Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 4 of 10)

Succinct statements flow from those who have experienced life and pass on their wisdom. The best examples are simple, practical, and often playful. They preserve traditional values and offer glimpses about often ignored behavior or as a guide to change.

These dictums have a way of expressing my feelings in such a way that I can learn to think differently. I enjoy reading pithy statements and saying, “I wish I’d written that.”

If we write aphorisms, we not only write short, crisp sentences, we also make those statements meaningful to readers. I’m frequently asked (and delighted to comply) when people ask to copy one of my maxims.

Another form is the epigram, which is usually a short poem, often with a witty ending.
Fleas: Adam had ‘em.
Here’s one I call a poem that I worked on and refined over a period of four weeks. Although it doesn’t rhyme, it’s among my favorites because of the rhythm—the poetic flow. Each word in the second maintains the cadence of those in the first.
I am passionately involved in the process;
I am emotionally detached from the result.

The best maxims flow from life experiences, 
and are stated in such a way that they connect with others.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 3 of 10)

Aphorisms flow from ancient writings. For example, we read them in the book of Proverbs and hear them quoted by public speakers. The ancients focused on graffiti-length tidbits. Their readers were poorly educated, so to help them remember, they wrote succinctly.

Thus, they tried to pack wisdom into terse statements and make a sharp point—something we need to keep in mind for contemporary readers.

Brevity also works today but for different reasons. We’re better educated, and somewhere I read that we have an 85 percent world literary rate. Despite that, our need for insights is as urgent as ever. We’re too busy, too pre-occupied, and too tired to read five paragraphs to extract a single sentence.

More than 100 years ago, T.S. Eliot said that we’re “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

We have so much information available that the meaning seems flattened into mere information. Internet experts have shrunken cultural achievement as deep thought, original insight, or facility with language into the single word: content.

Consequently, we skim rather than absorb. Pushed for time, we settle for shallow. Or as the high school kids say, “Read the CliffsNotes.”

As difficult as it seems, we can learn to write with flair, rhythm, and create simple, memorable sentences. The one factor to remember is that aphorisms must have a twist—an element of surprise. Strong aphorisms seduce and surprise us.

Whether we’re aware, we quote aphorisms regularly and (sadly) many become cliched, tired sentences: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Boring today, but in the beginning, those few words held significant meaning.

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Work as if you were to live 100 years, pray as if you were to die tomorrow.”

Write your own, and cut extra words. Keep your sentences simple.

We remember short sentences;
we skim long ones.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 2 of 10)

I heard a man say, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.” That now-overworked dictum fits my definition of the term. It’s simple and obvious in meaning—his statement of truth (even if not original) spoken in a witty way. To qualify as an aphorism, a statement contains a truth in a terse manner.

Aphoristic statements are quoted in writings as well as in daily speech. The fact that they contain truth gives them universal acceptance. Scores of philosophers, politicians, writers, artists, athletes, and other individuals are remembered for their famous aphoristic words.

You can teach yourself to write philosophical or moral truths. You focus on human experiences and help readers relate your brief words to their own lives.

Just recently someone said this in a political speech—and I don’t know if it was original, but it grabbed me: “Not strong morals, but weak stomachs, keep us from being vultures.”

I Peter 3:15 exhorts us to always give a reason for our hope. How about writing a simple statement that’s memorable, brief, and states your theological position? “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19) is a memorable biblical example.

Just as I finished writing the above paragraph, I thought of my own answer.

What I couldn’t do for myself
Jesus’ love accomplished for me.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 1 of 10)

These days with Twitter and texting, we’re learning to write shorter sentences and paragraphs. In pre-computer days we urged shorter sentences and referred to it as the “economy of words.” That meant we tried to eliminate words that carried little weight.

Here are a few examples:
  • He drank some coffee. We can nearly always cut some and make a good clear statement.
  • She managed to leave the house: She left the house.
  • Jess wasn’t hungry at all. Jeff wasn’t hungry.
In learning to write tight (or tightly for the purists), I stumbled on aphorisms. Most of these blog entries end with them. My prodigious use of them began years ago when a publisher pulled statements out of various chapters and boxed them—we call them call outs (or callouts)— short texts that illustrate or make a strong point.

