Bad versions of great writing

by Steve

man in room, woman entering room

As one of those (annoying) people who seems to prefer reading about writing to actual writing (1) I found myself reading this rather exhaustive essay about the writer and editor Gordon Lish. The author collates examples of Lish’s recommendations, thoughts and teachings on how to write, organising them into a coherent methodology for writing Lish-style.

Never one to make a sophisticated judgement on what I read, I went the reductive route and saw this as a bit of a handbook on How To Write Properly, at least according to Gordon Lish. And, shock! horror! I actually sat down for a few lunchtimes and wrote something.

In some ways the advice given was really helpful. Breaking down a piece of writing word by word, sentence by sentence, makes it feel more manageable. It made writing feel a bit more like a craft to hone than some intangible Art mystically visited upon the guy/gal with the pen in his/her hand.

Starting with an “attack sentence” – a way of announcing the intention, topic or desire of the story, made sense and seems a good way of getting to the point and avoiding the flannel at the start of so many stories. Circling back to this start, through repetition and recycling of the words and themes involved was helpful every time I got stuck. The start was my anchor and also my jumping off point (2) for each new sentence. Unpacking the initial sentence helped make everything flow a bit better, at least while I wrote, if not necessarily when I read back.

Acoustical consecution – the use of alliteration, assonance and consonance amongst other sound-y tricks certainly helped make some of my sentences sound less clumsy, a tiny bit more poetic. Playing around with these tricks reminded me of a Don DeLillo quote:

“There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look. The rhythm of a sentence will accommodate a certain number of syllables. One syllable too many, I look for another word. There’s always another word that means nearly the same thing, and if it doesn’t then I’ll consider altering the meaning of a sentence to keep the rhythm, the syllable beat. I’m completely willing to let language press meaning upon me.”

Essentially, I felt I was being led more by the Lish system and the tricks and tools, sounds and rhythms, rather than the story. I’m not entirely sure that is a bad thing. I prefer a beautifully written story that goes nowhere to a well-plotted tale that is awkwardly delivered. But I am worried that reducing writing to a series of tools/tricks/techniques  is a risky strategy (3), especially in my unskilled hands.

Some of my attempts at acoustical consecution sounded more like tongue-twisters than examples of fine literature. Some of the repetition was probably a bit annoying, and certainly a bit lazy. I also suspected that I was leaning on the tools/tricks/techniques so much that there wasn’t actually any substance beyond them. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, eh?

I’m now torn between trying to understand other schools of thought for writing, or running a mile from this kind of stuff. On the one hand, I feel like the more I know about how you can write, the better I will be. On the other hand, I suspect it is really easy to then fall into bad, or at least narrow, habits. But then maybe I need to get writing bad versions of great writing out of my system before I can write anything worthwhile.

Still, if nothing else it was an interesting exercise. I doubt anything from it will be fit for public consumption (4) but it is helpful to have a better idea of how to get out of certain writing holes and how to make some of my writing a little more elegant. With the exception of this post, of course. In the meantime, perhaps I should just read things a little more closely.


1. Which, I guess, makes anyone who likes this post someone who prefers reading about someone who prefers reading to writing. Which makes my head hurt a little. However, as the majority of comments to this place lately have come from spambots this is probably not a scenario I need worry about too much. But to make it clear, just because I find myself annoying for reading about writing rather than just writing (and then writing about reading about writing), I don’t think you, dear reader, are annoying for reading me writing about reading about writing rather than just writing. And my head hurts again.

2. I’m cringing at the mixed metaphor-y stuff here as much as you.

3. And this is probably more my fault, for looking for easy solutions, than anyone elses’ fault.

4. And I suspect this will be the case for the vast majority of my fiction-y stuff for quite a while.

Image from Reanimation Library