Vigorous Writing

What can you cut out to make more vigorous writing?

From least vigorous to most vigorous:

In my opinion we should get together and burn down that bookstore.

We should get together and burn down that bookstore.

Let’s burn down that bookstore!

Burn down the bookstore!

“I think” and “in my opinion” are rarely needed.  Who else are you speaking for save yourself? Isn’t it clear the writer is the same in the first sentence as in the last?

Don’t worry about excluding what might seem essential elements. In the above example are the ideas of getting together and of promoting united action. You can put those thoughts in other sentences if needed. Or rewrite your key sentence.

I shouted at the group, “Burn down the bookstore!”

We find what is vigorous by constantly paring our writing.







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Different Approaches to OCR Work

I’m doing research for my anthology project (internal link). It requires scanning old newspapers and books and converting the resulting text images into manipulable files. Optical character recognition hasn’t progressed much over the years, at least at the consumer level.

Take a look at this image. It would make any OCR program throw up:


Here’s how an inexpensive program called Elucidate converted it:

“h «Ila! daalaaauaa nauaa a «Imago lav aa Ia “can?”St oIlI»aluminadnllarInnauonbaabomlrdmmum . M. at has In”. NH Mun-an hon-ta an rhamng aa mm It Iasy5Labortaam!map“hatup:lhcpm“naIamaa- !Ittll)‘ lush mleml charm-a. Mn anybody I talk Io‘ Fer ham. form Japan. \‘od amply cannot pay Irma pram.Than M an the Japan-u. mm «(mm ta In Ian M Fm panama: a on hotel Garment. Toll ma: “TunaJanina—I’d met arc-n bum-um to but at out an lud- all mm. mm ha uaa W. In all: “I’ll buy an small? ” “A; Java” beam-\me an m lama: an the Soon: Padnt. TM an a mum: 9am to: [our hundred ma my“ tam. mm”. to but) alumnus that lea lake any but a! mammal.

This wasn’t really a fair test. Even Adobe Acrobat’s $500 software would give up. But there’s a way around it, at least to a degree. Dictate it using Word’s built in dictation feature. I’m a beginner at using this tool but the results below are what I got on a first try. Although there is a great deal to clean up, at least the problem is approachable:

Value weighs seven making a difference for us in Mexico.

Not the slipping dollar. Inflation has boosted prices just like it has here. New Mexican hotels are charging as much as you. S. Labour is still cheap what UPS the price is fantastically high interest charges

Front everybody I talk to: Forget friends. Forget Japan. You simply cannot pay those prices.

The new rich are the Japanese. Friend of mine is in town from Fiji twisting a new hotel development Area told me: quote this Japanese– I’ve never seen before–asked to look at our new 18 hole golf course. When he was through he said I’ll bite how much

Paragraph 50 Japanese businessmen are now touring all the South Pacific. They are a scouting party for 400 coming later I Just jacked up: Goodbye anything that looks like any kind of investment.

Typing out the newspaper clipping might be just as fast as rescuing Word’s results, but how much typing can you do in one day? Do you really want to type out all the articles you collect?

I’m also trying (external link) for a month. Their OCR software does a pretty good job. They may have found a cleaner copy of the newspaper that what I have in the image above. Here’s what their OCR finding looks like:

“Is dollar devaluation making a difference for us in Mexico?” Not the slipping dollar I n f l a t i o n h a s boosted prices just l i k e it has here. New Mexican hotels are charging as much as U. S. Labor is still cheap. What ups the prices is fantastically high interest charges. From EVERYBODY 1 talk to: Forget France. Forget Japan. You simply cannot pay those prices. The NEW rich are the .Japanese. Friend of mine is in town from Fiji pushing a new hotel development. Told me: “This Japanese — I’d n e v e r seen before — asked to look at our new 18-hole golf course. When he was through, he said: ‘I’ll buy it. How much?’ ” F i f t y J a p a n e s e businessmen are now touring ALL the South Pacific. They are a scouting party for FOUR HUNDRED more c o m i n g l a t e r . Objective: To buy ANYTHING t h a t looks like ANY kind of investment.

On the positive side of things, I am getting good results by scanning and converting my documents with Scanner Pro 7. (external link) It’s an app for the iPhone. Although it still can’t process mush like the above example, it does a much better job than my flatbed scanner. And it’s portable, of course, so I can use it easily at a library. I can even take images off my desktop computer.

Anyone out there have any OCR tricks? Let me know.



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Morning Musings on Writing

If I had more time I’d write you a shorter letter. Variously attributed

Is shorter writing more vigorous writing? All things being equal, is a 300 word essay on penicillin more vigorous than a 3000 word essay? It could certainly not be as detailed, but do we need those 3000 words? Or are we writing those 3000 just to satisfy an editor’s demands?

