Eliminating Wordiness in Writing

by Kara Kahnke

Eliminating wordiness makes writing more concise and engaging. Active voice creates tighter writing than passive voice. In passive voice, something is being done to the subject of the sentence by someone or something else.

Passive voice: “The pizza was eaten by George.”

Active voice: “George ate the pizza.”

The bottom sentence demonstrates active voice because the subject of the sentence performs the action. Eliminating “to be” verbs such as is, are, was, and were, helps banish passive voice from your writing (Toadvine, Brizee & Angeli, 2012).

Eliminating extra modifiers such as actually, really, probably, basically and very also helps wordiness. These words clutter your writing without offering the reader additional information (Tobey, Eliminating Wordiness).

The words which and that contribute to wordiness. A wordy example: “The staff meeting, which occurs weekly, discusses organizational policies.”

A tighter example: “The weekly staff meeting discusses organizational policies” (Kilborn, Strategies).

Some phrases create redundancy in your writing. Eliminate phrases like “12 noon” or “each and every” Pick one of the words in the phrases and go with it (Larson, Writing).

Introductory phrases often don’t enhance writing. Delete phrases like “as a matter of fact” or “in any case” from your work (Larson, Writing).

Eliminate “tion” constructions. For example: “The officer’s job involves interrogation of suspects

A less wordy example: “The officer interrogates suspects.” ” (Kilborn, Strategies)

These are some examples you can use to strike wordiness from your writing. You’ll deliver a stronger impact with practice.


 

References Kilborn, Judith. “Strategies for Eliminating Wordiness.” St. Cloud University. Retrieved from: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/style/wordiness.html

Larson, Gary. “Writing Concise Sentences” Retrieved from: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/concise.htm

Tobey, Dava. “Eliminating Wordiness How to Streamline Your Writing.” Retrieved from: http://www.cf.edu/departments/instruction/lsc/Writing_docs/Capstone/Eliminating%20Wordiness%20in%20Formal%20Writing.pdf

Toadvine, Brize & Angeli, (2012). “Active Verses Passive Voice. Purdue University. Retrieved from: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/02/

Retrieved from: http://www.cf.edu/departments/instruction/lsc/Writing_docs/Capstone/Eliminating%20Wordiness%20in%20Formal%20Writing.pdf

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Verbosity: NaNoWriMo Help for Flash Fiction Writers

BONUS TIP: Since we are well into November, we’ll give you some bonus tips for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month for those in the dark about it).

by A. Francis Raymond

For those of us accustomed to writing short fiction (such as the 500-word Iron Writer challenge), NaNoWriMo can be especially difficult. A flash fiction writer is trying to scrunch a story down into less than a thousand words — including characterization, plot, etc. But NaNoWriMo wants us to spew out 50,000 words. Quickly. That’s like 100 flash fiction stories! An insane idea, for sure, to those of us used to writing short fiction.

This is my fourth (non-consecutive) year as a NaNoWriMo participant, including this year. I won two of those years so far. The year I didn’t win, last year, I was simply thinking too much and writing too little — a fact I now regret only because I would have loved to write that I won all the challenges I participated in so far.

The point is, I know from first-hand experience what this challenge is like and that we all need coping mechanisms, and even a little help to make it through the month. And as an Iron Writer, I’m keenly aware that writing 1667 words a day is like writing a little more than three complete flash fiction stories a day!

What’s a writer of short fiction to do? Here are 4 tips for when you’re stuck:

1. Indulge your character in a monologue. This can be any character in your story. Or all of them. Give your character(s) the opportunity to stand on a soap box and say whatever comes to their mind. What do they think about the story and what’s happening to them so far? This is material that might not ever see the light of day, but it all counts to the 50k goal and you might even learn something about your characters, too.

2. Write your character’s back story. What were they doing a year ago? 10 years ago? Again, this might not be material for the final revision, but we don’t care about that now. We care about every last painstaking detail. Tell us about the shelf of stuffed animals your character’s mother kept out of arms reach and prompted your character to develop a phobia of furry things. Tell us about your character’s teenage days and every band t-shirt she owned.

3. Dive into any and all descriptive details. Your character is in a room, a foreign country, a starship. What do the surroundings look like? What objects are there? What can the characters see, hear, touch, smell? Get out all those details, no matter how mundane they might be. One might be the key to your story later. Don’t limit yourself to the setting either. There’s still more you can write about your character. What do they keep in their purse or wallet? Their fridge, medicine cabinet, glove compartment, and junk drawer?

