Learning to write "fluff"?

Toadmaster

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I am a data geek, always have been. Give me horsepower, dates, muzzle velocities etc and I am a happy camper. I also come from a background of fact based report writing (who, what, where, when, why and how).

I am also an amateur historian, it really doesn't much matter the subject, if it is history I'm in. If it is history about the development of gadgets :heart::heart::heart: .

What I find though is when trying to write something a little softer, more interesting to read, it tends to come across as Joe Friday "just the facts ma'am". It often resembles a fleshed out list of bullet points. I have 20+ years of ruthless trimming of any non-essential language to get past.

Anyway I guess my question is where do you start when trying to humanize lists of data points to make them more interesting reading. Part of the way I got to this point was from taking classes on technical writing, short, and too the point.
Creative writing classes seem to go too far the other way, I'm not looking to write the next Harry Potter book, just livening up some interesting historically based technical material so it is more interesting. There are some historians and science writers who seem to do this well, where do they learn this?

If anyone knows the name of this particular branch of writing I'd be interested so I can try to find a class. Books, blogs etc with tips for this style of writing would be very welcome.
 

FeralToaster

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Hmm two things, one if trying to personalize a setting I would recommend reading books of the cozy mystery genre. stuff like cats that solve crimes or an unlikely duo solves crimes or anything that would get aired on USA "where characters are welcomed. The genre is based on repeating a small number of types of mysteries over and over again but because of the charisma of the character writing the popularity persists even if the same type of mystery is repeated.

If your trying to do an essay on the subject matter, well start with the coolest thing that results from the totality of the subject matters. If the audience also finds it cool then their in for the ride. I would suggest listening to either "Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff" podcast or read Ken Hite's "Suppressed Transmissions" a collection of essays about a very diverse subject matters that are all cool because the writer is able to convey the innate coolness to the reader.
 

Toadmaster

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Hmm two things, one if trying to personalize a setting I would recommend reading books of the cozy mystery genre. stuff like cats that solve crimes or an unlikely duo solves crimes or anything that would get aired on USA "where characters are welcomed. The genre is based on repeating a small number of types of mysteries over and over again but because of the charisma of the character writing the popularity persists even if the same type of mystery is repeated.

If your trying to do an essay on the subject matter, well start with the coolest thing that results from the totality of the subject matters. If the audience also finds it cool then their in for the ride. I would suggest listening to either "Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff" podcast or read Ken Hite's "Suppressed Transmissions" a collection of essays about a very diverse subject matters that are all cool because the writer is able to convey the innate coolness to the reader.
More the second, trying to relate facts and figures in a way that makes them more interesting than a timeline or listing, but at the same time keeping the information easy to sort through and find specifics.

I think the main issue I have is trying to keep it short and to the point when I probably should separate specifics into a timeline or table leaving the descriptive text open to develop into a more engaging style.
 

FeralToaster

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Well if your writing an alternate history essay I only have one piece of advice I got from my old history professor. Start the essay with "It was always invetiable that X would happen" where X is whatever change you want to happen. Doing this is a sort of mental trick where you switch from an objective historian to opinionated storyteller. Then your writing style becomes less dry (although you now run the risk of sounding pompous) as you twist and remake history to support the alternate history scenario. Later you can revise the opening sentence to avoid being repetitive.
 

Toadmaster

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Mostly real world history of smaller things that get overlooked, some gaming guide type stuff, some non-gaming of a purely historical bent.

Here is an example of something I wrote up about the development of firefighting pumps for a model making website. It was intended as a brief overview / introduction leading into more detailed articles. The intent of the series of articles was to help provide some context to the equipment for model builders who don't have actual hands on experience with firefighting equipment.

Until the late 1600s firefighting was primarily done by the use of bucket brigades and hand operated fire extinguishers resembling large syringes.

