Strategies for Writing Tighter

Two weeks ago I wrote about writing for wireless devices. I said I’d written the first draft of the article on my personal digital assistant (PDA), using a stylus to poke an onscreen keyboard, to get into the “zone.”

I said I thought the experience had made me a tighter writer, and I recommended it for other writers.

That didn’t sit well with Robert Young, a writer in Geelong, Australia.

“I’ve agreed with nearly everything you’ve said in previous articles,” he said, “and have a high regard for your expertise. But after reading your last column, I can only assume you’ve either slipped a cog or drunk too much of that Seattle coffee.

“Do you seriously think that drawing silly characters on a screen or poking at a keypad with a pointy stick will make me a better writer? Do you seriously expect me to deliberately take five times as long to write an article just to have a ‘user experience’?”

Ouch.

But then he offered a lovely analogy: “A famous American actor once asked a famous Australian actor to shout at him and slap him around in order to help him get into character for a fight scene.

“The Australian replied, ‘Why don’t you just try acting?’

“So I say to you, Kathy, instead of going through these silly PDA machinations, why don’t you just try writing?”

Due Diligence

Robert has a point. Being a good writer is like being a good actor. It’s like being a good composer or a good golfer. That is, you’re nowhere without talent, and to get anywhere at all you have to “do it” — act, compose, golf, or write — diligently. You have to practice your craft every possible moment.

But practicing your craft means more than writing melodies, playing three rounds of golf a day, or showing up for rehearsals seven days a week. Beethoven wouldn’t have written the Ninth Symphony, Tiger Woods wouldn’t have won every Major, and Julia Roberts wouldn’t have gotten the Oscar for best actress without grueling, lonely hours of practicing different aspects of their craft day after day.

Here’s my own analogy. Years ago I was a marathon runner. When I was training for a marathon, following the advice of running experts I would do two things: Some days I would run long miles at an aerobic pace, while other days I would run short wind sprints at an anaerobic pace.

Typing my article on a PDA reminded me of running wind sprints. It was painful, but it tightened my writing in ways that typing on a keyboard and looking at a big screen couldn’t.

Having to Choose the Right Word the First Time

I also received email from Avanti Kumar, a British journalist living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“I’ve planned and written whole articles on my PDA using on-screen graffiti,” he wrote, “as it is the only way for me to write my columns while maintaining the responsibilities of my ‘day job.’ As you said, this is tedious!

“Even with the keyboard PDA, there is a forced economy when writing. So there is certainly an impact on style: It forces you to choose the right word even in the first draft.”

Someone Had to Say It

A comment from Eric Miller, an advertising writer in Raleigh, NC, made me laugh:

“I used to write tight, but I couldn’t handle the hangovers.” Touchi.

“Composing articles on a PDA is an excellent idea,” Eric continued. “I’ve used a folding keyboard with my PDA for about a year. I may have to give it up now!”

He cited other ways he imposes discipline on himself:

  • Writing in haiku

  • Writing longhand
  • Writing longhand with his right hand (he’s left-handed)
  • Writing using a 300-word magnetic poetry set — “the child’s version”

“The result of the last technique was so fresh, so concise, so free of ‘adspeak,’ that I decided to recreate the magnets as a Word file on my laptop (with the addition of a second set, it has grown to 600 words).”

Eric sent me the file, and I put it to the test with some short copy I was writing for a client site. (Don’t worry, Robert, I didn’t use it to write this article!) The client loved it.

With or without a keyboard, with or without cog slippage or too many Cherry Street Cafi double lattes, with or without a hangover or a full lexicon, there’s more than one way to become a tighter writer.

Next time: when your copy never gets used.