And when all else fails…

4. Kill off a character. Remember, folks, it’s all in the details. There’s danger lurking everywhere. Use it to your advantage. Kill off (or at least seriously injure) any character, even your main character. Not only is that going to be a few words, but now you’ve given the rest of your characters a new problem to deal with.

Make sure to keep that inner editor, and even your inner filter, turned off. Verbosity rules this month.

Now stop reading this and get back to the 1,667 words you need to write today!

Eliminating All Unnecessary, Unneeded and Useless Words

by B Y Rogers

William Strunk Jr., wrote in his Elements of Style:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Strunk nails it. A problem that many nascent writers have is the irritating habit of excessive explanation by the use of redundant wording. I know I did, and probably still do especially in first drafts.

Let me demonstrate.

“David lived in close proximity to his ex-wife.”

Do you see it? ‘Close’ and ‘proximity’ are synonyms. Now, it is probable the writer knew this, but the lack of attention during the editing process missed it and the sentence is longer than it needs to be.

Additional examples. I trust you can see the problem.

“He was surrounded on all sides.”

“The little girl’s coat was red in color.”

“I need to free up some space in garage.”

“My personal physician told me to reduce all the carbs in my food diet.”

“The policeman said I needed to continue to remain on the sidewalk.”

“Let me make this crystal clear.”

“It was twelve midnight on a dark and stormy night.”

“It is absolutely essential.”

“Ian felt winning her heart was an added bonus.”

Any of these errors would be acceptable if used as dialogue. But in the prose it burdens the reader.

There is a great book titled Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. One of the lessons I learned from this book is you only need to say something once. Why use two words when one will suffice? I apply this to a sentence, paragraph, even the entire story. Too many sentences with these mistakes and the reader will be lost, possibly without knowing why. The end result is the writer lost a reader.

So you want to write a novel …

K. A. DaVur

I am lucky enough to own a publishing house.  Owning a publishing house enlightens one to an incredible fact hitherto unknown.  EVERYONE either wants to be a writer or knows someone who wants to be a writer.  Your waitress?  Yep. She has always wanted to be a writer.  Your Doctor?  She has a novel tucked away somewhere that’s almost done.  Your lawn man? His brother writes amazing works.  But, when you hand over your business card you get to hear, as the old saying goes, the rest of the story.

“Oh,” they say, “I’ve never actually written anything.”

Ah.  Well.

I know for some of these aspiring writers it is just a passing fancy. I cannot help them.  Writing – and if you are lucky enough to get published – marketing, improving, selling, signing – is not for the weak of heart.  But for others it is simply that they are intimidated by the prospect, or perhaps don’t know how to begin writing a larger piece.  For those, I would like to submit my simple, four-step plan to writing a novel.

1. Know where you are going.  Some people are “planners” and some are “pantsers” and I get that.  The simple fact is, though, that if you don’t have any idea where you are going it is too easy to get lost.  You will wander.  You will lose the thread. You will get bored.  So, you need to be able to state the genre of your novel. You need to be able to describe the plot and your main character in one concise sentence each.  You should be able to complete the following sentences, also concisely:  In the beginning _ .  In the middle _. At the end _ .

2. Work on only one project at a time.  Furthermore make that the same project.  Once you begin a novel, write that novel until it is complete.  If you get a new idea, make notes, then set it aside.  Otherwise, you will get caught in the rush of a new idea, work on it until the initial thrill is gone, and then abandon it for another new idea which you will later abandon for a yet newer idea.  Dance with the girl you came with.

3. Write every day.  You have time.  Yes, you do.  It doesn’t have to be great work, you just have to write.  500 words a day is less than one page on a computer and is only two pages front and back in a notebook.  It is little enough, can be done in spurts throughout the day, but if you do that 60 days in a row you have a decent sized children’s novel. Sixty more days and you have an adult tome.  Write every day.

4.  Finally, understand that only writing is writing.  Planning is not writing. Thinking about writing is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Reading is not writing. Revising is not writing. The only thing that is writing, is writing.

