The sound and the furious rewriting

William Faulkner

William Faulkner was a high school dropout and never formally trained as a writer, which may seem to disprove my entire point, but I’m sticking with it anyway.

I wish someone had taught me to write in college. Really write.

All we were instructed to do was to write papers. Most of us thought if we wrote terribly long, convoluted sentences that we’d sound smarter than the actual words and meaning on the page. So, I learned to use semi-colons and em dashes and all kinds of devices to look brainier. I even used British spellings because colour was so much sexier than color.

Sure, we got comments back. But no one ever held us accountable. No one ever said, “Hey, try this if you want to write better.”

In fact, they shoved books in front of us with 100-page sentences, such as the one that kicks off Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury. Or dazzled us with completely indecipherable Joyce.

What we were supposed to think?

And then they patted our little backsides and sent us out into the world.

My first job was as a newspaper writer. The long sentences and Brit spellings hit the skids immediately. But still — we were somewhat rewarded for quantity. Not in pay, but generally having a longer story meant that we could use less of the canned National Geographic copy that was written to fit any space (it could be cut at the end of virtually any sentence! It was amazing stuff).

Even so, my editor allowed me the occasional semi-colon and awkward sentence structure. He couldn’t possibly fix everything wrong with my writing.

Then I found television. Or, it found me. I took at job at age 24 researching and occasionally writing for a live television news show for PBS. Within five months, I had been bumped up to Head Writer for the show — but not because my writing was that great. Our head writer left the show and no other show writer knew anything about farming and agribusiness.

Writing for television is the best thing that ever happened to my writing. My words became few and well chosen. A :30 story had five, maybe six sentences, and they had to be understood by the ear. They had to work with sounds, such as music and sound effects.

Plus, I had to learn to rewrite. At first I rewrote to make the timing right. Then, I learned to choose simpler words. Then, I learned to choose words that complemented, not repeated, the video on screen. I rewrote even :30 stories a dozen times. On an IBM. An IBM selectric typewriter, that is.

Learning to write well has been a long and arduous process. And I’m still at it (the learning part, that is) every single day.

And the web has helped me. First, by letting me publish virtually anything instantaneously. What a relief after getting my master’s in design when most typesetting machines still used metal letters! Second, by allowing me to tweak to my heart’s content.

I taught writing for ten years at a variety of colleges and universities. That was the second great thing that happened to my writing. I came to understand the process even more by teaching others. And I forced every student in every class to rewrite.

At first, my students hated the insinuation that their first attempts weren’t any good. Then they felt pride that, after several rewrites, their stories, ads, and features were good enough to go on the air. And every single student left with a portfolio of their writing that many used to get their first jobs.

Now, wouldn’t that be nice if all students learned that valuable lesson of rewriting? It doesn’t happen in every English class. My effect on teaching rewriting? Ten years times 30 students per class times 2 classes per semester? A mere 600 students or so. Think how many could have benefited from rigorous attention to their writing. And still could.

Video 101: Review your needs before writing the script

A CD Video Disc (playing side) produced in 1987.

Image via Wikipedia

Always review your needs before writing the script

Planning a video or film for your business is just like planning anything else. The more prepared you are, the better the process will go and the happier you’ll be with the final product.

In video and film, you have an added bonus: the more prepared you and your producer are, the lower you can keep your costs. Follow the steps below and you’ll be well on your way to executive producing your next video or film. (more…)

How to keep a viewer’s attention

3D movie audienceSuppose I asked you to graph your attention level while viewing a very interesting film. For a good show, people often answer that their attention level is high throughout — a flat line in the upper quadrants of the graph.

Not so. Even while watching the most engaging of stories, your interest typically waxes and wanes — kind of like a roller coaster in shape.

How do you keep a viewer’s attention?

As you watch a video — a good video — the action, words, sounds, and music spark memories and associations that feed into your experience of the video. In a well-done video, that’s a good thing. Hooking a reader’s personal emotions can do a lot of work for you.

Also, most people don’t focus steadily in a passive activity such as watching a video. The mind typically wanders during any presentation, whether it’s a feature film, a play, or a YouTube clip. Full attention returns when you create a new turning point — a plot change or new information, for instance.

So, when you craft a video presentation of any length, you want to be mindful of these “mental breaks” that will occur. And, if you’re good, you learn to manage them by carefully doling out important data in a time-release fashion, building on each “release” to a final climax. It’s really very much like how a feature film is carefully crafted.

