“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.”Jane Yolen
Your first duty to the reader is to make sense. Everything else—eloquence, beautiful images, catchy phrases, melodic and rhythmic language—comes later, if at all. I’m all for artistry, but it’s better to write something homely and clear than something lovely and unintelligible.Paticia T. O’Connor, Words Fail Me (Harcourt Brace, 1999)
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,Alexander Pope, from “Sound and Sense”
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
The verb is the word that gets things done. Without a verb, there’s nothing happening and you don’t really need a sentence at all. So when you go shopping for a verb, don’t be cheap. Splurge.
Because verbs are such dynamos, writers often take them for granted, concentrating their creativity on the nouns, adverbs, and adjectives. This is a big mistake. Find an interesting verb and the rest of the sentence will practically take care of itself.Patricia T. O’Connor, Words Fail Me (Harcourt Brace, 1999)
by Randy Petersen
I’ve been reading—and loving—the 2019 book Write Better by long-time InterVarsity Press editor Andy LePeau. Buy it for yourself. Read it. Memorize it.
Here’s one gem, out of many, from a section on persuasion.
. . . [H]onesty means showing humility. Despite our carefully researched evidence and excellent use of logic, we might still be wrong. As finite, fallible human beings, all of us should always be willing to learn, to have our minds changed, and to have our most cherished beliefs challenged. We need to be careful, then, not to overstate our conclusions. We should be confident but not cocky.
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself.George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (an essay published in 1946)
At the end of King Lear, one character laments:
“The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
How many philosophical debates has this passage sparked? When circumstances cause grief, should we react emotionally or rationally? How are we, as Christian writers, to use our words?
We’d love to hear how you’re coping with the current pandemic, particularly with regard to your writing. How do you decide whether you speak what you feel or what you ought to say? Please leave a comment below.
Be sure to check this spot again next Tuesday. Randy will share some more thoughts on what to do when our words have trouble flowing in times like these.
[After telling the story of a little boy who donated blood to his little sister dying of leukemia even though he thought he would die in the process. . .]
Sometimes you have to be that innocent to be a writer. Writing takes a combination of sophistication and innocence; it takes conscience, our belief that something is beautiful because it’s right. To be great, art has to point somewhere. So if you are no longer familiar with that place of naive conscience, it’s hard to see any point in your being a writer.Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (Anchor Books, 1995)
If you want to write, you can. Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do? You’re a human being, with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle.Richard Rhodes
Nice writing isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently, you can’t just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal. Surprise the reader with the unexpected verb or adjective. Use one startling adjective per page.
Anne Bernays, novelist
contributed by Randy Petersen