My mission is to create a community of those who care about good writing, including the beginner and the seasoned writer. We live in a sound bite, online world of words that ignores vowels. To avoid falling into that abyss, it’s important to remember that we choose to reach out to an audience—to communicate. Successful communicators practice the basic tools of writing, so I begin there.
One of the biggest challenges for a writer is getting the attention of the reader. With all the competing interests for their attention—email, television, Internet, phones, tablets, CDs—we have no choice but to be compelling and clear. I can’t count the number of writing students who say, “But I understand exactly what I said” or the even more plaintive, “But that’s how it happened!”
Number one, it really doesn’t matter if that’s how it happened. The question is always whether or not it’s interesting. If you are writing non-fiction about physics or a trial or a person, your facts must be right, but clarity will make it more interesting.
Number two, it doesn’t matter if you as the writer understands it. It’s clear to you because you have considered the matter and are totally clear in your own mind what you are trying to express. Your reader may be coming to your article or story with no prior knowledge about the subject. If the reader has to go over a line three times to get it, he or she begins to feel stupid. That is not the way to get someone to continue. If they don’t get it, the fault is usually with the writer.
My job as a writer is to make my words trickle into the reader’s brain like clear spring water. This means being clear. It also means using the language one drop at a time. Our language has changed due to advertising and the constant influx of words from experts who seem to be speaking a new language. But think about it. William Zinsser advises us, “Say it is raining”. There’s no need to say, “At the present time, we are experiencing precipitation”. Go back over your drafts and see if you have used superfluous words where the right word would suffice. Some of the older words were definitely more colorful. We read that a company went “belly-up”, and we feel that. The words create a visual image. Today, companies that go out of business have experienced “a negative cash-flow position”. There’s no energy or feeling for what happened to real people in those words.
Clarity also means getting rid of needless modifiers and fad words. Fads, like the word groovy, will go out of style and date your book. Why say “tall skyscraper” when the word skyscraper implies tall? Why replace “because” with “due to the fact that?” Use the clarity of your mind to write clearly. Don’t think that only mediocre writers have to do so much to write clearly. Working writers know that re-writing is the majority of what they do. The extreme example is Walt Whitman who spent his life rewriting “Leaves of Grass”. The last edition was published when he was seventy-three, just before he died. The more a writer hones his or her craft, the more they recognize what needs to be taken out or put in. I love Annie Dillard’s work. Here’s what she says about the process.
When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.
So, writing is hard work. But, the joy is in the work or you wouldn’t have chosen it. Like having a child, the joy usually outweighs the pain. Putting your work out there is a leap of faith. You may be praised or told your child is ugly. Both can inspire us differently. Around my desk are quotes I love and read daily. For example, when I’m writing poetry, Robert Kennedy encourages me: “Poetry does not feed, but men have died for want of it”.
Opinions don’t matter except when it helps you to see your writing more clearly. What matters is that you must write. So when you return to your draft, get out of your fear and remember why you write. Then do it. (“Getting Over Fear” will be the topic of my next column.)