I enjoy writing aphorisms. If that’s not a common word for you, think of adage, proverb, moral, or principle. They’re brief observations that contain a general truth. Their pithiness makes the text easily remembered and quotable.

Try these:
  • Youth is a blunder; Manhood a struggle; Old age regret.—Benjamin Disraeli 
  • Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.—Benjamin Franklin 
  • Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream.—Khalil Gibran
This series is to encourage you to sum up your understandings in brief statements. It’s like the elevator pitch, which refers to the possibility of your getting on the elevator with an agent or editor and you say, “May I tell you about my book?”

“Sure,” the person says. “I’m getting off at the third floor.”

That means you must sum up everything in a few sentences.

Although no publisher has ever asked, when I write a book proposal I insert my elevator pitch immediately following the title page. It’s my summary of the book—usually one brief paragraph. That brief statement saves editors time by helping them see whether it’s something they want to pursue or to delete it from their hard drive.

Try doing this with your articles, stories—anything you write. It also helps you focus on what’s important.

I’ve been doing them so long, most of the time they flow out of my writing.

Here’s an aphorism for what I’ve written above:

I write summary statements to clarify 
and to keep my thoughts focused.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Secrets from Professional Writers (#11)

11. We behave professionally.

Professionals are people on whom editors depend. We don't just make our deadlines, we beat them. We're dependable. Many years I received opportunities to ghostwrite for a publisher—and did a total of 35 for them. Although I didn't know the reason for at least a decade, a woman had written many books for them and she was excellent. She had failed to meet every deadline. They got tired of working with her.

Another thing about professionals is that we take criticism well. We know we have things to learn. Even if we don’t agree with what an editor says, we seriously ponder it instead of responding with anger. A once-famous writer called an editor on the phone and berated her. The story I heard (from someone who sat there) was that the writer yelled and screamed for nearly five hours. Maybe that's a reason she's no longer a famous writer.

I could list other characteristics, but professionals seem to have an innate sense of the correct thing to do at the right time. Perhaps I could sum it up by saying that professionals try to be sensitive to others, especially in the way they treat people who are a few rungs lower on the ladder than they are.

I am a professional and I behave professionally.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Secrets from Professional Writers (#10)

10. We reach out to other writers.

Thirty years ago, Suzanne refused to help another writer because "she'll become my competition." I didn't agree then; I strongly disagree today.

I believe in the principle of giving ourselves freely and sharing what we know. I don't think of others as my competition. I think of them as other writers who are trying to sell what they write. I want to help.

Here's my favorite verse that's not from the Bible: Yea, the Lord shoveleth it in; I shoveleth it out; and behold, the Lord hath a larger shovel (Jubilations 4:4).

To the fearful and insecure, it may sound outrageous to give away what we've worked hard to learn. But it really works the other way. I'm a giver and I like to give. As I examine my writing career, every upward step I've taken has come about because someone else opened the door. My first book publisher and my first agent came because someone else opened the door. In both instances, the help was from individuals I had helped but never expected any return.

Professionals know that. They enjoy sharing what they know and giving to others. That puts them in a position to receive from others.


We receive by giving; we grow by sharing.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Secrets from Professional Writers (#9)

9. We study the markets. (Part 2)

If you don't study the markets, you lower your chances of selling anything because you don't know what publishers want. If you send in something that's outdated or no longer of interest, you frustrate editors. Do it often enough and you create a negative reputation among editors (and they do talk with each other).

As you study what's out there, you can ask yourself, "To what does that lead?" You can learn to anticipate what the public will read next. For example, I suggested for years that books for retiring baby boomers would be a big thing. So far I haven't seen many books on the topic, but they're definitely on the way.

Studying the markets is more than selling; it's staying abreast about what goes on in the world. We figure out the felt-needs of people, sometimes before they're aware.

We study the markets because we're professionals.
Professionals are always on the learning curve.