For instance, at the beginning of a video you have just a few seconds to keep viewers who aren’t a captive audience. (Some say the attrition begins in the first second). So the beginning needs to be bold, surprising, unique, or otherwise attention getting. After that, you create peaks and valleys to continually reward your viewer for staying with you. Each peak builds on the last, and each valley provides supportive information for its peak, or the next one, if you will.

Plus, everything I’ve just said about keeping someone’s attention is exponentially more challenging every day, as you and everyone you know encounters hundreds of media messages every day. We want our information, and we want it fast.

USA Today hit on a novel idea back in the 70s by releasing bite-sized news, and received a lot of flak for it. But they were right. And today, as other newspapers flag and fail, USA Today still circulates more newsprint than any other newspaper in the United States.

Video is a lot like USA Today. You want to introduce memorable information and keep your audience’s attention throughout. In a well-composed video, you can do just that by thinking through your turning points. More on how to figure those out in another blog!

Writing is rewriting

Alice Walker

Alice Walker

When I taught scriptwriting, which I did for 10 years at two different colleges, I always began class by asking, “Who wants to be a better writer?” All would raise their hands, and I would as well. (more…)

Writing is learning

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor

It always surprises people when I tell them that I didn’t know anything about radar when I wrote a 10-part animated video that trains military radar techs how to run airborne radar systems. I learned the fundamentals of radar by writing (and reading and talking) about them.

It was the same with a children’s series about astronomy. And with a museum piece about the Orient. And another video about childcare.

You don’t write about something (usually) because you know all about it. You write about it to learn. And so it is with fiction and with nonfiction writers everywhere. You take an interest in something, and then you learn about it by writing.

Why writing is learning

And part of that process involves not knowing exactly where you’re heading when you begin writing. Most of the time I’m dimly aware of a beginning, middle, and an end, but I just don’t know what they’ll each consist of.

Flannery O’Connor once said that she never knew how her stories would end when she began them. The endings developed as she wrote. Sometimes she surprised herself.

And so it is with scriptwriting, or writing web copy, or any kind of worthwhile writing. If I knew how everything would end, perhaps I’d never begin. It’s the process of putting things down on paper (or screen), the time it takes for words to leave my mind and my fingertips, the time it takes to remember details and stitch them together. All of these things contribute to how a piece develops and ends. And you can’t know that at the very beginning. It’s the process that stimulates my interest in completing it.

In fact, if I knew how every one of my videos would look when I began writing them, I’d probably lose interest. For me, it’s the telling of the story, weaving it with picture and sound, and then the eventual collaboration with camerapeople and editors that make the whole more than it was to begin with. But that’s another story.

In short, everyone can write. And yet, just because people watch more videos, more commercials, more media in general than ever before does not qualify them to create it.

Clients continually tell me that they write, and sometimes that a writer won’t be necessary on their project. And then I try as fast as I can to disengage from the project, because I know it won’t be successful.

If I ask, how many scripts have you written? “How hard can it be?” is their response. “I’ve watched a lot of videos!” Sigh.

You don’t send someone who wants to jog out on a marathon on her first day, do you? Even though she’s seen a lot of marathons? That would be silly, and perhaps painful.

Similarly, you don’t try your hand at specialty writing just because you have an ego-driven need or because you want to save money. The writing of your script is the essence of the video or print ad or web site that will be. Don’t leave this to a rookie, unless your audience is also composed of rookies. Your writer will need to be eyeball-to-eyeball, if you will, with your audience. On its level, whatever that may be. A good writer learns how to speak to any audience.

To be a successful scriptwriter (among other things), you need to learn how to read scripts. All kinds of scripts. Dramatic scripts. Documentary scripts. Training scripts. Educational scripts. Do you think that any Hollywood screenwriter ever succeeded on his or her first try, without getting to know the medium? Same with scriptwriting for an educational or a corporate audience.

Next, practice writing. Practice synthesizing ideas for others. Practice generating and maintaining excitement about a topic. Practice writing the way that people talk to each other. Above all, practice learning. Because that’s what writing is about. If you don’t reach a revelation, or a series of them, you won’t be able to communicate a topic to your audience.

Only then will you be able to call yourself a writer. And it won’t be because you know how to write one sentence following on another. It will be because you know how to learn well enough to create a meaningful story for your audience.

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