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Sep 23

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“Clever” Writers Counting Words Drive Me Crazy

Lucy: Clever WriterI’ve got to get something off my chest. It’s about writing and writers. Why do writers suck so much? Clearly, my standards are not very high. I started this article with an annoying idiom “off my chest.” All I ask for is a bit of clarity and a healthy dose of content. I don’t require David Foster Wallace. Yet I find myself working with writers who turn in embarrassing stuff. Really: embarrassing.

In the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the first act ends with a number called, “A Book Report on Peter Rabbit.” And the characters all approach the assignment in different ways. Linus over-intellectualizes it, “In examining a work such as Peter Rabbit, it is important that its superficial characteristics of its deceptively simple plot not blind the reader to the more substantial fabric of its deeper motivations.” Schroeder insists upon writing about Robin Hood, “It reminded me of Robin Hood in the part where Little John jumped from the rock…” Charlie Brown procrastinates, “If I start writing now, when I’m not really rested, it could upset my system, which is not good at all.”

But Lucy takes an approach that is well known to English teachers everywhere. The book report must be 100 words long, and so Lucy approaches the book report as an engineering exercise. For example, she specifically lists some two dozen different vegetables that were in the garden. And she finishes the report with, “The very very very end.” I think this is just fine coming from an eight year old — especially one who is a cartoon. But one would think that such would not be the case with professional writers. Even when they are being paid by the word (which they mostly are), it seems to me that there would be a sense of honor about this. You just don’t do it!

What’s more, it really doesn’t work. The effort that goes into padding would be far more lucrative if the writer just thought up something interesting (or engaging or absorbing or refreshing or…) to add to the article. But okay, they can’t all be like me. (It is a point of both pride and disease that I write roughly a million words on this blog every year — roughly a novel a month.) The bigger problem is not that these people pad their writing. It is that they can’t throw anything away. They’ve written a hundred words and that’s ten bucks and by God, they are not just going to throw that money away!

The fundamental issue here is that these people do not have a broad enough vision of what they are writing about. Generally, one idea will get you 300 to 500 words. But these articles need to be longer than that. So that requires that the writer come up with more than a single idea. Songwriters understand this — choruses and bridges are among the basic building blocks of a song. But mixing things up is not so clear in the prose writing world. So they write things like, “When you download individual files, those files will also automatically be stored in your default folder for storing downloaded files.” You got us! You made an extra 40¢. One more time and you’ll be able to buy a candy bar!

I really do think the whole thing comes down to love. I can’t say that I love everything that I work on, but I grow extremely attached to the content for as long as I’m writing about it. This is a talent, I know. But there is no more important skill for the nonfiction writer. If you find the subject interesting, you will think of things to write about. If you don’t, then you will end up trying to engineer your way to a set number of words. And you will waste the reader’s time while being really boring.

The very very very end!

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21 comments

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  1. Dan

    As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Simplify, simplify.”

    He could have used 50% fewer words.

    1. Frank Moraes

      So could Dickens, who I recall was paid by the word. But he understood if you want to create bloated stories, add more characters and ridiculous subplots.

    2. Elizabeth

      Not everyone could write a brilliant novel in just six words like the supposed Hemingway novel about baby shoes.

      1. Frank Moraes

        I’ve been thinking a lot about The Old Man and the Sea recently. It’s a good example of having something to say. I really do think the problem is not engaging with the work. It’s easy to get caught up thinking about the word count. But if you just look for something interesting to write, the words flow. I’ll admit, a lot of this work is not exactly exciting. But the situation is clear enough in the fact that a lot of people come in, write a couple of good (even excellent) articles, and then turn to crap. They lose interest, I’m afraid.

        1. Elizabeth

          That is true. The Sookie Stackhouse novels are the best example I can think of this off the top of my head. Charlaine Harris obviously loved the series to start but then either was caught up in other things or had made a commitment she was not aware she could not keep and just kept writing even when it was clear she was no longer doing anything more than collecting a paycheck. I can think of a few other authors who keep doing this.

