Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sound Advice for Writers

I am always glad to find well-known authors who agree with me, especially when it comes to writing.  Although this is the first year in a while that I will not be teaching a summer workshop on style, I plan to return in 2014 and, of course, continue to write and help others, when I can, mainly with editing, having spent 45 years doing so.

I always tell my adult students that writing may be impossible to teach but that revising is not: it is what excites me, the chance to re-work sentences and play with them until they are more clear or expressive or concise.  So the following statement by Susan Sontag was very welcome when it appeared in my "In" box not long ago:

"Though the rewriting--and the rereading--sound like effort, they are actually the most pleasurable parts of writing.  Sometimes the only pleasurable parts. Setting out to write, if you have the idea of 'literature' in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade, edit."

The second meaningful quote is from Sebastian Junger: "Don't dump lazy sentences on your reader. If you do, they'll walk away. You have to push yourself to find powerful, original ways of describing things."

This brings us back to revision and the time required, and the honesty, to look at each sentence we have written and see if it sounds trite or wordy; how does it sound aloud?  How can it be improved?  Not being satisfied with a draft until it is as perfect as possible requires effort and time, more  than the original drafting, in  most cases.

Just recently, I completed the revision of a story--my first complete piece of fiction--to be published soon by the Provo Canyon Review, which asked that I prune it considerably.  It took several weeks to consider which sections could be cut so that the 8,000-word story could be closer to 6,000. Painful work, letting go of sentences I had crafted a year before; yet as I finished the revision, I could see how much tighter, and better, the polished story now was.  No doubt the editor, with his own perspective, will find other sentences to trim and, as with previous work of mine, I will be pleasantly surprised by the final product.

So, as Donald Murray has preached, there is no writing without rewriting.

I have encountered a number of wannabe authors who seem in a great hurry to get published, but they have not yet honed their own style.  Perhaps they have not read enough to know what sounds right in a sentence.  This brings me to my third quote, from fiction writer Jennifer Eagan:

"Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do."

If there is no writing without rewriting, there is also no writing without reading.

How can anyone write a crime novel or children's book without having read the best in the genre? This is not only professionally necessary but a source of stimulation in the ongoing interwoven web of reading and writing that is at the heart of the literary life.

If you are a writer reading this, I hope this advice, though perhaps familiar to you, will help you along the way.

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