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Please butcher this feature

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by sm72, Sep 20, 2012.

  1. sm72

    sm72 Member

    Hey, all.

    Been off the grid for a few days, but I'm back with the last feature I wrote for my former employer. I have two warnings if you want to give it a read:

    1. It is long.
    2. It is about a volleyball player.

    With that, I give you the story: http://indiana.247sports.com/Article/Colleen-Smith-is-beating-the-odds-to-return-to-IU-volleyball-91757

    If some of you could look it over and let me know what you think, what could be improved, etc., I'd really appreciate it. Thanks in advance.
  2. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    There's a lot to work with here. You're talented. I'm wondering how much editing this piece received.

    Let's start with the obvious: It was too long. When you say it was long, you really mean it was way too long. The story merited about 2,000 words, you gave it more than 3,500. The part with the "Clank clank clank" was entirely unnecessary. It dealt in generalities and descriptions that didn't describe anything particularly interesting. In general, you write about feelings, be they physical or emotional, too often. The tangible is strong enough in this story.

    The story arc could use more focus. When you're writing something of this length, it's best to map the entire story before you start typing it. You revealed her disease too deep into the story, to the point where my eyes started wandering down the screen to find out the diagnosis. Perhaps the ideal set up would have been to have the stairs scene, in much briefer form, play out in the lede, then to delve into a concise explanation of what was going on in her body.

    The writing could have been tighter, too. You start at least 17 sentences with "It" based on my search. Use stronger subjects and verbs to create more impact. Avoid meaningless transitions and clauses: "Only one thing sunk in," "Although there might have been a war going on in her body," "And best of all," "That just so happens" "All of a sudden, that was it." Don't telegraph your quotes, either. Good quotes don't need it. Bad quotes shouldn't be used.

    You have a lot of promise. The feature is good. I would love to see it as a chronological story, but I don't think that would have fit the publication.
  3. sm72

    sm72 Member

    Thanks, Versatile. All great points. I appreciate it.
  4. old_tony

    old_tony Well-Known Member

    Now that versatile has mentioned it's 3500 words, I won't be reading it all. Just don't have the time. But I liked what I read at the start. Good description. However, here's one tip: Shorter sentences. Your second paragraph is a whopper of a 57-word sentence.

    Rule I learned many years ago was the Rule of 19. If you're writing a sentence and it's around 19 words, bring it home quickly. If you can't, then find a way to break it into two sentences. That 57-word sentence could and should be broken up into three sentences.

    "This early April day in Bloomington brings a semblance of that joy and excitement she once experienced so regularly with a volleyball in her hands, before one day a disease as rare as it is agonizing stripped the game away from her and left her on the brink of losing more than just her volleyball career. "

    I'd put a period after "hands." And another after "her."

    This early April day in Bloomington brings a semblance of that joy and excitement she once experienced so regularly with a volleyball in her hands. Then a disease as rare as it is agonizing stripped the game away from her. She found herself on the brink of losing more than just her volleyball career.

    The graph after that is about the same amount of words and it's broken up into four sentences. It's a nice, easy, enjoyable read. The second graph -- that long-assed bugger of a sentence -- is a chore to get through.

    When I first learned that tip I took it with a grain of salt. But one day I was on the desk and reading a writer I considered particularly dull. I decided to do a word count on his sentences and kept finding his average to be in the range of 40-50 words per sentence. Then I decided to look at some of the writers I really enjoyed. Sure enough, their sentences averaged in the 10-15 range. i know this is anecdotal to you, but it really has become obvious to me in the 25 years since I took that seminar and learned that rule that one of the keys to good writing is shorter sentences.
  5. WriteThinking

    WriteThinking Well-Known Member


    I like volleyball and don't mind a long, good read, so I gave your story a look -- two, actually -- and my impressions were the same both times.

    You had good material, maybe even enough to make the length not inordinate, if all the right stuff was included, and made as strong as possible.

    As Versatile said, you definitely needed more active, stronger verbs at times, and a few more-descriptive words, themselves, would have required less whole narratives of scenes to paint the picture. I know you were trying for a good narrative style here, but a little less of it would have shortened up the length a bit, too. I agree with Versatile that the stadium steps scene, as it was, or at least the clanks, certainly, could have been deleted.

    My main problem with the story, though, was that, as long as it was, I actually would have liked to have seen/heard more -- of certain right stuff.

    No. 1 on the list would have been more from Colleen herself. Perhaps she wasn't a great interview, herself, and she just happened to be the subject of a great topic. Perhaps still young and inarticulate, or maybe she hasn't quite processed everything yet. But really, an experience like this had to have changed a young woman's perspective, more than it sounds like it did, given the material from her here. She needed to be drawn out. Those times when she said it was just hard to explain (with, or without crying)? You needed to push, or wait, for her to do so. Come back to it, make her think about it, whatever, until she can find the words to put to it.

