I have a rolling cart that slides in under my desk. On the top shelf of this cart are all the writing books I reach for frequently. (The second shelf is blank file folders and the bottom is all the mail-order catalogs I love to oogle, but never have money for the clothes shown or the place to wear them - just in case you're wondering). Top shelf is the home to my dictionary,the Flip Dictionary (absolutely the best functional dictionary known to man),The Romance Writers' Phrase Book, baby name book, Linda Goodman's Sun Signs, and two Spanish Dictionaries and a Book of Synonyms and Antonyms which I...uh... never use. Hmm. (Tossing them as you read). My favorite gem is The Writer's Little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr. Seventy-nine little articles that are designed to help you make the most out of your writing skills. It's has all sorts of charts and exercises to help you analyze your writing, is a good procrastinator if you need one, and the information won't ever go out-of-date. What more can you ask for in a writing book?
Today, I wanted to talk about three of my favorite articles: Writing to Be Understood, Reading Ease, and Use Short Words.
In the first article, "Writing to be Understood", the basic idea is comprehension. The shorter a sentence, the greater the comprehension. This might seem obvious, but probably won't come to mind as you're tearing through your first draft, desperate to get your ideas on the screen or paper. I first started applying this idea when I critiqued work for other writers. A one word sentence will result in 100% comprehension, while a hundred word sentence will result in 0% comprehension. Hence, I began looking for sentences in my crit partners' works that were over 15-20 words and made note for them to split them. Took me a bit before I had a *head smack* moment and applied the same to my own writing. His final quote: "Variety. Diversity. Rhythm. Choose your own term, but in general, write in short, direct sentences for the sake of the people who might be more willing to buy your books if they can understand what you're writing."
The second article is "Reading Ease." I use this article for lots of things. My great nephew was recently reading a book that was touted as a 9-12 year old book. We didn't think so and whipped out this article and tested it. (We were wrong.) In this article, James Smith talks about how he studied samples of novels written by best-selling writers compared to non-best-sellers, amateurs, corporate, or government writers. Best-sellers - which I presume we all want to be - use shorter sentences, shorter words, and a higher percentage of the active voice. The neat thing is that Microsoft Word will check this for you after you run spellcheck. It'll give you: Words per sentence (15 max), Characters per word (4.5 max), passive voice (5% max), Flesch Reading Ease (80% min) and Flesch-Kincaid Level (6 maximum). His final quote: "Edit your work a scene at a time until each scene achieves or surpasses every one of the five goals. When you exceed the goal s of the REI, you will be writing at a level that surpasses most work that the average writer submits to an agent or editor."
The third article is "Use Short Words." Hinted at in the above examples, this article should be a continuation of the ideas in the Reading Ease article. Once again, it's based on the same study of best-sellers. Samples from best sellers showed 4.21 characters per word. How did he get that? MS Word will tell you how many words and how many characters are in your writing - divide words into character to get the average. Why should you do this? "Best-selling novelists consistently use shorter words than non-best sellers. It's a main reason their writing reads at a faster pace then most mid-list books."
So, our lesson for today: Books that are easier to read and easier to understand get bought.
Go edit now (and buy his book because the stuff on pacing is a gem, too!)
[Originally published on Happy Endings, July 2010]