Books for Everyone!

Mid-September 2014

Four Pieces of Advice to Young Writers

By using the word, young, in this title, I do not mean of a less mature chronological age. I mean “novice” or “beginning.” In that sense, I speak to anyone who is in search of the mastery of writing; and I offer guidelines, fundamental rules (some of which can and should, at times, be broken), and those tidbits of wisdom that come from long and hard experience.

Experience is always the finest teacher, but learned advice from a practiced and professional writer can also help the novice. It certainly helped me!

1. The key to good writing is clear thinking. If you’ve not a clue about what to say in words on paper, then don’t even attempt to say anything. You must wait, even with a deadline in place. Procrastination can be helpful at such times because the mind will work toward what it wants to say.

The worst writing is forced writing, the kind imposed upon students by an assignment to “write an essay about such-and-such in X number of words.” It is an injustice to the craft of writing and to the student.

I understand that instructors must establish page limits, but this approach has, in my highly observational experience, led to comic results: extremely wide margins; extra spacing; and huge handwriting (in those archaic days of penmanship and hand-written papers.) Such a waste of innovative creativity!

It is prudent to allow the topic to dictate the length of the essay or written work. If one must produce a paper of X number of words or pages, then the topic can be pared down or expanded to fit that length. In this way, the writer controls the text; the text does not control the writer. Happiness can ensue!

Think about your writing. It will then be easier to write about your thinking. Try to put away some small time each day, perhaps twenty minutes, to write. We accomplish more little by little than in large steps which might force us to stop for a while or even go backward!

2. Garner guidance or, at a minimum, hints from Sages of the Past: Nicolas Boileau was a phenomenal French poet and critic of the 17th century. He wrote “L’Art poétique” to establish rules and principles for writing poetry and for writing in general. His shadow was quite lengthy over the succeeding centuries of French writing, a circumstance which proved to be a double-edged sword.

Boileau wisely stated: “Vingt fois sur le métier remettez votre ouvrage.” Twenty times put your handiwork back on the loom.

Few sentences are perfect from scratch. Revising and editing, editing and revising are the most essential skills that any writer can learn. The re-working of your handiwork is not a sign of bad writing: it is a bold undertaking by a mind intent on producing good writing. To quote Boileau once more from his artistic treatise:

“C’est peu qu’en un ouvrage où les fautes fourmillent.” There is little in a work where faults swarm.

Find the swarming faults and correct them! The art is often expressed more through editing and revision than in the original composition.

There does, however, come a point in time when the sentence, paragraph, passage, page, even chapter, have achieved their maximum effect, their best expression. Knowing when that point has been attained is perhaps one of the more challenging tasks within the art of writing. A small voice within your mind (and it is not a yawn) says, “Yes.”

The hand then sets down the pen; the fingers stop typing; the mind ceases its urge to erase or delete. An odd sense of completion settles into the consciousness of the writer: the words can no longer be changed and improved, only changed and worsened. The final commitment to the blank page is made.

3. The second piece of advice leads to this third one. Not all lines, paragraphs, or even chapters can be gems. Many are (and must be) solid rocks of granite and stable stepping stones of shale. Those non-shining parts of your writing have practical and structural purpose. Gems are also building blocks of writing because they help to construct the story; but they are, of necessity, rare shafts of light within the structure.

The sturdy, thicker blocks of writing are your Duplos. The finer points of literary construction are your Legos (and I know that Duplos and Legos do not inter-link but the palpable comparison came to mind). The shimmer of the finer points requires the larger building blocks of foundation from which to bounce off. If you have a faulty or weak foundation (the horizontal component), those shining shafts of artistic light (the more vertical component) will fall flat!

If you believe that all you need is those brilliant lines, but you have not built an adequate supporting structure, those brilliant lines will never glisten or gleam. The solid nuts-and-bolts stage supports and showcases the memorable (even unforgettable) lines or passages.

Each literary gem must have the proper setting. I’ve often come up with the pearl of thought only after having provided the shell onto which I deposit that minute crystalline form (perhaps even in concentric layers!).

Boileau masterfully describes the effects of such dramatic contrast: “Des traits d’esprit semés de temps en temps pétillent.” Scattered brilliant bits [lines of spirit] sparkle from time to time.

In modern parlance, less is more. Avoid bling in writing. You’ll achieve far more impact that way. My dear Professor Claeyssens called such overwrought oeuvres “purple prose.” The shuddering of his dramatic face said it all.

4. Every thought must be ordered and arranged in the right place. Clarity of thought leads to clarity of writing. Sentences must roll in logical succession, one after another, like the connected freight cars of a train chugging down the track. Any other procession produces a train wreck!

Or as Diamond Louie says in the 1940 Howard Hawks film, “His Girl Friday,”

“. . . we was going sixty-five miles an hour. We run smack into a police patrol, you know what I mean? We busted it in half! . . . Can you imagine bumping into a load of cops? They come rolling out like oranges! . . .”

Your sentences should come rolling out like oranges!

It is sad to observe the written development of a thought wandering off, losing its thread to become either completely lost; or to get picked up in the wrong place a few paragraphs later -- like a light-bulb afterthought! At least the light-bulb afterthought thread can be picked up somewhere along the line and woven back into the proper place.

I follow this rule of composition: one thought per sentence. To try to cram more than one thought into the humble sentence is to commit the misuse of language that Boileau called “barbarisme” -- misuse of language. Indeed, this unfortunate behavior occurs every day, just as it did in the 17th century of Nicolas Boileau.

Are there more pieces of advice? Sans doute, without a doubt, absolutely (to be quite redundant). The objective now is to come up with some advice of your own!