Writing tips

271 Words

No greater example of efficiency and elegance in the English language exists than Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. At 271 words it takes only a minute to read and only slightly longer to speak.

We cannot hope to be as gifted a wordsmith as Lincoln, never-the-less, we can strive to cut out everything unnecessary in our writing. We should write as clearly as we can in as few words possible consistent with accurately conveying our message.

In my creative non-fiction writing course (internal link), I am coming across the most ornate of modern writing. I don’t understand it. Hidden meanings, double meanings, fuzzy metaphors, and stories within a story. Impressionistic writing. This is the stuff of fiction and not non-fiction. Sigh. I will try to better understand.

The history of the Gettysburg address and the address in its five variations is here (external link).

Update: Creative non-fiction is a real genre. It’s a thing (internal link)

The Gettysburg address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Thoughts on writing

Does Word Processing Make us Better Writers?

I’m near completing a 3,000 word article. The stats are staggering. 172 revisions? To make clear, 172 is the number of  times a file was saved. There could be many, many edits done in between saves. I may have made 500 individual edits in this document. That number is certainly within reason.

Writing with a word processor makes for easier composing but also for endless editing. Are we more efficient than in long hand? Better? It would be interesting to compare a 3,000 word article written in long hand to one on the same subject done on a word processor. Which one would be completed first? Which would be clearer and more forceful?

I certainly would not make 172 revisions of a manuscript in long hand or on a creaky old typewriter. At some point I would pronounce the manuscript good and kick it out the door.

The old timers produced most of the great books without sitting behind a computer. I am dumfounded by their ability. Perhaps they were better at thinking through their work before committing pen to paper. Perhaps some had secretaries to revise and rewrite their work. Perhaps they worked out an efficient personal method that produced good results. Whatever. I am still staggered.

Other thoughts. 775 minutes is almost 13 hours. That’s close to reality. I’ve been good about closing this file each time I stopped. So I think the count is accurate. To explain, in a Word document the internal timer is always running if a file is open and in front. If you go get coffee the timer continues to tick. Be sure then to close a file whenever you stop working on it.

To access your file’s statistics do this: Open your document. Then choose File > Properties > Statistics.




Lemons Into Lemonade

Last month I went out of town to research a field trip article for Rock&Gem magazine that I am writing on speculation. (internal link) My visit was to a BLM mineral collecting site some hours north of Las Vegas. Here’s the problem: I didn’t find much of what I was looking for, in fact, I found so little that I needed a macro lens on my camera to photograph my largest find. Picture something smaller than your smallest fingernail.

Although I was essentially skunked, I still didn’t want to scratch the experience I had going to the site. I learned some things I think would help people who would have more time to look and better weather conditions to collect under. Here’s the problem: how do I write a compelling article when I really didn’t find anything? Or would a realistic field trip article be refreshing, with local color substituting somewhat for the lack of a find? Stay tuned. It may be days or another week before I can think through how to turn my lemons into lemonade.

June 12, 2016 Update: I submitted the article. Don’t tell anyone but it has been tentatively accepted for their August issue.



Creative Writing Course Continues

Our Creative Nonfiction Workshop continues (internal link). This is the second week. The emphasis is on the personal essay; we are doing a great deal of writing on ourselves.

I would never entertain such a topic outside of a class. Personal essay? What’s the market? Who’s going to pay for that? An essay on me or my thoughts? How self-indulgent. But I need to stretch as a writer. I think within the safety of a not-for-profit environment our writing group can better develop as writers in general, even if we don’t intend to sell the world on our musings.

My high school art classes exposed students to different mediums. We scrawled in charcoal, smeared countless canvases with oils, and did pencil sketches by the score. It was only after these trials that I found I liked the totally unforgiving environment of pen and ink. Although I could only produce a few crude doodles, the austere world of black and white appealed. I became seized with a deck of black and white Tarot cards and I worked to copy them.

Only in a freewheeling setting like that could I experiment. And only there could I find out I wasn’t an artist. I like the exactitude of words and I was never good enough to make my art precise. Perhaps in this class I will develop an interest in something I’m not yet aware of. We shall see.








My Creative Nonfiction Course Began Today

The Berkeley extension course I wrote about before (internal link) started today. It’s a writing course devoted to nonfiction. I think I’m going to like it.

The interface used to assign work, provide grades, communicate with the teacher and so on is well thought out and I’ve had no problems accessing the virtual classroom. Students don’t communicate in real time, rather, we are given a week to complete reading and participation tasks; the only time we need to be online for very long is when we post comments and replies to a discussion board.

The textbook is The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. Phillip Lopate is the editor. When I got this 777 page tome I was disappointed — no index! Most writers and researchers would quietly put such a book back on the shelf without further consideration. But an index may not be needed for a collection of stories. We’ll see.

The class size is small, with less than ten students. I think this will keep the instructor from being overwhelmed and perhaps enhance our chance of success. For now, I have three essays to read and a personal profile writing assignment to write. I’ll keep you informed.





Rocky Mountain Radicals

My brother Bill has an article this issue in the prestigious Montana: The Magazine of Western History. (external link) Entitled Rocky Mountain Radicals, it traces the story of our family’s distant Uncle James Murray, a copper king who made his first fortune in Butte, Montana.

To paraphrase a reviewer, Bill has singlehandedly rescued Murray from obscurity. Careful to lead a guarded and private life, Murray has heretofore been little reported on and never at this depth. Bill has also garnered a book deal based on Murray and our whole family is looking forward to it being published in 2017.

Bill’s website is here (external link). Look to it for more information on the mysterious and little known Murray. And for more on Bill Farley, a terrific historical researcher and writer.




Don’t underestimate the time it takes to understand something. This is the key, hidden problem for non-fiction writers.

Let’s say you’re writing a story on how locks work. You may have five books on locks, current periodicals, and an interview with a locksmith stored on your phone. But unless you can tell your reader how key pins and driver pins interact you’ll fail to explain your topic. You need a basic understanding of your subject. And, at least for me, that understanding doesn’t happen automatically after I read or interview. It takes time. And the time I’ll need is never certain.

Right now I am wrestling with a story about a fossil collecting site. To tell it, I’ll have to know something about the Jurassic period and how different kinds of fossils are preserved. It’s become a difficult enough article that I have not written on it for a week. I’m letting my brain work on it in the background while I get more pressing tasks done. I hope my thoughts will coalesce at some point, enabling me to get back to it. But it’s not happening yet.

Reading and research are not enough. Having a good story to tell is not enough. You have to understand your topic well enough to explain it to others. Fiction writers may wait and hope for inspiration. Non-fiction writers hope for understanding.