Writer’s Diarrhea — And Six Ways to Cure It
Sometimes the problem isn’t constipation (writer’s block), it’s writer’s diarrhea.
The first drafts of my articles are often as messy as an encounter with a broken sewer pipe. Writer’s diarrhea? At times it’s more like dysentery.
When faced with a 2,500-word assignment, I’m powerless to prevent at least 5,000 words from cascading forth. If my computer were a toilet bowl, I’d undoubtedly need to call a plumber.
Some writers spend as much time cutting as writing — and I’m one of them. To turn the torrent of words into a story of an acceptable length, I have to clamber into the cesspit for some serious self-editing.
I suggest you do the same.
When writing a travel story, there’s nothing wrong with voiding your literary bowels and creating a wordsmith’s midden — at least not initially. If it makes you happy, swallow the laxative and let that slurry of words gush loose.
But every writer needs to edit, revise, and rewrite. A first draft is rarely fit to send to an editor. Once you’ve purged yourself, you must then purge your article.
So slash all irrelevant paragraphs. Take a scalpel to the wind-bag phrases and clunking sentences. Axe those useless adjectives and adverbs. When you use the writer’s equivalent of Immodium to tighten the word flow, your story becomes better. And it’s far more likely to get published.
Here are six lessons I’ve learned:
** 1.) Focus on what your story is about. How do you know what’s irrelevant? Well, say you’re writing a restaurant review. Your hungry readers want feeding. So don’t make them wade through endless paragraphs about your grooming habits or the journey to the restaurant. Just get to the real point immediately.
** 2.) Fix clumsy and overlong sentences. Take this sample sentence: If you want to contact the friendly folks in the Lakeland tourist office, which is to be found on Main Street, they will be able to arrange for you to hire a bike and they are also happy to provide you with free maps of the area.
Ugh! What a waste of words. Far better to say: Hire a bike through the Lakeland tourist office on Main Street. They’ll also give you free maps.
** 3.) Read your story out loud. That’s another cure for muddled sentences and excess verbosity. If you gasp for breath midway through a sentence, then it’s too long.
One idea per sentence is enough. As in the previous example, dice your thoughts into more manageable morsels. Hiring a bike goes in one sentence. Picking up free maps goes in the other. You don’t have to write like Hemingway, but shorter sentences often have more impact. Does a phrase sound pompous when read aloud? This probably isn’t how you speak. So write in a more natural voice, as if you’re the reader’s friend.
** 4.) Cut clichés and meaningless phrases. They add nothing to a story. When you think about it, piping hot coffee is a ludicrous term. What does piping hot mean? And why do many writers feel obliged to couple it with coffee or soup? Is the liquid from a wall pipe? Is it served in a Meerschaum pipe bowl? Are sweaty Scotsmen playing bagpipes? Coffee and soup are sometimes served iced, but there’s nothing newsworthy about hot. So keep things simple. Never use three or four words where one will do. Which brings me to adjectives…
** 5.) Adjective overdose is a bad idea, too. Take a meadow. There’s no good reason to go on about a landscape of lush, green, grassy meadows. Martians may not realize most meadows are lush, green and grassy — the rest of us do.
Adjectives are fine in moderation, but don’t become a clutter bug. Too many detract from your writing. Bright, golden sunbeams play across the lovely, sparkling, fish-laden, sapphire-blue sea. That sentence is as enticing as a rarely-emptied chamber pot.
** 6.) Go easy on adverbs as well. Most adverbs end in -ly. They sometimes add to the clutter, but don’t get flummoxed about them. Look for where you’ve linked a verb and adverb. Then decide if the two words are better replaced by a single and more descriptive power verb.
Here’s what I mean. Instead of “moved quickly,” consider using a power verb like “raced,” “ran,” “dashed,” or even “torpedoed.”
Here’s an example: In order to get away from the police, the hooligans moved quickly through the market without caring about the chaos they were causing.
Better to say something like: The hooligans raced through the market, barging into shoppers and overturning fruit stalls. The slow-footed policemen made no arrests.
Now, you could simply trim the first version by changing “were causing” to “caused,” axing surplus words like “in order,” and changing “get away from” to “escape.”
However, I think my revised version shows a clearer picture. You can often “picture-paint” by using power verbs — strong verbs that add energy and precision to your writing.
Put it this way: If you had real diarrhea, would you go quickly to the bathroom or rush to it?
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]