Writing well: What’s a good word?

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Writing is a joy. Writing well takes application. Writing better is an eternal aspiration. I want to share here three great voices on how to approach writing and the endless choices offered by words.

Writing should never be seen as a chore, but as a timeless delight. Written or spoken, the word is perhaps the purest and certainly the swiftest way to conjure a world, to convey an idea, to share wisdom.

Writing offers endless possibility. To paraphrase Madonna (and perhaps somewhat miss the point of her words), only when I’m writing to do I feel this free.

Never use stilts

The more things change, the more they etc. I recently came across nine superb writing tips from an anonymous author in 1857*. Regard:

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For a set of suggestions nearly 160 years old, they are fresh as paint today. To wit:

“Be brief. This is the age of telegraphs and stenography.”

For telegraphs and stenography, read texts and tweets. But could the 1857 authors ever have guessed that after the text and the tweet, the next stage in the “evolution” of language would be a return to hieroglyphics with the emoji?

For anyone curious not only about writing, but writing well, I’d recommend giving these nine somethings for writers a moment of your time. I particularly like the latter half of point 8:

“Never use stilts when legs will do as well.”

The suggestion to review what you’ve written and “strike out nine-tenths of the adjectives” is inspired. Although, as Homer Simpson has taught us, there is never shame in turning to the animal kingdom for adjectival inspiration.

Don’t waste people’s time

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I’ve blogged before about the freshness and magic of Moby’s memoir, Porcelain,
easily the best book I’ve read this year. His writing is beautifully simple yet remarkably vivid, evoking time, place and wonder with ease.

Moby’s interview with Bret Easton Ellis is easily the best podcast I’ve heard this year. Now, gentle reader, no shame if you know nothing of Moby. But in
order of increasing obscurity, the facts people are most likely to know
of him are:

  • Bald.
  • Vegan.
  • Distantly related to Moby-Dick** author Herman Melville (Hence the name “Moby”).

This
latter point figured strongly in how Porcelain came to be. On landing a
book deal, Moby planned to go down the classic popular music
“autobiography” route of employing a ghostwriter. I thank the stars that
someone at his publishing house convinced him that – as Moby puts it –
given his literary lineage, it
would be “an egregious hereditary affront to not try and write your own
book.”

Moby explains how he set himself specific goals in approaching the writing of is memoir:

“I
had no idea if I was going to write anything interesting or relevant,
but at the very least I knew I could aspire to do two things. To be as
honest as I possibly could. And to make each chapter something that
would hopefully hold up as a barroom anecdote. […] I wanted to write
something that was generous.”

Generosity towards the reader is what sets great writing apart. This should be the aim of all writers in every word they pen.

Moby generously shares his primary influence on Porcelain: The Journals of John Cheever***, which Easton Ellis describes as an unflichingly honest “heroin book.” Moby explains how Cheever inspired him:

“If
this lion of letters can be so honest, at the very least I can aspire
to be honest. And then I just thought, you know, if you write a book,
you don’t want to waste people’s time. So, I thought I don’t know if I
’m going to write a good book. But at least let me write something
honest, that in places might be entertaining, that might represent a
bygone era that actually didn’t happen that long ago, but economically,
socially, demographically represents a New York that is long gone.”

In that paragraph is the key to writing well:

“You don’t want to waste people’s time.”

Our language, Tiger, our language…

A
Bit of Fry and Laurie
(especially the second series, which I taped on
its first showing in 1990 and rewatched countless times) must be one of
the biggest influences on my own approach to language and to writing.

Language is inexhaustible. Writing offers endless possibility. This is captured most brilliantly in these words from the following wee bit of Fry and Laurie:

“Our language, Tiger, our language, hundreds of thousands of available words, frillions of possible legitimate new ideas, so that I can say this sentence and be confident it has never been uttered before in the history of human communication: ‘Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.’”

When writing, it’s always good to pose Homer’s question: “What’s a good word?” You could do worse than to use words like “countermand” and “friendly milk.” But there are also so many others, so many frillions, from which to choose.

Be generous.

Footnotes

* Via a tweet from Anna Pallai (aka @Mono80), who in turn credits something called crumblingpages, which I don’t seem to have had much luck finding. Can anyone assist?

** The title Moby-Dick, alongside Spider-Man and Beavis and Butt-head, has one of the most forgotten hyphens in popular culture.

*** I’ve never read any Cheever, but given Moby’s recommendation am excited to read the Journals. Amazon have generously sent me an automated email just this morning to say that the copy I ordered is finally in the post.

**** I
know I’ve shared this video on this blog at least once before, but it never gets old for me. It is as inexhaustible as language itself.

  • Image of Homer Simpson via the frankly staggering website Frinkiac. Type in any line of dialogue you can remember from a Simpsons episode and see what you get. I got the pic of Homer at typewriter by searching on “really really good.”

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