The first fire pumps operated by a team of men appeared in Europe in the late 1600s. The first fire hoses made of leather appeared at about the same time. In the mid 1800s lighter weight, more maneuverable linen hoses would start to appear.

The earliest units were not very mobile, and had to be loaded into a cart or be hand carried to the fire scene which greatly limited their effectiveness. Around 1720 the idea of building the pump onto its own cart was introduced which allowed the pump to be quickly moved by a team of men. These men would then operate the pump at the fire. A common feature was to include a trough for water that could be filled by a bucket brigade if a suitable source of water not readily available. These early pumps were capable of putting out 20-60 gallons of water per minute powered by a crew of 4-12 men. Hand powered pumps continued to be refined, and by the 1840s large pumpers utilizing teams of 40-50 men were capable of pumping more than 200 gallons of water per minute. As various forms of motorized pumper became available, hand pumpers began to fall out of favor, but their decline was gradual. A few manufactures were still building hand pumpers during World War 1, and they could still be found in service with small communities during the 1940s. The large number of men required to operate the pumps handles also meant these crews could push / pull the pumper without the aid of horses, although some fire companies preferred to use horse drawn equipment.

hand-pumper


Steam engine powered pumps became available in the 1850s, and they remained in service working alongside motorized equipment into the 1920s. Steam pumpers were capable of providing far more water than hand pumpers, generally providing 350-1000 gallons of water per minute. Although they provided far superior pumping capacity, steam pumpers did not end the use of hand pumpers. By comparison they were very heavy, and only the smallest could be moved without a team of horses. They were also much more expensive and complex requiring a trained boiler operator. As a result steam pumpers tended to be found in larger cities and their adoption often coincides with the creation of a paid fire department.

steam-pumper


The first gasoline engine powered pumps were introduced in the late 1880s. Initially these pumps were quite limited in their capacity, but by 1900 pumpers capable of supplying 250 to 500 gallons of water per minute were available. These early motorized pumpers were not self propelled, still relying on a team of men or horses to get them to the fire. They were lighter, cheaper and easier to operate than a steam pumper, while requiring far less manpower than hand pumpers.

The idea of a towed fire pumper did not end with the introduction of self propelled motorized fire pumpers in the first years of the 20th century. Trailer mounted pumps are still being built for industrial use and other special applications.

The motorized self propelled fire pumper came into use between 1905 and 1907. There is debate on who had the first, but by 1914 the automotive pumper was well on its way to becoming the dominant form of fire pumper. All of the major U.S. manufacturers of steam pumpers would leave the market or switch over to building motorized fire equipment between 1910 and 1917.

Photos are mine.
 

Giganotosaurus

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I always attach event hooks to my histories.
For Example: In 1067 Agar the Mighty perishes in the infamous Battle of the Black Rocks. His Heir, Klangor the Fool, takes over the aging empire.
or
The PF-T90 Rifle was famously used to great effect by Lance Troopers during the capture of Kax in 9217.

I don't actually have anything written down for the Battle of the Black Rocks, nor why it's so infamous.
Where, What or Who is Kax? I don't know beyond that it was captured in 9217 by Lance Troopers using the PF-T90 Rifle.
Try making up some lore to attach to your facts and figures that on the spot and eventually coming back to them for later use!
I always look to "Pocket Guide to the Empire, First Edition" from the Elder Scrolls series as a good example of fluff.
Here's a link: https://en.uesp.net/wiki/Lore:Pocket_Guide_to_the_Empire,_1st_Edition
It establishes some facts, but also leaves a lot of mystery's that can be answered in the future too.
Anyway, hope this helps!
 

Voros

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I think what you're describing is really more of a skill more often used by RPG and sf and some fantasy writers.

Robert Heinlein was the master (during his mid-period of his late short stories and juveniles) of the apparently tossed off detail that cumulatively builds up the world. Everyone learned from him. The great sf writer Samuel Delany discusses this in one of his essays in The Jewel-hinged Jaw. A warning though that in contrast to his elegant narrative style Delany's essays although fascinating can also be quite dense and difficult.

