare. Click To Tweet

Book Cover Design: All Designers Are Not Created Equal

We can’t help it. We look at the outer packaging and assess a number of things – is it a quality product? Does the information tell us what we need to know about what’s inside? How do we feel when we look at it? Does its outer packaging make us want to see what’s under the wrapping?

In the case of book covers, this is even more true. We know from numerous book buying surveys that a book’s cover design is an important influencer in purchasing decisions. Continue reading

The ABCs of Crowdfunding: A is for Ambassadors

The strength of your body is your core: a group of muscles in the center of your body that keep you healthy and moving forward. Your campaign’s “core” is your inner circle: Your family, friends, colleagues/co-workers, and anyone else to whom you are close enough to ask them to help advocate for you and your campaign (in addition to contributing, of course!)

 Here are some ways to engage your core, turning them into social media and marketing ambassadors:

Have a launch event. A launch even is a great way to collect, inspire and activate your core group for the course of the campaign. Invite your inner circle of 50 or so folks who you believe will not only want to support your crowdfunding campaign with perk purchases but will also be able to help you promote the campaign. Asking this core group to be marketing ambassadors for the campaign is your responsibility, but so is making it as easy for them to help you as possible:

  • Give them assignments. At the event, suggest some ways that they can become part of your tribe, and help you over the period of the campaign (4-6 weeks)
  • Make their tasks simple and varied (nothing that takes more than a few minutes each).
  • Put the tasks on a checklist and hand them out at the event, but also tell them they’ll each get an email version, or maybe tell them you’ll email them a task each day that will take only a few minutes. (You can do this through the platform updates tool, for example, after you’ve added them to your campaign email list.)
  • Treena Wynes offered a membership and created a tribe based on her food theme. (Indie Ink Publishing, 2013).

    Treena Wynes offered a membership and created a tribe based on her food theme. (Indie Ink Publishing, 2013).

    Give your allies a tribe name. This allows you to build a membership or subscription around a brand or entity. (We named our Eating Myself Crazy author’s tribe The Moody Foodys. Their checklist looked like a grocery shopping list. The whole event was based on healthy food. A local radio talk show host who was a friend of the author came and together they made some recipes and talked like they were on air. It was a blast and people got to eat the food. The host was hilarious.) This led to the idea of a perk that was a membership/subscription to the author’s newsletter with healthy eating tips and recipes.

  • Sharing. Tasks should include ways in which the tribe can share news of the campaign and ways others in their network can become involved. Example: “Share the campaign on FB, with a header note that says “I contributed to Joe’s awesome crowdfunding project for Mayerthorpe’s new community park project. It’s really important to him. He’s a great guy, and I hope my friends will consider contributing to it too.” This type of word-of-mouth testimonial is solid gold. Create branded content in the form of tweets and Facebook posts that you can send them on a daily basis to make it easy for them to share.
  • Reward for work. Maybe there are 10 tasks spread over the 4 weeks and those who provide evidence of doing all the tasks get some kind of special reward at the end of the campaign.
  • Incentives are GOOD. If you can offer your tribe something that nobody else gets and that doesn’t cost you much to provide, you might get even more enthusiasm.