Good writing is hard. Raining words down on a piece of paper (well, screen) is easy; but it is hard to carve the story out, to shave off the unnecessary fluff and stray side-stories.
Stray stories, long sentences and over-informing are my weak spots as a writer, so I try to be very disciplined and weed out the clutter. William Strunk sums up beautifully what needs to be done to stories (and blog posts):
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
– William Strunk
To learn to write like a lean machine, I keep in mind the rules for how to write well :
- Always cut a word out that can be cut out!
- Never use a long word where a short will do
- Never use passive if you can use active
- Never use a complex word if a simple can do the job
- Don’t use tired old figures of speak, make your own or don’t use any
to comply with my own unwritten rules about words’ vocal sounds, meaning, white spaces (‘silence’) and the pursue of a parsimonious writing style.
And then there is spelling and grammar.
Of course rules don’t create stories; they just help free stories from prisons of verbosity and other bad habits.
Intuitive story telling and rules are not enemies
I liked to tell stories about animals when I was a kid. The stories gravitated into fateful dramas, shocking surprises and fatal outcomes, but I didn’t deliberately shape them in that way. I actually had no control over my imagination and was as puzzled as anyone about the events that unfolded from it.
I was an infamous story teller because I refused to tell the end of stories. This is what usually happened: a story got scarier and scarier and spiralled towards disaster. Its creatures evolved and developed their own schemes (many still hang around years later); and I had no choice but to shut the story down. I freaked out and went into damage control mode, while people half laughing, half worried tried to explain to me that my story was not real! I did not count on their expertise in that matter.
I acquired control over my fiction world when I learned to read & write. I never thought there were rules about how to write well; writing was more like a river that grabbed me and carried me through strange landscapes. Stories were worlds I journeyed, identities and friends, wisdom I learned, oceans of time to dive in; and what I had to give.
Rules work best when they are intuitive; but so do bad habits. The rules are designed to free story flows from bad habits to make them faster, brighter and clearer; to serve as an inner compass. Hemingway says it beautifully simple:
My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.
― Ernest Hemingway