Earlier today, I began reading “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman. Most of the books I’ve been reading for the past year have been research for “Social Media for Engineers & Scientists.” This book, however, was supposed to be a quick self-help project to improve the work product itself. But twenty pages in, I had already rewritten the first paragraph of my book and learned five valuable lessons that can benefit everyone who writes anything.
After a brief chapter describing how to properly format a manuscript, the second chapter rolls up the sleeves and gets down to business. The title of the chapter is “Adjectives and Adverbs” and in it, Lukeman describes many of their common pitfalls. As I pondered the warnings and recommendations, I’m sure my brows were furrowed and lips puckered in intellectual symbiosis. ”Well, surely! Of course! Good point — I certainly don’t do that!” When I reached the end of the chapter, there was short list of exercises, which the author insisted be done before proceeding to the next chapter. Normally, I am too short on patience to endure such tasks but since I am leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of creating the best book I possibly can, I decided to follow directions.
The exercise involved removing every adjective and adverb from the first page of my manuscript and listing them on a separate page. I did so, and the list was relatively short which gave me a false sense of security (“See, I knew I was pretty good”). So far, so good: it appeared I was not overly liberal in their use. The next step was to examine the words themselves and see if any of them were commonplace or cliché. Most were strong, but a few could be stronger so I examined them. Much to my chagrin, I noticed that my third sentence had four adjectives. Even worse, two of them were weak. And worse still was the fact that they were repetitive. As soon as I recognized this, I smiled broadly and began to shake my head, simultaneously admonishing and congratulating myself. I had instantly learned some valuable lessons and the third sentence of my book was already much better for it.
The original sentence read, “I was such a dope. And by dope, I mean arrogant. Not the confident, swashbuckling arrogance born from slain dragons and rescued maidens, but rather the ignorant, obtuse variety born from an engineering degree and sense of entitlement.” Note the two adjectives, “confident” and “ignorant,” that were removed. Not only were these weak, they were completely unnecessary! Swashbucklers are, by definition, confident. And those who are obtuse are, also by definition, ignorant. I reworked the sentence to read, ”Not the swashbuckling arrogance born from slain dragons and rescued maidens, but rather the obtuse variety born from an engineering degree and sense of entitlement.” By removing these words, the sentence became tighter and more vivid.
Five Lessons from Three Sentences
Lesson #1 – You’re never as smart as you think you are.
I really thought that this opening paragraph was strong and had even had some positive feedback from others. It just goes to show that you can always improve and you’re rarely as smart (or literary) as you thought.
Lesson #2 – Less is more.
One of the most critical (and difficult) principals of good design is restraint. Too much design results in decoration; think Christmas tree versus Bonsai tree. The same is true for writing. As Francis Flaherty says, “A story should never be as heavy as a fruitcake. Every word you write, the reader must read.”
Lesson #3 – Your first draft is shit.
I’ve read this many times over the last few months as I researched the craft of writing and now I have lived it. In fact, I’m pretty sure that given this is my first book the second and third drafts are going to require some remodeling too.
Lesson #4 – Seek advice.
I’ve read some incredibly helpful books recently that were dense with practical, actionable advice. This example, however, was so concrete and overt that I literally stopped reading the book in order to write this post. It illustrates how invaluable the experience of others can be to our own endeavors. Stay hungry for knowledge and open your mind to changing.
Lesson #5 – Do the work.
It would have been easy for me to skip over the exercises in the first chapter of this book. And my writing would have suffered for it. I made a quick decision to try it out because I take this writing very seriously and intend to do everything in my power to make it the best first book it can be. The worrying thing is knowing how unlikely a first attempt at anything can truly be “great.” Nonetheless, it won’t be from lack of trying.