Thursday, April 5, 2012

Enigma of well written prose

"Easy reading is damn hard writing." 
~Nathaniel Hawthorne

photo source
Before I started to pursue my life as a writer I would read books, throw them down in discuss irritated with the awkward prose and dragging plot lines. Then I started to write.  This quote couldn't be more true.  The smoothest sentences are the ones that I had to wrestle with, cut, twist, rework and rip apart.  Once you mastered that one there is always the next, and the next.  The life of a writer is this unending line of work of love.   

C.S. Lewis in response to a fan letter offered this advice to a young writer. 
1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn't mean anything else.
2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don't implement promises, but keep them.
3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean "More people died" don't say "Mortality rose."
4. In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please will you do my job for me."
5. Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
 Advice like this sounds so straight forward. However, the implementation of it is the true challenge. It is almost debilitating to get started if you starting thinking of it.  The key is to write ugly, get it out.  Once it is out the real work begins.  Take it one sentence at a time.  Torment each sentence, paragraph and get violent with your edits.  When you think you are done hand it off to your beta readers to vet out as much of it as possible.

On this Easter weekend what prose are you tormenting?

1 comment:

  1. Ah, C.S. Lewis! That's great advice. What he is saying is show, don't tell, and use normal words that don't confuse or mislead the reader.

    Tormenting prose? None for me. I am on sabbatical in Asia until my novel comes out May 7th. The only thing I will be tormenting is my stomach as I delve into new foods.