How to deal with Just

by A Francis Raymond

I made my writing teacher’s skin crawl. Not because I wrote a gripping and compelling horror story, but because in the first 20 pages of my manuscript, I’d overused the word “just.”

There’s no reason for it, she argued. It’s a prop for vague writing. It doesn’t help create an active or compelling scene. It’s a word often misused and adds nothing to the text.

She said we needed to remove ALL instances from our manuscript.  All? I questioned. Yes, all.

That evening I went home and found almost 700 instances of the word “just” in my 80,000 word manuscript. I removed all but 4. (The 4 I left alone were in dialog. It seemed natural for my character to use it in speech – I figured that was allowed.)

Rather than continue to tell you how the word “just” weakens your writing, let me show you. Consider:

“The men were too young, married, or just not attractive.” vs.  “The men were too young, married, or not attractive.”
“She just knew that she couldn’t live in this place.”   vs. “She couldn’t live in this place.”
“He just grabbed her and kissed her.”  vs. “He grabbed her and kissed her.”

and my favorite (because I like sci-fi):

“He just wanted to take a final glimpse of the alien sky just before boarding the very large spaceship.”  vs.  “He took a final glimpse of the alien sky, then boarded the enormous spaceship.”

When you’re trying to write flash fiction every word counts. Why waste it on a word that just doesn’t help?

(Note:  “Just” isn’t the only adverb prop you might want to eliminate from your writing. Here is a list of other commonly mis-used or overused adverbs:
actually, any, awfully, basically, definitely, finally, hardly, here, just, just as, nearly, pretty, quite, rather, really, somewhat, soft of, strange, such, there)

How to deal with Very

by B.Y. Rogers

I am convinced that great writing takes great skill and most indie writers are not great, including myself.

However there are a few tricks that each of us can master that will improve the writing skill, even in the first draft.

May I suggest a ‘very simple’ one? It is very, very easy to spot and very easy to fix. Along the way, your vocabulary will increase and hence your writing will improve and your editing will be easier.

Kill the word ‘very’. Remove every one of those darlings from your writing. Do a search of your document, highlight every single ‘very’ and destroy it like you would a malicious, malevolent monster.

‘Very’ is very weak. Look at it this way. In most cases, when we write the word very, we follow it with an emotion, at least generally speaking. We write: She is very angry or he is very happy. (Ignore for the moment the ‘be’ verbs. They need to die as well but that is another lesson). Why use two words when one will do?

Consider this and decide for yourself which is weak, which is strong.

“She’s very happy.” vs. “She’s euphoric.”

“He’s very angry.” vs. “He’s outraged.”

“That’s very important.” vs. “That’s crucial.”

This concept goes back to show vs. tell. Removing ‘very’ paints the picture. Leaving ‘very’ in the text weakens the story and does not engage the reader.

In this context, may I suggest an internet aid? I found that Visual Thesaurus invaluable when trying to find the perfect word to replace two words or a short phrase. Give it try if you haven’t already. It’s a very great (extraordinary) website.

Eliminating ‘Crutch’ Words

Part 3 of a 3–part Series

by D. L. Mackenzie

In the previous installment, we discussed replacing weak verbs with accurately expressive alternatives.  But what about those verbs that are so weak they’re almost invisible?  Like prepositions and indefinite articles, they seem to be necessary – if unremarkable – words which cannot be removed without making nonsense of our writing.

Five of these words are verbs, two are adverbs, and all of them are about as expressive as a semicolon.  Let’s start with the verbs, which I have dubbed The Feeble Five: have, be, get, look, and seem.

Weak verbs abound, but have, be, get, look, and seem are five of the frailest. I am not suggesting that you expunge your writing of all of these words, for they all have their place and proper usage and often no substitute will suffice. Nevertheless, I do suggest you examine your sentences for an over-reliance on these often needless “crutch” verbs.

Have

I have an idea. Try to restrict your usage of the word “have” (and its variants “has” and “had”) to their grammatical function in the various “perfect” tenses (for example, “I will have read what you have written”). Rather than using “have” as a synonym for “possess,” use a more descriptive verb instead whenever possible.

For example, “the intruder had a gun.” What does this mean? We know the intruder has possessed a gun at one time or another, but little more. Perhaps he used to own a gun but he traded it for a scooter. Perhaps he still owns it but left it in his other pants, or possibly it fell into a storm sewer somewhere along the way. Assuming our intruder still owns his gun and demonstrates the foresight to bring it along, what does he do with it? Does he conceal it or brandish it? Does he wave it around or take careful aim?