          1. Frank Moraes

            Oh yes. Of course, I think there is something more going on there. If you look at Scott Turow, he writes about the same place and so you do see characters recycled. But only once has he used the same main character. So he has managed to remain a surprisingly good novelist. I think series fall into the trap of running out of having anything to say. You can strip mine “memory lane,” but you just can’t come up with anything. Of course, I think these writers wouldn’t be writing these novels in a sane world. I think Jonathan Kellerman does a heroic job with over 30 Alex Delaware novels. It’s clear he’s working hard. He just has nothing left to offer. (Of course, I don’t think that Kellerman ever had much to offer.)

            1. Elizabeth

              Surprisingly Jim Butcher has been pretty good at keeping the Dresden series hopping. Then again he has stated before he designed a thirty novel storyline so I suppose not that big a surprise that every book is almost as good as the last one.

              Terry Pratchett, may he rest in peace, was faltering a lot at the end but that was because he was ill and not because he lost his story telling ability. His last book, A Shepherd’s Crown, was poorly written but there was the bones of a good story. His ability to put what was in his mind to paper was just no longer there.

              1. Frank Moraes

                Ah, yes: Pratchett. He is a favorite of many of us around here. The last two that I read were Making Money and Raising Steam. The first was excellent. The second — as you said — had the bones of a good story. The big problem is that he wasn’t able to tie it all together. I’ve been wanting to read, The Truth, but I’ve been so busy. Him getting Alzheimer’s disease is proof that there is no loving god.

                1. Elizabeth

                  To me it is proof that we humans need to stop wasting our potential and spend more on helping each other succeed. But like many a cynical optimist, I know why it is the case and mourn the loss it represents.

                  Man that is maudlin, I am going to go reread Small Gods which always struck me as exactly what God is about.

                  1. Frank Moraes

                    My reading of the earliest days of various religions has made me conclude that “spirituality” and “mysticism” is mostly a social thing. They are ways that we bind ourselves together. Religions lose sight of that as they ossify into dogma. Another book I highly recommend: Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution.

              2. James Fillmore

                I’ve always meant to check out those Dresden books, Elizabeth — now that I know a fellow Pratchett/FC nerd likes ’em, I’ll definitely get to them if I don’t go blind from too much other reading first!

                1. Elizabeth

                  According to NASA, that should be doable as long as you avoid space travel as a man.

  2. James Fillmore

    What takes WAY, WAY more effort than writing to a word count is cutting to a word count. Again, only if you’re interested in the subject (and I don’t blame anyone for writing stuff they’re not interested about if they need the money / college credit.)

    Some cutting is great; it makes you tighten up sentences and prune the bonsai tree for what you think are the best bits. Sometimes it’s a real drag; you feel the soul of what you’re trying to do slipping away from you because there’s just no way to cut that much and convey the meaning you find intriguing.

    If I don’t give up entirely, I’ll throw you an example this weekend of something that could have been much better and I think I managed to salvage cutting into halfway decent. (Not mandated cuts, just to avoid the dreaded tl;dr, which I’ll get anyway.) But you’ll see where the missing pieces should have been.

    I word-counted backwards! Once I got it down to an exact 1200, I thought, that’s a good even number. Enough!

    1. Frank Moraes

      I agree. Although it is often in the cutting that the refinement comes. My biggest problem is writing headlines for some of things I do. One of them requires headlines of less than 30 characters that supposed to draw the reader in. That’s tough. In fact, it is often impossible. But sometimes I’m amazed that I can take a 100 char headline and manage to make it work in 30. But it’s rare.

      Hey, I think we might have a way to set up a page of your writing. But for those interested, you can run the Google search: James Fillmore +site:twinkietown.com.

      1. James Fillmore

        30 char? That’s like one line of a limerick.

        Thanks for finding the link, you kind fellow! Don’t add it anywhere here. The recaps are by rote. And some of the other stuff is very Twins-centric (if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t get away with the longer non-Twins things I’m finding more interesting.)

        However I’ve wanted a link I can send to family/friends (apparently “check out this site’s front page every Saturday” is too much work.) That one works perfectly!

        Incidentally I estimated the hours of research I put into 26 game previews and was proud of myself for thinking it was equivalent to two upper-level college courses. 1,000,000 words is like a few PhDs!