When it comes to history, I can think of several great historians who are also great prose stylists (Orlando Figes and Tony Judt spring immediately to mind) but those skills are closer to that of a great novelist (structure, empathy, character, the telling detail).
 

Edgewise

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Creative writing classes seem to go too far the other way, I'm not looking to write the next Harry Potter book, just livening up some interesting historically based technical material so it is more interesting.
I strongly disagree that evocative writing requires logorrhea. Something I've pulled from both giving presentations and writing game content is that a word is either hitting or it's diluting. Economy is key.

I find that it's very useful to focus on one or two strong sensory details, and describe them using attention-grabbing words. That helps to ground a reader or listener in whatever is being described. It's good to either emphasize the very familiar, to give the audience something to relate to, or the exotic, to transport them.

If you're writing about fictional history, you can still do this. If there was a battle, maybe just a quick aside to mention the ground littered with broken lances and the banquets of crows. If a nation grows wealthy through trade, a sentence about the bolts of lustrous fabric, sacks of fragrant tea, etc. When I'm trying to be colorful, I go the extra distance in choosing unusual adjectives. I just enjoy writing that way, so I let that guide me.
Books, blogs etc with tips for this style of writing would be very welcome.
I can't say that I have any suggestions here. I suspect it might be hard to find instruction on colorful technical writing. If you do find any good resources, please post it back here - I'd be curious.

I suspect the best guide would be to read the sort of materials you'd like to emulate, and just have fun with it. Eventually, you'll find your own voice. I don't think you have to forget everything you learned about technical writing by any means.
 

Voros

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In terms of RPG writers I'd say Greg Stafford, Greg Costikyan, Ken Hite, Lisa Steele and Ben Robbins are clear yet evocative writers. For adventure writing John Tynes, David Cook, Jennel Jaquays are great models with more modern examples being Chris Kutalik, Jacob Hurst and Patrick Stuart being among my favs for the concise but vivid detail.
 

Dumarest

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I strongly disagree that evocative writing requires logorrhea.
The Great Gatsby is under 50,000 words, but Fitzgerald chose the right 50,000 words. Still probably the best American novel ever written.
 

Voros

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The thing about literature is you can't really nail it down to a set of 'rules.' Hemingway was a great short story writer but I don't find his style convincing over the length of a novel. Greene or Fitzgerald are more moderate than the severity of a Hemingway and so to me superior as novelists. Some writers wrote simply, like Tolstoy, while others are quite elaborate like Proust or to pick a very relevant example the recently passed Gene Wolfe.

Rules writing though is closer to journalism or technical writing. Here there are clearer standards to follow. Some would say it is closer to a craft than an art. I wouldn't go that far when it comes to RPG writing though which is more of a hybrid form. Still historically so much of RPG writing has been rather shoddily written and lacking in clarity and skill it is probably better to error on the side of concision.
 

Edgewise

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The thing about literature is you can't really nail it down to a set of 'rules.'
Agreed, but there are some things that are almost always true (except when they are totally wrong).
 

Toadmaster

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Sorry I stopped getting alerts that there were new posts and didn't realize that there have been several new posts. The journalism comment is worth exploring, I've actually had some (very little) journalism training as I have been working towards doing public information work on large fires. I do have a copy of the AP Stylebook I could look to for some ideas and kill two birds with one stone. Might have to look into the local college and see if they have any classes that might fit into that. Very similar issue of economy of words, but trying to keep it interesting. In fact thinking about it some of the best historians I've read have been journalists at some point in their career.


I strongly disagree that evocative writing requires logorrhea. Something I've pulled from both giving presentations and writing game content is that a word is either hitting or it's diluting. Economy is key.
I agree that good writing doesn't have to be wordy, but that has been me experience with creative writing classes, some going so far as making word count more important than the content (aka Dickens style).
 
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