Be

Don’t be a winner–win! Don’t be worried–worry! Don’t be all that you can be–fulfill your potential! In other words, don’t use “be” merely to attribute a characteristic if another verb will convey the idea better. Now, Shakespeare dazzled with “to be, or not to be?” but remember that Hamlet was contemplating suicide, and “be” was used as a synonym for “exist,” not to ascribe an attribute. Hamlet didn’t ask, “to be alive, or not to be alive?”

Get

For an action word, “get” is a bit sluggish, don’t you think? As a synonym for “obtain,” “get” is often a lackluster substitute for more precise or descriptive verbs. As a synonym for the doddering “become,” “get” likewise doesn’t convey much action at all on its own. Why get tired of something when you can simply tire of it? Why get rid of something when you can simply rid yourself of it? Why get started when you can simply start?

Look

She looked sad. She looked dejected. She looked forlorn. She looked defeated. Well, perhaps she might cheer up a bit if we trouble ourselves to describe her manner and expression rather than trivializing her fragile emotional state with another glib look-plus-adjective phrase. Is she crying? Are her eyes red and puffy? Is her head bowed, her shoulders slumped and trembling as she sniffles and sobs into her handkerchief? If we can accurately describe what we see in our mind’s eye, the reader will certainly get the picture.

Seem

As with “look,” “seem” blunts the impact of adjectives and muddles their meaning.  It’s another way of telling instead of showing, which is always bad form.  “She seemed angry” shows us almost nothing and and doesn’t even tell us that much.  Was she shouting and shaking her fists or pacing and gritting her teeth in silence?  The most regrettable characteristic of the seem-plus-adjective construction is its ambiguity, however.  If a character only seems angry, your reader may be justified in thinking that she really isn’t angry but rather just seems that way.

The L-Word

“His head literally exploded!”  No, it didn’t.  It may have figuratively exploded, but chances are it didn’t literally explode.  Over time, “literally” has taken on a meaning which is the precise opposite of what it really means.  This usage of “literally” may work in dialogue because many people do use it that way, as a shorter form of “he was so angry his head exploded, although it didn’t really explode of course, because that can’t happen, but if I say ‘literally’ you’ll get the idea that he was super-duper angry.”  In the end, using “literally” to modify a verb is not only imprecise, it blunts the impact of most verbs nearly as much as the A-word.

The A-Word

“His head almost exploded!”  Using the word “almost” as a verb modifier is just one notch worse than “literally.”  Saying that his head almost exploded is short for “he was so angry his head nearly exploded, although it couldn’t really explode of course, because that can’t happen, and in fact it didn’t happen, but I got to use the word ‘exploded’ without actually having an explosion and I’m hoping you’ll figure out that this means that he was super-duper angry without me actually describing the scene.”

Contrast this with “she almost didn’t do it,” which means she had misgivings but did eventually come through.  Used in this way, “almost” can convey missed opportunity, reluctance, struggle, striving, and potential.  Just don’t use it to mean “sort of, but not really.”

Your Verbs, Your Style

It may be difficult to accept, but if you’re trying to develop “your style,” you’re doing it wrong.  Your style is already there in your head because that’s where the action is. The writing process is largely the process of envisioning what is happening and then describing it in such a way that the reader “sees” roughly the same thing you see. When you envision everything with clarity and faithfully describe it all with carefully selected words, that is your style.

Read through one of your manuscripts with a critical eye and you’re bound to find vague, ambiguous verbs dressed up with adverbs and adverbial phrases, some of which you may have fallen in love with.  Just as an experiment, rewrite a page or two with more descriptive verbs.  You’ll notice the purple prose falls away, leaving the raw, unvarnished truth in a tighter, more vigorous narrative.  Be true to your narrator’s voice, of course, but remember who’s boss.  That is your style.

