Jon Winokur invited me to contribute to his Twitter feed, @AdviceToWriters. I decided to write a tweet about a technique I use as a writing coach to help writers who stall while drafting, or even worse, become paralyzed by writers’s block. I advise them never to think of themselves with their fingers touching keys, unless they’re writing autobiography or a memoir. Otherwise they’re off the subject while they’re typing.
And when you think about yourself while writing, your Internal Critic grabs the opportunity to undermine your confidence more he usually does. If yours is anything like mine, he screams things like this:
What a stupid sentence!
The one before it is worse!!
You don’t know what you’re talking about!!!
If you publish this, people will laugh at you!!!!
You’re wasting your life writing this crap!!!!!
You’re no good!!!!!!
Notice his sequence: from a rough sentence to career failure to worthlessness. If you let him keep that up, you’ll give up in despair, maybe even leave our profession.
So how do I say all that in 140 characters and spaces? Actually, 132 because I have to leave room for six letters (d-o-n-f-r-y) and two spaces. Here’s my first try:
“Never think about yourself with your fingers on the keys, unless you’re writing autobiography or a memoir. Otherwise you’re off the subject. DON FRY.”
Jon said that was too long (148) and shortened it:
“Nvr think about yrself wth yr fingers on the keys, unless yr writing autobiography or a memoir. Otherwise yr off the subject. DON FRY” (133).
But I like words too much to abbreviate them, so I tried this version:
“Never think about yourself with your fingers on the keys, unless you’re writing autobiography. Don Fry.” Much shorter, 102, but I’ve left out the Internal Critic. So adios “unless you’re writing autobiography or a memoir” to make room for the monster.
Then I tried a telegraphic, guru-ish version:
“Never think of yourself with your fingers on the keys. Don Fry.” A count of 62, but I’ve lost the reason for not thinking about yourself.
I could gain a little room by giving up “fingers on the keys,” but the visual image makes the advice memorable. And I can’t give up the monster because every writer struggles with one. So here’s the next version:
“Avoid thinking about yourself with your fingers on the keys, or your Internal Critic will start talking about failure. Don Fry.” 126, but flat and clumsy.
Let’s streamline the sentence:
“Thinking about yourself with your fingers on the keys starts your Internal Critic whispering about failure. Don Fry.” 115 and better, but your Internal Critic is always there. He doesn’t “start,” and I don’t like his verb.
One more try:
“Thinking about yourself with your fingers on the keys lets your Internal Critic rave about failure. Don Fry.” 107, bingo, done.
Notice what I didn’t do. I didn’t get there by shaving a letter, a syllable, or a word here and there. When I finally got to what I wanted to say, the count worked. If it had too many words, I revised what I wanted to say or how to say it. Here’s the principle: achieve brevity by selection, not compression.
[Let’s hear about your struggles with Twitter.]