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Writing Fresh Prose and Poetry

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Sat Jul 12, 2008 7:22 pm
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Lynlyn says...

Writing Fresh Prose and Poetry

I've discovered that among writers there is some sort of invisible mythos that floats around trying to convince us that we must write a certain way. It tells us that in order for a work to be “literary,” it must have an elevated style. Good writing, they say, uses complex sentence structure and a lot of higher-level vocabulary. Above all, our texts should be full of those literary devices like metaphor and metonymy, or else they're not worth reading – right?

Writing with the above sentiments in mind can produce results. These results are usually things like pulling out fistfuls of your hair, destroying inanimate objects, or, in milder cases, not being very happy with said piece of “writing.” The reasoning behind this? Anything that feels unnatural to write will likely be unnatural to read.

Your natural writing style is probably somewhat similar to the way you speak, with some important variations. You might only use about 5000 words in your natural speaking vocabulary – and this is fine. This might be expanded by quite a few thousand when you're writing, just because you have more time to choose your words – this is fine as well. The problem arises when you attempt to expand your vocabulary to the entire breadth of the English language by means of the ultimate writer's folly: the thesaurus.

A thesaurus is a tool, not a crutch, and even as a tool it should be one used sparingly. Whenever possible, select the word that provides the most clarity. Generally, this word is going to be one that's already in your vocabulary, and one you're already familiar with in context. Keep in mind that every time you run for the thesaurus, there's a possibility that you might be sending one of your readers running for the dictionary. Use higher vocabulary because it illustrates your purpose with precision; misusing words will only alienate your audience.

Worn phrases are just as likely to clutter prose as individual words. In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell states that one of more common marks of bad writing is a “staleness of imagery” brought about by replacing fresh narrative with “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” Clichés do not always manifest themselves as damsels in distress or roguish love interests – they occur more prominently on a smaller scale. Is there another way to describe your character's “Achilles' heel” or how they “have a bone to pick” with their brother? In addition, if you're using long verb phrases like “Timmy had rendered the toy useless,” consider using a single, more illustrative verb instead. Did Timmy smash the toy? Or did he just dent it up, or pull the wheels off? It's easy to picture Timmy smashing a toy. Picture him “rendering,” though – not so simple, is it?

Considering tools like metaphor and simile, my opinion on this is that if you are ready to use them, they'll come to you. If you've read enough of the good stuff, you'll recognize the dramatic irony, the hyperbole, and the parallelism, and they'll start sneaking themselves into your writing. Chances are that if you're sitting in front of your computer, licking your lips and saying, “Okay, where can I fit in some antithesis?” you're probably going to run into some difficulties.

No one ever said you had to sound like Tolkien, Faulkner, or Hawthorne. While mimicking the voice of another writer can be an interesting exercise, it's best to work on developing your own voice – after all, what you are saying is not the same as what Tolkien, Faulkner, or Hawthorne had to say. Mature prose does not mean wordy prose. Instead of attempting to write in a more ornate manner, focus on using a style that accurately expresses your ideas. Your writing will thank you.
"Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world." - G. B. Shaw
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