Consider this an approach to rewriting and self-editing rather than a method of writing, though.  Second-guessing yourself as you write and stopping to agonize over every verb will stymie your muse, so get it all written down before picking it apart. But do pick it apart.  Rewrite with carefully selected action words. Replace empty verbs that boost word count but add little else. By all means, consult a thesaurus for ideas, but always consult a dictionary to ensure proper usage. Don’t understate, but don’t overstate. Don’t fear ingenuity, but don’t let fear of the commonplace push you into unwise substitutions. Above all, strive for precision and clarity rather than clutter and useless ornamentation. With a fertile imagination and a craftsman-like approach, you can tell your story and express yourself fully and succinctly. And that will be your style.

A letter to Writer’s Block

by Marie Rossiter

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sometimes the best advice for writer’s block is to just say, “Adios, muchacho!” Here’s a way one may say it:

Dear Writer’s Block,

I know we’ve been together for a long time, but this relationship is over. It’s not working out for me at all. What we have together isn’t healthy. In fact, it’s become toxic.

I’d like to say it’s not you, but let’s be honest. You’re selfish and mean. Anything that simply takes and takes from someone and gives nothing in return, except maybe frustration and a feeling of hopelessness isn’t something I’d consider valuable to have around.

You also have a casual relationship with people. You flow in and out of people’s lives for a while—whether it’s to force a creative break for the people who are blessed with countless creative ideas or as to serve as a temporary stumbling block that gets in the way of reaching a project’s finish line.

I thought I was smart enough to have a casual relationship with you: a fling, if you will. I mean, I’m not a child anymore. I believed I could handle a short-term affair with you. But, that’s not how you operate.

You have no issue with being with other people, but you expect me to remain committed to you. You prey on my insecurities as a writer; make me uncertain that anything I may think or say is not worth of sharing with anyone. How clever of you.

You’ve become a crutch, an enabler.

Your presence is simply too big in my life. I constantly feel I need to crawl deeper within myself to get away from you. I thought I could get past the fear despite having you in my life. Yet, you consistently remind me how scary putting myself out there is.

“What if they hate what you write?”

“Even worse, what if they don’t even care about what you have to say?”

“What about the people you might hurt if you write the truth?”

“Do you have any idea what the hell you’re doing?”

I just can’t work well with you anymore. I need to stop hearing the overly critical voices you’ve put in my head and to start listening to my own.

Somewhere along the way, you went from a casual acquaintance that dropped by once in a while to this thing that has latched on to me and won’t let go. I’m prying your vice grip off of me now so I can move forward.

I refuse to use you as an excuse to run away from what I want to do—no, what I need to do.

It’s time for you to start seeing other people. Actually, I think it would be better if you just locked yourself up and not take out your insecurities on those of us who are trying our best to have our voices heard and our stories told. Why do you find it necessary to stand in the way of such a beautiful calling?

This letter is not only by good-bye to you, but to serve as a warning for other writers whom many think it’s a good idea for a quickie relationship with you. I want them t see you for who truly are.

I know you’ll come back again, probably in the not so distant future, to see how I am and what I’m doing. You’ll use your manipulating words to try to wear me down so I will return to you. You will tempt me and perhaps we may even have a fling for old time’s sake. And, if you’re ok with that, then so am I.

I admit you’ll always be lingering in the back of my mind. I suppose I’ll have to learn to live with that. I wish I could say it’s been nice, but we both know that’s not the truth.

See ya later.

– Marie

Research … like a journalist

Research is important in writing, especially in fiction writing. Though you are making it up, there needs to be the basis of truth in how you tell the story. If you’re writing about a disease, you should know the a little more than the basics of the disease. If you’re writing about the police, you need to know about police protocol.

As a reporter, research is a huge part of my job. From poring through documents to digging deep in interviews of sources, I need to know about my subject before I let the public read my stories. Here are some tips of the trade I’ve learned that can and will help you research.

Wikipedia is ONLY a good starting point
Too often people turn to Wikipedia for research. Hell, that’s typically the first place I go to find background. However, as a journalist I will NEVER (nor can never) rely on the site as a reliable source.

Now 95 times out of 100, what’s on Wikipedia is correct. They have a team that checks any updates, and if it’s a locked account — such as for any high-profile politician (President Barack Obama or Speaker of the House John Boehner) — that is more reliable than a non-locked account. But I still never use the site as a source to attribute because in its nature anyone can change it, edit it and update it.