        But the important thing is enjoying one’s unpaid labor. For this week I spent two months and maybe 1000 pages of heavy reading to produce two pages of dumbed-down Happy Thoughts. However I learned a lot about the history of Detroit, and that learning was fascinating.

        In my ideal liberal dreamy world, everyone has both a job which they can stand, which contributes useful labor to society — and free time to pursue hobbies/interests they enjoy which have no market value. Because the stuff with no market value enriches both the creator and the few who enjoy her work. Much more than a new damn iPhone!

        1. Frank Moraes

          I’ve long looked at my life as the ultimate anti-art project: I keep adding to it — trying to improve it — and then one day: poof! It’s gone! I think we should all think of life like that. It wouldn’t mean we would be the same. In fact, I think it would make us less prone to fall into a lot of life’s little boring traps.

          Yes, a million words is probably more like ten dissertations. Unfortunately, it also represented about 1/1,000,000th as much thinking.

          I’ve thought about changing the publishing schedule and just writing, say, one longish article per day. But that would probably be a lot more work. I’ve got the grove of this.

          And yeah: 30 characters is not much to work with.

          On the link: you can open up search results and just show the last week or whatever. That might be more useful to you.

          1. James Fillmore

            There’s a Gandhi quote, might be apocryphal: “live as if you’ll die tomorrow. Learn as if you’ll live forever.” I like it.

            I do regret how long it took me to learn basics like “don’t poop before you check to see if you have enough TP on hand; if you don’t, walk to a store and buy TP first.” This is a valuable life lesson and I wish I could force all young adults to learn it. Sadly it’s one of those wisdom nuggets that will go “poof” before being inscribed on Mount Rushmore.

            If the schedule works, stick with it! You can always work on a side project and it sounds like you always are. CRAZY PERSON

            1. Frank Moraes

              It’s a good quote. But I can’t live like I’ll die tomorrow. But maybe “next month.” I’d feel too pressured if it were tomorrow.

              Perhaps you will find some value in a very early (Over 5 years ago!) article I wrote, Getting to the Bottom of Things.

              Yeah, I’m big into habits. It’s how I manage to get anything done.

              1. James Fillmore

                Yeah, I’m not familiar with his writing, so if the quote’s for real, it could mean “don’t be a jerk, you might die tomorrow” in the Hindu sense — or “get stuff done now,” which certainly worked for the independence movement. Or both.

                Well, now I know more about poop! All I can add is flushable wipes. They’re wonderful, but DO NOT flush them. Have a trash can with a lid handy. Flushed, if they get stuck on some bit of tree root or bent metal in the pipes, they will just stay there and collect more wipes. They don’t break down like TP does. Sewage workers refer to the wipe piles which eventually block mains as “snowballs.”

                Here’s the piece I wrote. Unfortunately when I shorten complicated stories down they tend to come off like high-school papers. I did sneak in a link to Fox News using racist language during the Baltimore unrest! You can sneak in almost anything in a link, nobody clicks them unless you tell them to. It slows me down reading pieces with links, because I usually do click.

                http://www.twinkietown.com/2015/9/26/9318383/the-other-willie-horton

                I’m proudest that I never used the word “riot” except in a direct quote. Many African-Americans still refer to the events of 1967 as the “rebellion” or “uprising.” And boy, is it still a touchy subject. YouTube videos tend to be really horrible and racist about it. Detroit’s kind of a political Rorschach blot; either failed industrial policy and institutionalized racism killed the city, or Blacks & Gummint did.

                1. Frank Moraes

                  I’ll read it this even. I’m interested in the story. Not that long ago, I was researching the Bush ad and I came upon the baseball player. I thought, “That’s gotta suck.” I’m glad the only famous person with my name is thought highly of.

                  Hey, did you know that your article is the number one on a Google News search for “willie horton”? Pretty cool!

                  1. James Fillmore

                    Don’t click the links, they’re mostly just to prove I looked some stuff up. They look link-y and professional. Do click the radio ad link at the end, it’s wonderful. I stole it from the NYT. Also the Moore article is good.

                    It could have been much better, I wanted more about Detroit in it. F***ing word count!

                    Incidentally that radio ad made me sad because that sounds like a great youth program the likes of which we don’t have anymore.

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