The only writer we surveyed in my Creative Nonfiction Workshop (internal link) who wrote briefly was Seneca. His meaning might be debated but we did not have to read him at length to begin arguing.

I’ve written three articles this year for a magazine that requires pieces to be between 2,500 and 3,000 words. That’s just an editorial insistence, they are a long form publication and articles of that length fit with what they want their magazine to be. But could I get my points across in half that space?

It seems axiomatic that it is easier to tell a story in 3000 words than in 300. But where does the ideal word count fall?

“Once More to the Lake” by E.B. White is richly detailed. He  pulls off a complex tale in 2800 words. Could he have made a better essay, though, with more words? He obviously arrived at the right length because it is a brilliant work. How, though, did he arrive at that length?

Put it another way. At one point do we lose the essential elements of an essay? At 2400 or 1800 or 1000 words? And on the other side of the argument, at what point does taking away from detail subtract from our story?

My rough draft for our final assignment started out at 2,900 words. I’ve now cut it down to the minimum 2500. I’ve removed sentences and phrases I very much liked, just to keep the story moving. But I’ve lost details that other people might like to see.

My newspaper article and web writing are all pieces in the 500 to 750 word range. Nuance and detail and mystery are all completely forbidden. As it should be. We need to get the essential details to the reader and then be on our way. A caution: what do we lose with this sort of writing?

Deadlines are another matter. We could endlessly edit our work without any deadline. But should we? At some point the article or essay must get out the door. How much more work should we do on a piece to make it just a little bit better? I often send off an article early so I can get going on other things. Putting 90% more time and effort into something may yield only a tiny return.

Clarity and brevity in our assignments have not been stressed yet, nor have deadlines. Perhaps these topics are for another class at another time. Perhaps we adjust our writing style for these things once we have found our voice.


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Writing Guidance From Online Tools

Is your writing fit or flabby? Enter your text into this writing tool to see: (external link)

The reasoning behind this tool is somewhat complicated but understandable with study. Besides its website, the tool is discussed at length here: (external link.)

Another good tool to know about: (external link)

I’ve written about the Flesch formula before. (internal link). It’s built into every modern word processor, including Microsoft Word. It keeps your writing from being too verbose. I used it in my last Rock&Gem article (internal link) to ensure I was writing at the Reader’s Digest level.

Few of us are fortunate to have an editor when we write. These online tools will give you another set of eyes, something we can all use.





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Anthology Questions and a Catch-22

I’d like to put together an anthology but I’ve run into a dilemma.

Reprinting another writer’s works requires permission and payment. How much? That depends. Who is your publisher? What is the print run? How many pages will be in the book and what will be the selling price? Those are just some of the many questions a typical publishing house will ask before they tell you how much reprint rights will be.

Here’s the problem.

I don’t have a publisher. And I won’t go through the arduous process of finding one unless I know in advance that the anthology will be economical to put together. Why solicit a book deal when you can’t afford to bring it about? I’m left unable, therefore, to estimate what my anthology would cost.

This is what my generation calls a catch-22. It’s a noun and it means “a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.”

Read Joseph Heller’s book of the same name if you want to know more about impossible contradictions. And if you know more about putting together an anthology, give me an e-mail.


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Update on the Creative Nonfiction Workshop I’m Taking

I’m near completing the Creative Nonfiction Workshop I’m taking through U.C. Berkeley Extension. (internal link) While it has had no immediate applicability to the newspaper or magazine articles I write, it is always good to try different things.

We write in class in two ways: 1) a short amount in a writer’s forum about essays we’ve read in the textbook, and 2) a longer amount as our writing assignments. Here are the subjects of those assignments. Lengths range from 500 to 3000 words, with the longest essay the last:

  1. A profile of yourself as a writer, “[E]xplaining as best you can where you’re coming from and where you hope to go.”
  2. An essay about the essential roles you play in your life.
  3. An essay on an experience you had as a child that remains puzzling to you.
  4. A profile of someone interesting, either living or dead.
  5. A book review of a non-fiction book approved by the instructor.
  6. A 2500 to 3000 word personal memoir.

The course is founded squarely on the personal essay. I don’t see the market for this as I have no hope Harper’s or The New Yorker would ever publish my memoirs. I do not concentrate on literature, an extremely crowded field, and instead on pieces that apply directly to people’s lives.

My newspaper articles inform people about community life. My Rock&Gem articles act as an introduction to a gemstone and as a travel guide my readers might use. My previous technology pieces were interesting to anyone fascinated by the history of communications. It would take tremendous effort to interest someone in why my pet beagle once bit my hand. Or how I was bullied in third grade because I wore glasses.

I don’t mean to disparage the course. I have read many essays I would not have ordinarily read and I’ve written on topics I would not have otherwise written about. All writing practice is good. Our last assignment is a monster, a 2500 to 3000 word personal memoir. It’s due July 29th and I will need every spare moment this month to complete it. Wish me luck.


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