Stephen Colbert perfectly explained why Wikipedia is unreliable by telling his Colbert Nation that supporters of the former half-term Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin tried to save her absurd explanation that the patriot rang bells and shot guns to warn the British were coming. Then when they changed the Palin followers’ attempt to literally re-write history, Colbert told his viewers to change Wikipedia’s bell’s entry to say it is also what Paul Revere rang to warn the British was coming.

All valid entries have source material at the bottom. Check the footnotes and get the information directly from the source material.

Google searches
I fancy myself as someone who can find just about anything online. Here are three simple search tips to find things you are trying to look for:

  1. Site-specific searches

Open a new web browser window and load www.Google.com.

As an exercise, we’re going to search for the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website. In the matter of three mouse clicks (and potentially two if you know exactly what you’re looking for), you’ll have at your fingertips DHS immigration stats from 2004 to 2013.

In your Google search bar type in: data and statistics site:dhs.gov
(Please note, there is NO spaces on either side of the colon)

Your first result will read, “Data & Statistics | Homeland Security”

But if you look at all the links on the search results, they ALL begin with the http://www.dhs.gov domain. Neat trick, huh?

Click on the first entry of the search results and then you’ll see a hyperlink for the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics

Let’s try another. Type in: foster care stats site:www.childwelfare.gov

Your top result is, “Foster Care Statistics 2012” and all your results are with the http://www.childwelfare.gov.

  1. Document-specific searches

If you thought the site-specific search was neat, you can find any document that was loaded on a publicly accessed website by a similar search.

As an exercise, we’re going to search for some crime statistics. Let’s say you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for but you want to find some type of crime statistic. In your Google search field, type in: police calls for murder filetype:xls
(Again, note the lack of a space on either side of the colon)

All of your search results will be Microsoft Excel files.

Change your XLS to PDF and see what you get.

Again, pretty neat, huh?

Now go ahead and combine the site-specific search and the document-specific search. Say you want to look on the United Way of Cincinnati site for a pdf. Type in your search like this: site:www.uwgc.org filetype:pdf

What if you want government data or statistics on guns? Type this: guns site:.gov filetype:xls

Now if you want to search for a recent document, say something that was posted last week, last month, the last 24 hours, or even between Jan. 1, 2011 to Jan. 1, 2012, the search engine’s search tools (Google’s time refining tool is under Search Tools, and Yahoo and Bing will blatantly reference the time refining options)

The search possibilities are endless.

  1. Other types of searches

You want to search for a specific phrase? Put quotes around the words you want to search. Now this doesn’t always work, and Google will try to suggest a search without it but select the options that force the search with the quotation marks around your words. And if the phrasing you had didn’t bare any fruit, try another phrasing.

Say you need some realistic property valuations. Go to the county auditor’s site. They have recorded online the property records in the county you are in. If your county is small, then search for a larger county. They will have property values, what properties sold for in the past and what jurisdictions the property is in (such as the municipality or township and school district).

You want to do some deeper digging? Well search deeper. The mainstream search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo will give you surface-level results. But you want to search the “deep web.”

Now deep-web.org will give you some information on deep web searches. This type of search will search a bit deeper into the World Wide Web. Now I don’t personally use the deep web searches because everything I need I can find using Google and the above document- and site-specific searches.

Interviewing tips
If you are going to be writing a book, you may want to or need to talk with some people in order to gain an insider’s point of view for a character, how something works or some location you need a native’s perspective but you can’t get to. Here are three basic rules when it comes to interviewing someone:

• Don’t ask a “yes” or “no” question. You will get a “yes” or “no” answer.
• Try to ask the same question at least one different way.
• If you don’t understand something, ask a follow up.

Now the last of the three rules is self-explanatory (or at least I hope it is) so I won’t get into that one. Not asking a “yes” or “no” question should also be self-explanatory, but it can be difficult. If you formed a question and read it aloud you may think to yourself, “Yeah, that’s something he or she would answer.” It probably isn’t if it’s in a form a question. So don’t ask questions. Have them tell you about something. For example, “Mr. Jones, tell me about the time you first saw that UFO. Describe how you felt when it first appeared.”

Or, “Explain how this blob moves like that in that lava lamp.”

My favorite question is the “Idiot’s Guide” question. “Break it down for me. Give me the Idiot’s Guide version to (insert subject here).”

Now you may find yourself asking a traditional question, and you’re supposed to. But bring out your inner 3-year-old and ask more “Why’s” than any other type of question because that inherently will elicit some lengthier response (and if they’re a smart ass and says because that’s the way it is, remember your inner 3-year-old – “Why?”).

