Ever notice how often advertisers try to scare you in order to get you interested in their “must-have” product . . . or service? Seems like nobody simply says “I have this product that does this. If you can use it stop by my website and take a look . . .” Rather we hear things that try to frighten you into buying: “Getting caught in a public speech with insufficient action verbs can, as the late, great George Carlin would say, ‘Warp you mind, curve you spine, and lose the war for the Allies.’ Don’t get caught with a fatally insufficient supply of action verbs.”
The intent is to assure you that you will become better than everyone else if you learn and use this or that technique. “Come to us. We are the action verb specialists! Let us put action in your prose.” (But, when you think about it, that’s sort of what English teachers do!)
I noticed when I taught, that most students in an effort to “improve” their writing tended to “flower it up”—in short, over do it. They added “bigger” words, flowery language, and complicated and/or confusing sentence structure in an effort to give their writing the appearance of content and authority and maturity. Of course, they totally “missed the boat.” But exploring why they missed the boat was a great way to learn to get into and stay in the right boat.
If you go back to the writers whose work really inspired or excited you, dollars to donuts you’d find their prose rather straightforward, clean and crisp, sometimes almost simple. I could never figure out why floweriness was the default response to a request for improvement. No samples of it existed in the texts to serve as guides to writing ideal prose, and certainly none made it into any of my handouts and worksheets, except as paragraph to edit or rewrite.
I’m reminded of the joke about the tough, war-weary sergeant who wanted to get some insight about the enemy forces his troops faced. He sent out several scouts who later returned with detailed accounts of the enemy’s strength in this quadrant and that quadrant. Frustrated with accumulating detailed reports, he dismissed the scouts one by one and finally turned to battle-hardened corporal Jones. “So what’s your report, Jones? How many enemy do we face?” The corporal reported confidently, “A shit load of ‘em, Sergeant.” The sergeant approached the soldier and gave him a slap him on the back that would have knocked most men off their feet. “Great work soldier. Finally, someone who can count!”
The corporal understood the “lingo” his sergeant was used to and to him “a shit load” provided sufficiently specific information to allow the sergeant to arrange his troops.
Another guy I knew used what he called the TLAR method when it came to planning and logistics. TLAR stood for “That Looks About Right.” A bit loosey-goosey sounding, but it was sufficiently specific for him. I’ve use the method frequently to assess my own as well as the writing of others. Writing can be an inexact “science.” That’s why TLAR is somewhere between rough draft and finished product. You’ll know it when you see it. And at that point, you are able to determine a specific course to improvement.
I’m not proposing this as the ideal way to conduct your writing efforts, but it works for some as a good starting point between first draft and final draft. Yes, yes, there are those tales of Hemingway estimating the exact number of words he would use in this paragraph or that paragraph to achieve the impact he sought. His estimates did not reflect some magical or secret formula he kept tucked in his back pocket. It came from experience and insights into his own writing style and techniques, and thinking ahead as to what he needed to achieve his literary goals.
Makes you want to hate a writer with that much self-knowledge and control, but you don’t read Hemingway to learn the how but see the results. You have to extrapolate the “hows” that might work for you. Hemingway certainly had a high level of innate talent. For the rest of us, we will struggle to get to his starting point. But like Hemmingway, we’ll learn not form our successes but from our failures and by always keeping in mind the first basic rule of writing: What worked this time probably won’t work the next. In other words, there are no formulas . . . except to know when you have reached that point in your own prose when TLAR applies. You’ve said enough. You’ve said it well. You are ready to take then next step: write the next sentence, start the next graph, cut the paragraph you just wrote in half, start the next chapter, and so on.
Be forewarned. If you write formulaically, your prose will sound formulaic and your audience will be quickly reduced to one—you. The more you try to improve it, the worse it will get. Sometimes, the best way to fix crap is to simply start over. The ultimate goal is to write less crap and make substantive improvement in incremental steps. You’ve heard the phrase, anything worth doing is worth doing well. When it comes to writing, getting to well is the hard part!
You need to develop your own sense of TLAR, and its writer corollary: “That sounds about right.” This is why I recommend that you read what you write out loud. If forces you to cease being the writer and become your own audience (reader); it provides the “psychic distance” between what you have written and what the reader will “hear” as they read. It helps make you a stranger in assessing your own prose.
There are a few things about writing a paragraph that are good to keep in mind. Generally, you want to focus on a single topic—introduce it, describe it, support it or debunk it, and conclude it. Take the two immediately preceding sentences; they could serve to introduce an essay on writing. Minimally you would write five paragraphs: the introduction and a paragraph for each of the designated topics listed. Likely you would add some sort of concluding paragraph to sum up and point out the wisdom of your words. For example: “It will take some practice to become facile with these literary tools and techniques, but you will incrementally get the hang of it, and, as you do, your paragraphs will become easier to draft.” Something like that. You leave the reader with no guarantees, but encouragement.
Structurally, I use the term “flow” to indicate the goal for each sentence in a paragraph to connect logically and smoothly to the next, and each paragraph to do the same. Everything needs to come together to take the reader to where s/he needs and wants to go—a satisfying ending. Of course, your goal may be different for a specific project, but you get the picture, which itself is an idiom, which will make an interesting topic for another blog, because, after all, writing is merely painting pictures with words. The more colorful the words on you pallet, the more powerful your word painting.
Like a painter, you may roughly draft a paragraph about what you want your writing project to achieve. Then comes the harder part: getting there!