More words add nuance but clutters central message. Which is your preference: the details or the point?
It isn’t always one or the other, but if you’re writing for busy readers and broader audiences, you ought focus on the point. That’s among the themes from a new book by Jessica Lasky-Fink and Todd Rogers called “Writing for Busy Readers: Communicate More Effectively in the Real World.” Add it to a helpful collection of writing about writing that I enjoy.
They have a nice simplified chart here on a site of resources. Below I share my notes for future reference.
Continue reading Writing for Busy Readers
Consuming a piece of art is the collision of two biographies: the artist who can shape the viewing and the consumer who views. This makes evaluating art created by people who have done heinous things in their personal lives especially subjective.
Hemingway and Picasso, both of whom were especially cruel and vicious to the women in their lives, are the 20th century icons of this tricky question. Hemingway’s third wife Martha Gellhorn wrote that the great artist needn’t be a monster but rather monsters can only hide behind art: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”
In the end, which art we set aside, and which we can still enjoy is up to the viewer, and the time period. (Chuck Klosterman writes about how art is reinterpreted by each new generation). Admittedly, if you have the choice of hiring or elevating a creative today who is cruel, you might choose differently. But in terms of consumption, well, that’s up to you.
“The way you consume art doesn’t make you a bad person, or a good one. You’ll have to find some other way to accomplish that.” Or so argues culture critic and essayist Claire Dederer in her book from this spring called Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma.
I first came across Claire and her writing in her 2017 essay “What do we do with the art of monstrous men?” It seems to me one of the defining questions of the last few years, so I appreciate the effort she put into shaping mine and other’s perspectives. I recommend it. Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.
Continue reading What do we do with the art of monstrous men? Whatever you need to do with it
We live our life letting only some instruments in the orchestra play, so when we write fiction we can explore the rest. To create great fiction, we must emphatically pursue our “radical preference,” and remove everything else
Few do it as well as the greats from a 75-year period of Russian masters. So argues George Saunders, today’s most celebrated American fiction writer and a well-regarded writing professor, in his 2021 book: “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.”
He shares stories from four greats and intersperses his notes, based on a course he teaches. It’s approachable and generous. Below I share my notes for future reference.
Continue reading Lessons on writing from four Russian masters (and George Saunders)
Writers begin their journey loving words. Later they learn to love sentences. Still later, they turn to obituaries. Or something like that. The point: Language is a cultural invention so its forms and our relationship to it is ever changing.
To become a better writer, then, is to grab hold of these various for their various purposes. For one, as Gertrude Stein put it: “paragraphs are emotional and sentences are not.”
Somewhere in here is how we develop our “writing voice.” Not exactly the same as how you speak but maybe, “a buried, better-said version of you,” as author Joe Moran put it in his 2018 book First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing . . . and Life.
It’s a lovely book, both for the craftsmanship Moran puts into his sentences and the wisdom he pulls together on stronger writing. I recommend it. Below I share my notes for future reference.
Continue reading First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing and Life
Punctuation for writers is better thought like musical notation for composers.
Too many rules are arbitrary and clumsy attempts to guide to better writing. Hence the strange intimidation and vitriol toward one piece of punctuation in particular, the semicolon, which was created in 1490s Venice. Treat it with care and with love. That’s a goal from Cecelia Watson’s slim 2019 book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark.
Below I share my notes for future reference.
Continue reading Semicolons
Metaphor is integral not just to language but to understanding.
So goes the influential book Metaphors We Live By, published in 1980 by a book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. The book suggests metaphor is a tool that enables people to use what they know about their direct physical and social experiences to understand more abstract things like work, time, mental activity and feelings.
It is a short and approachable book that nonetheless introduced and spread the idea of just how pervasive metaphor is in human language. It helps writers and editors process our phrase choices.
Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.
Continue reading Metaphors We Live By from the influential 1980 book
Write for the audience whose expectations you want to meet — not an imagined audience you’ve been taught is the standard.
That’s among the the top-level themes of Craft in the Real World, the 2021 book by celebrated fiction author and novelist Matthew Salesses. It challenges many norms of the American-style writer workshop that was largely first established at Iowa University, where the first Masters in Fine Arts writing program emerged. The book is rich with general criticism, tactical advice for modernizing writer workshops (many of which I’ve incorporated into my own) and even fresh looks at foundational elements of writing (ie. what exactly is plot?).
I introduced many of Matthew’s points on making a more effective writers workshop to my own workshop. I also appreciated his general contribution to our collective goals for great writing. I recommend the book to anyone in workshop or interested in writing process. Below I share my notes for me to return to in the future.
Continue reading Craft in the Real World: advice on writing and workshop from Matthew Salesses
American fiction writing is over-indexed for straight white male voices, considering our rapidly diversifying country. A consequence of this has been painful examples of white authors doing a crummy job conveying the voice and experience of non-white characters.
This has been no better demonstrated than in Young Adult fiction. The deserved backlash has gone to a logical extreme: should white authors write non-white characters at all?
If you believe like me that there, indeed, will continue to be white authors and that we do not want all stories told by white authors to be exclusively populated by white characters, then the more productive question is how can white authors effectively and ethically write non-white characters?
Continue reading White authors writing non-white characters
Every year or so, I’ve gathered enough of a collection of notes and perspective and general writing about writing that I want to share here. This is especially geared toward creative and fiction writing, which is decidedly not what I am professionally trained in.
But I’ve always thought of myself as professional writer first, and so I routinely invest time in reading about process.
Below find some links and perspective that I share here likely more for me than anyone.
Continue reading More notes on what I’ve learned about writing
As a followup to my 2018 podcast The Writing Process, I’m sharing occasional interviews with other celebrated authors, storytellers and other writers to gather their own writing advice.
Below, hear from Janet Benton, whose historical fiction novel Lilli de Jong came out in paperback last year. (Follow her on Twitter here) When her debut novel launched, Bustle called it striking and NPR listed it as one of its books of the year.
The book, known as a poignant look at feminism and motherhood, set in 1883 Philadelphia, is readily available as a hardcover, paperback, large-print edition, audio book and ebook through most booksellers and online.
Continue reading To get only the ‘right’ words on paper, that’s the struggle: Janet Benton