Asking the same question a different way is an old journalist’s trick to try to get a subject to answer the question, and to make sure their answers are consistent. Too many times a politician or a person trying to hide something will give an answer to something and if they’re hiding something, they may not remember what they said the first time.

But it’s a skill to learn how to ask the same question two or three different ways without them thinking they just answered the question. For example, “Mrs. Wallaby, talk about your experiences as a child working with apes.” After you ask a few other questions, come back with, “So, how do children learn by working with apes.”

Now those two questions may seem like they will elicit different answers, and they’ll probably will vary in some manner, but at their core they are getting Mrs. Wallaby to talk about working with apes as a child, or from a child’s perspective.

Finding the time

By M.D. Pitman

One thing that we as writers with day jobs and families struggle with is finding the time to practice our craft. I’m not going to give a foolproof strategy that will consistently give you the secret to finding time away from the job, away from the spouse and kids to write a few hundred or even a few thousand words at a time. But what I can tell you is what works for me, and has worked for many others.

I still struggle to find the time, mainly because I’m a reporter for a daily newspaper in a highly competitive area between Cincinnati and Dayton. I’m writing all day during the week, and when it’s my turn, occasionally on the weekend. Then I have a wife with a job that has its own stressful aspects and two attention-starved young kids.

Bottom line, it’s a constant struggle. I could sugarcoat it, but I can’t. I won’t. Writing is not for the weak-minded or weak-willed.

It is really discouraging when I don’t have the energy, time, desire or every combination of the three to work on any one of my personal writing projects. But here are a few things I do, that more likely than not, will work for you in order to keep the writing muse content and not constantly yelling at you for not putting pen to paper or fingertips to keys.

  1. “Write” during your commute.

First, unless you’re taking a bus or taxi, or you’re a passenger in a carpool, I’m not suggesting you actually write while commuting to work. But keep your story in your head, and think about the story and what needs to happen next.

When I arrive to work or home, I’ll spend a few minutes using my speech-to-text feature to record my thoughts. I then will email that text to myself so I can copy and paste that information into my work in progress.

Most of us have a smartphone that has this feature, including a memo recorder. But if you are more of a luddite and don’t have a smartphone, have a pad of paper and pen handy in your glove box or center console and jot some points down.

Now this can be somewhat of a mindless activity, but that’s okay. Mindless activities allow minds to wander, and wandering minds are wondering minds.

  1. Write during your lunch break

Most of us have a half hour lunch break, and some others have the luxury of an hour break. Take that time to have a working lunch. Now as a reporter, I often eat and work at the same time (I know, I’m giving my work free hours), but it can be done. It’s just a matter of you doing it.

And if you can, take a late lunch. Either at the office or if you go to the local fast food restaurant, you will have a quieter environment if you work after the traditional lunch time hour. And fewer distractions equal more opportunity for productivity.

  1. Ask for time to write

It’s okay to ask for time to write some day during the weekend. But when you do that, unless the spouse and kids leave the house, you’ll want to make sure you leave the house. If your spouse and/or kids know your home – and no matter how much they try to give you the time – you will be disturbed.

Now, you probably won’t get the OK all the time because life does get in the way. But you will get the time if you give your spouse time away from the kids. That will also give you brownie points with the spouse if you offer them “time off” first.

  1. Delay your TV time

Now, I know television time is sacred in many households, but you will happy that you took time to step away from the television to write. Besides, your show will be on in repeats, and most people have a DVR to either record the show or watch it on demand.

There are exceptions. For me, it’s the NFL and college football.

  1. Turn off the Internet

There is always some level of truth in writing, so research is important. But get that out of the way before you write, or after your writing session. Because as we all know, like bugs attracted to light at night, the Internet is attracted to wasting your time.

Now this may not be practical all the time, as most of us are addicted to the World Wide Web (after all, you are reading this online).

Oh, and while you’re separating yourself from your internet, turn off the phone, too. I know, that’s like cutting off an appendage, but you need to remove all temptation in order to maintain your focus on your work.

Remember, writing is your passion and–while most will see it as a hobby–you cannot treat it as such because it’s not. Treat it as your second job with no set hours, a job you need to accomplish whenever and however you can.