Dr. Rudolph Flesch, a staunch advocate of writing with purpose, advised in his best-selling How to Write Better that “the main thing to consider is your purpose in writing: Why are you sitting down to write?” To which E.B. White tartly answered, “Because, sir, it is more comfortable than standing up.”
~Mitchell Ivers, The Random House Guide to Good Writing
Yesterday I suggested you move forward through your paragraph, scene, and story structure in a purposeful way. Yet we all know that writing is also an act of discovery. What if you’ve completed your first draft and you still aren’t sure what you’re trying to say?
I believe in the power of first draft writing, so here’s a technique to let it speak to you. (You’ll want to apply this to a short work or the opening to a longer one.) This may seem laborious, but with your word processor’s cut and paste feature, it doesn’t take as long as you might think.
- First, remove your sentences from their paragraphs and list them—out of context, you’ll see them with new eyes.
- Pull some keywords from your prose that suggest points you’d like to make and group the sentences beneath them into like subjects. You might be surprised at what you see: how much reiteration you used to force yourself back on track, or disparate subjects that were the result of flailing around for your true material. Say you meant to write a memoir essay about autumn, but when deconstructing the piece you find you ended up making 12 major points tied to pumpkins and only one about the chill in the air and the colorful leaves. Maybe your piece isn’t about autumn after all, but about pumpkins. Your subconscious may have brought forth pumpkins for a reason, so take some time to explore any imagery on which you can capitalize.
- Organize the keywords in a way that makes sense—and a story should start to emerge.
Keep these questions in mind as you apply an outline to the remaining material from the previous three steps, grouping and ordering your sentences beneath related keywords. You might find that one long sentence belongs in two or even three categories—in this step, shorten your sentences. This will make clear what is pertinent and what isn’t; good corrections can be made at this point. You might need to weed out what isn’t necessary, but you also might find you left out a whole section of relevant argument needed to balance or complete your piece. Once you’ve said what you want to say, now figure out ways to show it—through scenes in the case of fiction, or supporting facts and anecdotes in the case of nonfiction. This applied structure will infuse the skeleton of your piece with a healthy dose of calcium.
When employed purposefully, drifting off-track can be quite funny. But it will work as humor only if the piece has a spine strong enough to support its rambling appendages. Otherwise, the reader may simply be laughing at your convoluted attempt to enlighten—and you don’t want that, now, do you? You only want your reader to laugh if you’ve told him to—while you’ve got him in the palm of your hand, well supported by the bones of your writing.
Kathryn Craft is a free-lance editor at Writing-Partner.com, a manuscript evaluation, line editing, and writer support service. She indulged her interest in muscles and bones at Miami University (OH), where she earned a B.S. in Biology Education with a dance minor, and then a master's in Health and Physical Education.