As with the post on Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, I like to post writing advice the rises above the standard, “write what you know,” or “show don’t tell.” Often, those rules can be confusing, and almost always have multiple interpretations.
Every now and then, I find writing advice that cuts through the usual flotsam and jetsam of writing advice, that really makes me reassess my own views on how to write well.
This article was one of them: Tips for Writing and for Life.
There are too many good points in there to recount, and they come fast and brief, so please be sure to read, and reread this article. But, I do want to cover the one I felt as the most important, and that will be beneficial to many writers. First, is this section:
-In the spring of 2005 a student wrote:
-And, while eating wild honeycomb, she speaks of feeling “hexagons in my mouth” and “a piece of wing on my tongue.” Alas, in the same story, the student speaks of “catching the colors of sunset” and, even worse, something “glimmering in the moonlight.” Do you see the difference? The red bandana, the sagging blueberries are true poetry; the vague colors of sunset, the sentimental moonlight are only poetic.
This section really stood out to me, mostly because I didn’t see the difference at first. I was a practitioner of the latter, the poetic rather than the poetry. I had to read it over and over again to really grasp what he was implying. I understood it on a rudimentary level, but its deeper meaning eluded me for the longest time.
Then, I remembered the rule about using specific language and direct language, just as Epstein quoted Lasker-Schuler, “A real poet does not say azure. A real poet says blue.” Most beginning writers would opt for the higher diction in an attempt to elevate their writing, but it will actually do the opposite if not handled with relative artistry.
Looking back at the student’s sample, we see they did just that. They used specific language, about normal actions, but the way in which the scene is written is where the poetry lies. Something as simple as the very specific detail of the hexagons in her mouth and the wing on her tongue. There are no flowery words to try to express her emotions about it, no sentimentality to rob the reader of experiencing it for themselves (and while there are three adjectives in there, they are necessary to clarify the imagery).
This was an epiphany for me. Looking back at my previous work, I was so desperate to have a “literary” or poetic style that I flooded my prose with adjective and adverbs, sentimentality, and attempts at metaphor and simile that were sophomoric and amateur at best. I would need to work at achieving that poetry without trying to be poetic. This is my biggest fault as a writer–my voice.
Since first reading this about 2 years ago, I have worked diligently to pare down my writing, avoiding subjective points of view (unless I’m using 1st person POV, even then being discrete about it), and rewriting anything that comes off as sentimental. It makes for much more sparse prose, but I think it has been an improvement.
What are your thoughts on Epstein’s article? Anything you vehemently disagree with? Let’s discuss it. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
(honeycomb picture courtesy of: http://world-pictures.thundafunda.info/travel-world-pictures/Honeycomb.php