Sunday, September 18, 2016

Write Tight--But "Right"

The title rhymes and all, but what might being “right” with your words mean? First, if your intended audience doesn’t enjoy it, something’s off. Take classic novels. Or, for many readers, don’t take them. Because, as Mark Twain put it, the classic is “a book which people praise and don’t read.” 

That’s not right. Neither is a book lauded for its brilliance but too incomprehensible for most of us to tackle. James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake may well be a masterpiece. But if hardly anyone reads it, did Joyce get it “right”? What’s intimidating or tedious is hardly a turn on. So.

~ Accessibility.

This plays a huge role in writing “right.” If readers neither understand what you’re saying nor care when they don’t, something’s very wrong.

~ Guidance.

Inference and confusion are two entirely different animals. The first may initially seem a bit unfamiliar. Yet it resembles something you want to understand; it suggests something positive, even if you haven’t figured it out yet. Confusion, though? That’s a nasty animal. It neither looks nor smells good. Tempt your readers with clues. Provide transitions. Give enough information, but not too much. Because that’s not such a delightful beast, either.

~ Tautness.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius the buffoon informs us that “brevity is the soul of wit,” then proceeds to go on and on. And on. And on. Point taken. Are you writing tight?

     Not if you’re smitten with passive voice.

     Not if you make the same point first generally, then specifically—or the reverse.

     Not if you adore (i.e. fall in love with) wordy verbs.

     Not if you usually use three words when one would do.

     Not if punctilious grammatical correctness clutters up your prose.

Correct forms like “has been competing” can feel as irritating as self-righteous political correctness in the real world. Be clear, not pompous or archaic.

Tight writing reduces clutter. Down with weak words (“is,” “be,” “am,” etc.); imprecise detail (three metaphors or images because each is inadequate); or clarifying what we prefer to infer.

That’s the script: clear, focused, taut. Tight yet right.

But here’s the thing about all those writing rules, no matter who espouses them As Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” How else can you—with a splendid blend of objectivity and passion—decide when to break them? 

Tip: Mediocre writers follow every rule. Good writers know when to break them.

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