    Also, I doubt somebody actually suffering from throwing up blood -- lots of it, as you wrote, could have only been concerned about playing volleyball. Throwing up blood is among the most-feared, most universally known to be serious medical symptoms that there is, -- the kind of experience that, I'm sorry, makes volleyball quickly seem really insignificant, elite athlete, or not. I would have liked to hear/read about if/when that happened for her, and how she would have described it, how she made her way through it, and what perspective, fear or appreciation she came away with from it.

    When did she throw up blood? Who was with her at the time? How'd she go/get to the hospital after it happened? What did she think, feel or fear was happening at the time? Did the thought that she was bleeding to death, or would choke on her own blood, or even a panicked, "Oh, my god. What do I do?" come into her head? Did she, or does she fear it happening again, now that she knows, first-hand, that it can, and what it's like to have it happen. What were her parents' reactions, and what are their fears about it? I ask because I once had a serious internal bleeding issue, and I can tell you that, when I was in the midst of it, the scariness, the heaviness, the sheer amount and color and texture of the blood, and the realization that this was coming out of me, and wasn't stopping, and, I didn't know why this was happening, well, it has stayed with me, to this day, 15 years later.

    You made it sound like graphic stuff, and I'm sure her thoughts/actions (or those of others) were pretty graphic, too, and that needed to be brought into the story, by somebody besides you trying to narrate it in as I felt like you tried to a little bit with your lead.

    I liked the diary stuff, and wondered if she'd shared anything more of it with you that you, perhaps, could have used, or built on. That's what I wanted to know: How has this experience impacted/changed this young person's perspective, really? You were trying for that with the getting-back-to-normal stuff at the end, and that was good -- certainly legitimate and understandable, and powerful in an appreciating-the-little-things way. I got that. But, somehow, I felt like it wasn't written quite strongly enough. And again, maybe that was just Colleen. Maybe she didn't really give to you enough, herself. Or maybe you were trying to match what appeared to be her somewhat understated personality, I don't know.

    And, I know Colleen's at IU as an athlete, but what are her future plans? What's her major? What'd she do at home besides play sand volleyball and prep for playing college volleyball again. Was she bored? Did she get more appreciative of life, maybe more spiritual, or anything? Because now that she knows, again, first-hand, that she could very well not have been able to come back to volleyball, or could still have an abbreviated career, it's a sure bet that she has, in fact, given some thought to if/when she ever isn't playing -- whether she admitted that to you for what was obviously supposed to be a volleyball/sports comeback story, or not. Again, it's that introspection/perspective that's lacking, and it might have just been her, because I think I read you making attempts to get it from others. But she needed to be brought out, or waited upon, pushed, encouraged, redirected a little bit, sometimes, and it doesn't seem like that happened.

    I guess what I'm saying is, although I know it was supposed to be a sports story, there was almost a little too much volleyball, and only volleyball, given the supposed weight and rarity of what the player went through.

    And if she does love volleyball/playing that much, what, exactly, did she miss when she didn't play? The sweat and tears of working and winning (or losing)? The people? The power and control she felt as the setter around whom a team operates? She never really says, and given her apparent focus on volleyball and her lone biggest desire to play, it almost seems as if she wasn't asked. How/when did she follow/keep up with the team, and what was her way/reaction to having to do so from afar?

    I'd also have been interested to know how many sit-down chemo sessions or injections she went through...a time frame that I could feel, along with her, I guess, as I think Versatile alluded to, too, when he said he'd have liked to have seen some kind of chronological story.

    My feeling was that this story wasn't necessarily too long, it just needed to be changed/edited a bit, and it could have happily been a lengthy story with the right stuff in it.

    My thoughts aside, this was a really great job by you in trying to tackle this, make it into an extended story, and do it well. Please don't take my criticisms/ideas as gospel. They're just my impressions and preferences and what I would have liked to see and push for more. I actually think you might have kind of agreed, and did try for it, but maybe you just weren't quite provided with it. I don't know.

    Great effort, and overall, a really good job. Almost where you'd want it, but not quite, you know?
  6. sm72

    sm72 Member

    That's definitely the biggest problem I have with longform. Glad you brought it up. Far too often it gets too sports-focused, and while volleyball is a big deal for her, it isn't the biggest issue. I've got to work on that. Thank you for the other advice, as well. I'll keep those questions in mind the next time I work on something big like this.

    That's a really good technical tip. Thanks. I'll definitely be using it.
  7. tapintoamerica

    tapintoamerica Well-Known Member

    I'm not asking you; I'm telling you. Kick my ass.
    -- Artie Fuffkin, Polymer Records
  8. sm72

    sm72 Member

    Only way you get better.
  9. BDC99

    BDC99 Well-Known Member

    Thought this was a good story, but waaaaaaaaay too long. I enjoyed the part I read, and you definitely have talent. But I stopped reading about 1/4 of the way through. Might give it another go if I have more time. Post something shorter and I'll be glad to butcher it for you. :)
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