‘…if you are trying to tell a story simply… or get an idea or a picture out of your mind and into someone else’s mind then it needs to be a lot more simple, a lot less cluttered. In fact, a lot more like the way you speak… Don’t be content with other people’s words, use your own.’ – Maeve Binchy
Perfectly put, but something which requires, like most things, a little practice to perfect. Maeve, of course, achieved great success as a writer in doing just this, and it is from one of her former Irish Times columns that I lift this piece of practical advice.
Writing to impress is drilled into us, academically, from an early age. Slot in those long words to show you have a diverse vocabulary, we are told, and it will get you good grades. However, the fledgling writer will soon realise that the very words and styles of writing that will impress an academic will not so easily please a potential audience of readers. Particularly if the writer in question is targeting a younger readership. There is no need to be patronising in using overtly simplistic language, but neither should it alienate readers, or would-be readers. The writing must engage and draw someone in.
As a journalist, I quickly had to adapt from writing university essays and wordy pieces of writing, and strip stories back to the very basic elements – sentences preferably no more than 23 words long; the full story to be conveyed in the opening sentence… The premise was simple – keep it short, snappy and to the point, with every fact, quote and filler element fighting for its space. Feature articles differ again and here, there is room for much more detail and description, but in all of this writing, a balance must be struck to make the audience want to engage with it.
I’m currently reading Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ – the delightfully chosen title which sums up his writing experiences in Paris during the 1920s. He also has some useful advice, in terms of getting something onto the page to begin with:
‘I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.’
It’s a common enough occurrence – one day, the writing is flowing like a merry river, the next, it has collected in an immovable lake… Best perhaps, to break off a day’s work when you still have a little movement left in the pen.
Hemingway also motivated himself in times when words were not quite so forthcoming, by telling himself to ‘write the truest sentence that you know… and then go on from there’.
It rings true with what Maeve Binchy says – write what is true to you – what will strike a chord with a reader and make your words come alive. This, is what I think really constitutes the art of writing ‘clever’…