A guest post by Eric Cummings of On Violence
I learned what I consider the “Golden Rule of Writing” – the only rule that can help every writer – in the first creative writing class I ever took. Of course, I didn’t learn the rule immediately, or even in the first class. My classmates and I first had to learn how different we were from one another as writers.
Our teacher, an old bald Caribbean man with missing front teeth and a stoop, began by asking the class, “How do you write?”
Some students wrote on computers, others in journals; I wrote long hand on legal pads. Some wrote in the morning at their home, others at night with friends; I wrote by myself at the library in the afternoon. Our professor wrote memoir fiction about his sexual escapades in the Caribbean standing at a lectern a la Hemingway. We wrote literary fiction, memoirs, and detective stories; newspaper articles, editorials, and e-mails. We were men and women, young and old, lazy and prolific, borderline illiterate and consummate professionals. Some of us needed two drafts, others needed dozens. We were a microcosm of the rest of the writing universe: no two writers write the same way.
The problem with learning the “rules” for writing is that none of them apply to everyone.
How can any rule possibly apply to everyone? I co-write my blog with my twin brother, and we don’t write the same way. What rule can cover journalism and blogging, poetry and prose; authors like James Joyce, who struggled to write seven words a day, or Nora Roberts, who writes multiple books a year? If a golden rule exists, it needs to unite all writers.
I learned the Golden Rule of Writing on my second day in class, as my story about a farmer and a mule was read aloud. I had spent some time writing it, one day rewriting it, and another afternoon editing it. I was nervous but confident. It was a good story.
The story began, “Light barely flooded into the room.”
“Wait.” Less than a sentence in, the Professor stopped the student reading my story. He turned to me, “Eric, what do you mean, ‘Light barely flooded into the room.’?”
“Well, it is sunrise, and the sun is coming up.” I said.
“But how can light ‘barely flood’ in? Do you mean the word flood?”
Light could either barely trickle in, or flood in, but it couldn’t do both. The lesson wasn’t that I needed to be clearer and more precise with my language–though I did–it was that I didn’t know what my words meant. I didn’t own the words on the page. The questions the professor asked us over the course of the quarter were always the same, “What do you mean?” “What did you intend here?” or “Why did you use this word?”
What is my Golden Rule of Writing? It’s this:
Intend every word you write.
Be aware of what your words mean, and make sure that the meaning aligns with what you are trying to say. Writing is communication; don’t we all want to communicate as accurately as possible?
(I hear the guy in the back saying, what if I want my writing to be confusing? Then be confusing, but do it intentionally.)
Notice how my professor coached me on my writing. He didn’t tell me what words to use, he didn’t tell me my mistake. He asked questions. Perhaps I meant to put the words together, as a poetic statement. Or perhaps the idea or the image I meant to convey wasn’t being conveyed. He made me aware of what my words meant. The lesson was clear: these were my words, dammit, and I needed to own them.
As my above example shows, the Golden Rule of Writing is not an easy one, especially when you write for readers. Your intention needs to jibe with what you want them take away from you work. (Perhaps you write only in your journal. You follow the Golden Rule every time you write, because you express what you mean every time you write, because you are writing for yourself.)
Below, I have seven tips for implementing intentionality behind your writing, to better convey what you want to say.
1. When you revise your work ask yourself, “Does this convey what I want to convey?” Ask yourself this question after every line, especially when writing fiction.
2. Think about your reader. Who is your intended audience? If you’re writing your church newsletter, then you probably aren’t going to want to include any swear words. Think about your reader, and write to them, being aware of how they will react to your words.
3. Think about the meaning of every word you write. James Joyce spent whole days writing just a handful of words, spending hours thinking about them and their meaning. Now, I hear you saying, “Whoa, I don’t have that much time.” True. But you can ask yourself, “Do I really know what this word means?” “Am I using it correctly?” “Will my intended audience get what I am trying to say?” Spend more time on longer sentences and bigger words.
4. Look out for especially “arty writing” The best writing is unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. But I’m not F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce or Cormac McCarthy, and neither are you. So when you write something especially clever, unique or “arty,” double check it to make sure it makes sense. I learned this rule from personal experience.
5. Use a dictionary. Check it to see if that word means what you think it means.
6. Listen to podcasts about grammar, and read books and blogs about it. Did you know that non-plussed means confused, or bewildered? Do you know what a gerund is? Neither did I, until I started educating myself. I recommend the podcasts Grammar Grater and Grammar Girl, the books Writing With Style By Trimble and The Writer’s Reference. If you are revising your work and something strikes you as strange, look it up. It will add to your overall knowledge of grammar, usage and the written word.
7. Read. This is the single best way to add to your vocabulary and your knowledge of language and writing.
Ultimately, the Golden Rule of Writing is not about conformity, but freedom. Do you dislike semi-colons? Don’t use them. Do you want to start sentences with “and,” “but,” or “because?” Then go ahead, it’s your writing. If you want to use a word incorrectly, go ahead. But use it incorrectly on purpose, knowing the implications of that misuse.
With the Golden Rule of Writing, you are free to convey whatever idea, thought or image you want. You are free to tell whatever story, write whatever essay, or compose any poem you want. But write it with intention.
Eric Cummings writes for On Violence, a blog on counter-insurgency warfare, military and foreign affairs, art, and violence, written by two brothers–one a soldier and the other a pacifist.
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