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Ten Tips to Write Better

Posted on Monday, April 29, 2013 at 11:46 PM

"Sweet tips for creating nonfiction confections."

By Peter P. Jacobi

Candace Fleming was a faculty colleague at a recent writers' workshop. She is the award-winning and very successful author of -- among other books -- biographies written for young readers on the Lincolns, P.T. Barnum, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Amelia Earhart.

During a lecture titled "Sweet Tips for Creating Nonfiction Confections," she promoted a set of ten points designed to help writers do better work. As I listened, those points seemed as potentially useful for you as for those at the workshop. So I asked if I could share her advice with you. Candace Fleming told me, "Do it." She told me that with a smile, as if she not only meant it but wished it.

This is my follow-through, and I quote her wherever I can, based on the notes I took.

Tip One

"I think about a perfect, imaginary reader and ask myself questions about him, what he will want or need to know. That guides my research."

Tip Two

"Your idea is vital. Point to something larger. Facts are neutral; they have no meaning. You must form the meaning, which develops naturally out of research.... With the vital idea set, all your research and ultimate coverage choices must follow in support."

Tip Three

"Question your material. Don't accept the standard version of things. Check facts out. Did it really happen that way? Be curious. Ask questions.... When working on 'The Lincolns,' I realized that details were missing on where Mary was throughout the hours after the shooting. I found them, including her frantic, pitiful question, 'Where is my husband?' She had been left behind when Lincoln was moved from the theater.... Seek the story behind the story."

Tip Four

"Allow your story's structure to grow out of research. Be creative, but don't impose. Form must be natural to the material.... Take select parts and arrange them so they have meaning.... For my biography of Ben Franklin, I decided it made more sense to divide the coverage by subjects, by the various aspects of his life rather than chronologically. I wrote it like an almanac."

Tip Five

"Think in scenes. Block them as in the theater. Each scene has a purpose. Each scene involves a change. Each scene moves the story forward. Remember that the first scene is the flashlight that shines into the rest of the story, and the last one is determined by how and where you think the story should end.... Between the scenes, you create links." The scenes, said Fleming, are the "show" aspects of your piece. The links constitute "tell," the explanatory bridges necessary to take your article from scene to scene and, thereby, create flow. "Try to use the five senses. Develop the dimensions of time and place. Use detail carefully."

Tip Six

"Those links I mentioned, they're digressions from the narrative, of course, but they're important. These bridges provide the context for your story." Ask yourself, she suggested: Are you getting your reader comfortably to the next scene? Does he or she know what's necessary to understand the scene that follows?

Tip Seven

"Write with your inner ear. Try to write without looking at your source notes. Know what you have gathered well enough to write your first draft from within. Then, you can go back to your sources and check for accuracy and whether you've used all the desirable details."

Tip Eight

"Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite." And as you do, she urged, consider pace and flow.

Tip Nine

"Don't forget about visual elements. What pictures can you locate and collect to highlight your story?" As researcher, said Fleming, you know better than most anyone where good illustrations to enrich your story can be found. "It's a great way to help your editor and to convince your editor that you've done everything possible to make your published story the best it can be."

Tip Ten

"Double-check every sentence. Leave nothing to chance."

Bonus Tip

Author Fleming then, on the spur of the moment, added an eleventh tip. "There is no simple secret for any of this," she said. "But to me, feelings are very important. Make the reader feel something."

Beneficial advice. An expert's advice. Welcome it. Use it.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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