Improve Your Writing Skills
Capture your reader; let him not depart from slow beginnings which refuse to start.— Roman poet Horace
Introduction: Beginning Thoughts
Having gleaned the following ideas from my graduate studies in literature and intensive work in writing seminars, I hope one or more of these suggestions will be of use to those of you who share my passion for the written word, or simply find pleasure in writing.
Will there ever be a finer description of the verve to be found by what we perceive as a completed piece of writing, in whatever genre? Still, what we envision can appear on a page in a way we never imagined. The hopes we had do not always translate well into written reality. Emily Dickinson, though largely reclusive, wrote of tasting "a liquor never brewed in tankards scooped in pearl."
The Writer’s Fridge: A Place For Storing Drafts And Evolving Ideas
Many writers, myself among them, have awakened in the night with an idea we know will expedite our pathway towards immortality. Reviewing it later, most of us have found it best not to send it out to magazines or contests, until it has had time to chill and gel.
Glancing through my own fridge, after some months, I have felt deflated. To carry this image further, it is often when, defrosted, and devoid of novelty, I can evaluate the piece with detachment.
The Cannon Blast of An Early Critique
At seventeen, my first creative writing professor offered me one of the finest insights I have ever received, though it seemed the opposite at the time. In response to his having given a disappointing grade on my first assignment, I scheduled a conference with him.
He said, “I marked some of these images as cliched and trite.”
Sensing my desolation, he added, “I know how hollow you must feel right now.”
Seeing my woebegone nod, he continued, “OK, let’s take a more microscopic look. What could be lacking in lines such as, out of the silent mists he came, gentle and strong, proud in his beauty, utter, complete, supreme, for one bright season. "You see, those phrases are fine in themselves, but have lost their sheen by the grease dripping from so many people’s fingers.”
Yet, the vividness of that professor’s words will always stay with me, interwoven with deep gratitude.
Begin With A Bang
As Roman poet Horace suggests, a beginning must have some zest in order to urge readers to devote more of their irreplaceable time. Why, we might ask ourselves, will we read 1000 pages of one book, while barely forcing ourselves to endure one page of another?
The first words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet have been called the ideal opening.
A knock on a door, a ringing phone, or even a text message, evokes our interest in who might be outside, and what they are seeking. If no first lines come to mind, books in the public domain can prove a spark to ignite an idea.
Often, when the brain seems determined to reach a stalemate, we can write a seemingly simple poem. In fact, the attempt may take longer than we imagined, but is likely to prove worthwhile, even if only in harnessing the brain for a more strenuous effort.
The following examples are my own.
Note: For those accustomed to seeing each first line capitalised, the perspective has changed to allow a given sentence to flow, without needless capitalisation.
- A tailor who lived in Toledo,
- in order to feed his libido,
- stitched a Jacket so fine
- as to make women pine,
- and thereby was dubbed the tuxedo.
As the 5-7-5 line format develops from the many one-syllable words in Japanese, we in the west have no basis for feeling abashed by our need to count syllables on our fingers, at first, and maybe always.
- The rain turns plants green,
- snowflakes force them to wither;
- each season has worth.
One of the finest gifts we can give to a friend is this type of poem, where each line begins with the first, second, third letter etc. of the person’s name.
An acrostic written to someone named Vincent might start:
- Viewed through your eyes
- I feel loved and lovely,
- never afraid to confide --.
Words Editors Find Irritating
To my dismay, one respected writing professor mentioned “very” as a word best avoided. Due to this advice, I searched through my work, only to feel chagrined at how often I found “very”.
Each time, I tried the sentence both ways:
- “It is very nice to see you, or: It is nice to see you.”
- “I had a very nurturing childhood, or: I had a nurturing childhood.”
- “The morning sky looked very daunting, or: The morning sky looked daunting.”
Consider Your Reader As Separate From Yourself
One participant in a writers seminar felt aggrieved when the professor told him his words, “funny accent” conveyed nothing more than his own perspective. This student could not comprehend why exotic pronunciations of English words required description.
A fellow student mentioned that during his early years, a Swedish man in his neighbourhood would often say, “Hello, Yeorge.”
“It’s not Yeorge, Sir, it’s George.”
“But that was what I just called you, “Yeorge.”
In terms of linguistic development, the brain, ear and palate become synchronised to the point where they intertwine. Still, often these differences do not matter in the overall scope of a book. As writer Edmund Wilson wrote in a slightly longer version, no two readers ever read the same book.
Punctuation And Grammar
Most of us who have written for some while believe ourselves to have a grounding in grammar and punctuation.
Having mastered these bugaboos, changes tend to feel jarring. This sense of imbalance led me to seek out a fairly modern book, Benjamin Dreyer’s An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.
The following I found enlightening.
A period in America and full stop in England has only one space after it.
Dreyer, with humour, challenges us to go one week without using the following words in our work. In addition to the word “very”, he suggests “rather, really, quite, in fact, and actually.”
This way of writing may be of use when the writer does not wish to cause difficulties for a friend, client or colleague, and most crucially, for himself.
Example: The email was deleted. The printer ran out of ink.
Most often, however, it is used to avoid responsibility. One landlord told a nearly frost bitten tenant, “The heat was turned down,” as if no human hand or volition was involved in this process.
The most cowardly way I have heard passive voice used was while working in a law firm. The senior partner had allowed a client’s claim to fail, due to its having passed the statute of limitations. By way of excusing his negligence, the partner said, “An error occurred.”
Every genuine writer has a sliver of ice in his heart.— Graham Greene
Confidentiality and Conscience
The longer we live, the more opportunities there are to hear private information from a relative, friend, or even a friendly acquaintance. Still, in order to retain integrity, we sometimes need to protect the privacy of those who have trusted us.
Writer Truman Capote learned this to his horror, when the response to his final book, “Answered Prayers” left him all but friendless, due to his exposition of women friends’ confidences.
Far from penitent, Capote stood fast to his principle that, as these friends understood his primary commitment was to his writing, they should have understood their deepest revelations were likely to become material. Thus, a balance needs to be found between lucrative material and the irreplaceable treasures of friendship.
Trust Your Subconscious
Nearly everyone, in despair and frustration, has thrown down a musical instrument, stormed off a sports field, or abandoned an academic discipline. At times, this can be a wise choice, if our skills are better deployed on a separate avenue. Still, we may find, returning to the keyboard, field, or lecture hall, our skills have developed.
For this boost, we can thank our subconscious which, like the ideal employee, never stops working. There are times when the perfect image or memory appears while in a dream, daydream, or on the dullest of errands. It may have taken some while to emerge, but we can now reclaim it forever.
Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.— Francis Bacon
Questions & Answers
© 2020 Colleen Swan