What’s the most important tool a writer has?
If you said paper, pen, or your imagination… you’re wrong. Travel writer and humorist, Stan Sinberg, reveals the answer below.
Director, Great Escape Publishing
The One Simple Tool Every Writer Should Use More Often
by Stan Sinberg
The most useful writing advice I ever received from any course came on the first day of the first writing class I ever took. Old, white-haired Mr. Stark bounded into the college classroom, and without even introducing himself, asked, “What’s the most important tool a writer has?”
We students looked around, a little perplexed. Finally someone put up his hand.
“A pen?” (This was before computers)
“No. Not a pen. You could use a typewriter.”
“Paper?” someone else volunteered.
“No! ” Mr Stark bellowed. “Paper’s important, but not number one.”
“A good imagination?” a third student offered, taking a different tack.
“Plenty of successful writers lack imagination,” Mr. Stark replied, with a hint of disdain.
Then, suddenly lurching to his right, he swooped up a nearby trashcan.
“This!” He thundered. “This is the most important tool a writer has!”
Mr. Stark, of course, was teaching us about the absolute necessity of rewriting.
People tend to think of writers as having one job. But they really have two. I divvy it up this way: in my writing job I pour all my creativity and story-telling skills and wit down onto the page. Then “I” swivel completely around in my chair and return as a crusty, squinty-eyed editor wearing a little poker visor. At which point I look at the thing I just wrote, and harrumph, “Ok, what did that lunkhead Sinberg give me this time?”
What I accomplish by pretending to be someone other than the author is I lose my investment in preserving my immortal words. Instead of asking “What can I leave in?” I attack it, demanding “What can I take out?”
There’s no “right” way to edit. I once met a book writer who wouldn’t move on to the next page until he had perfectly edited the one he was working on. I would never, ever edit that way, because it would interrupt my creative flow, but also because what happens later in the manuscript usually forces me to go back and make changes, anyway. But that was his method, and it worked for him.
Here are a couple other suggestions you might try:
1) Keep asking yourself: Does this serve my angle?
I recently saw a documentary, shot in Cuba, about Afro-Cuban music. The director/narrator prefaced the film by telling us that his film crews had spent months traveling to every nook and cranny of Cuba to record bands in clubs, on the streets, and in private homes. So it was pretty much of a shock when the movie started and – there was hardly any music!
A band would play eight bars, and then the narrator would talk over the band, explaining the history of the music, or the social conditions that caused it.
He went on about the US embargo of Cuba and how unfair it was. The film-maker couldn’t resist throwing in some history about Che Guevara, as well as some of Cuba’s scenic wonders. All of which may have been interesting in its own right, but got in the way of hearing the music!
The filmmaker failed to ask himself the most basic of questions: What’s my piece about? What’s my angle?”
My point here is this: It’s tempting to want to say “everything” in one piece, but it makes your work unfocussed, and ultimately, about nothing. If you’re writing about “Great Beaches in Cancun,” don’t go off on a long tangent about the stranger you met there who told you a story about walking around the world.
If something fascinating you wrote doesn’t support the premise or angle, take it out. Save it. Use it as a sidebar, perhaps. There’s always another article to put it in.
2) When you get your piece nice and tight, chop it by one-third.
By that, I don’t mean lopping off the bottom 33%. I mean go through it and look for ways to say something in 10 words instead of 15. Avoid hitting the reader over the head with your main concept, or saying the same thing three different ways. Ask yourself “What can I lose?”
Years ago, as a freelance columnist, I routinely wrote 750-word columns. Then a newspaper hired me to write a humor column 3 times a week, to a length of 600 words. At first, this was agony. I didn’t want to lose any of my (I thought) incredibly good points, nor did I want to sacrifice any of my jokes. So I wrote 750 words and whittled and tightened until I was down to 600. After a couple months I was quite comfortable writing to this shorter length, and I had to admit, the columns were much snappier, and hadn’t lost anything.
Your homework for this weekend: Write a travel article about something in your own hometown. It can be a local festival (May 1st is a holiday in some countries and both Mother’s Day and Memorial Day are coming up in the States)… a round-up of the best local restaurants or B&Bs… or even a side trip article between 500 and 1,500 words. Save it. Then, open it in a different file, and chop it by a third.
When you’re finished, read the two and see if you want to go back and use the longer one. I bet you won’t.
These days, the trashcan icon is the most important writing tool you have.
[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.]