Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Aristotle on Writing Well

“To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.” ~Aristotle

It’s amazing how, over 2,000 years later, this advice is still sound. If you want to write well, write so readers can understand you. It’s only sensible, really. If you fill your writing with elaborate, obscure words and phrases, people are going to have a hard time reading what you’ve written. Even if your reader has a good vocabulary and understands the words you are using, the very use of uncommon words can cause him to get hung up on your word choice and miss the meaning of what you’ve written.

It’s sometimes very hard to stick with common expression, though. I love words. A lot. I love clever or beautiful turns of phrase. If I write a lovely sentence or craft a delightful phrase, I really want to leave it in. But that’s not always the best choice. I have to remember that my readers’ attention may very well get caught by my unusual word choice or beautiful, clever phrase. And if my words and phrases are catching their attention, their attention is being pulled away from the actual meaning of my writing. And in the end, the meaning of the writing, the flow of the story, the immersion in the tale is what is really important. As a reader, clever, attention catching wording can throw me out of a story faster than nearly any plot flaw. So I have to remember to watch my words and put the story first to keep myself from heading in the wrong direction and losing my readers.

At its worst, the love of and inability to exclude extravagant words and phrases can lead a writer into the realm of purple prose. And that is someplace we really don’t want to go. While playing with language for the sheer joy of tinkering with words is perfectly fine, if you are doing this in the midst of a story, you are doing an injustice to the story. The words should be a vehicle for the story. It should never be the other way around.

So does this mean to write well we have to stick to single syllable words, short sentences, terse paragraphs? No. I think we must strike a balance. I think overly simplistic writing also detracts from the story. Powerful, evocative words are important in good writing. But again, the choice of words must be about conveying the exact meaning or feeling your are trying to get at and not about the word or phrase itself.

I’d love to throw in some examples here, but I don’t have any right at the moment. This is one of those random, rambling pieces born out of thoughts tumbling through my mind. So, no examples. Just ideas. And with that, I’ll trail off…


Phiala said...

Hm... Any of Patricia McKillip's newer works (last 10 years or so). Powerful, evocative and poetic prose wrapped around fairytale plots.

Kim said...

"Hm... Any of Patricia McKillip's newer works (last 10 years or so). Powerful, evocative and poetic prose wrapped around fairytale plots."

Ooh! Excellent example! She does it so well--evocative, poetic, even lyrical at times, and yet her word choices and turns of phrase *never* detract from the story! Charles de Lint does a lovely job of it, too. I will have to spend some time (when can I get some extra?!) finding some quotes from them to share.

Thanks for the thought!

Phiala said...

McKillip is lusher than de Lint. Her writing matches the fairytale settings. de Lint uses a more prosaic style, which makes it all the more interesting when something out of the ordinary pops up. Urban fantasy, I think, just wouldn't work as well in McKillip's style.

I also like the writing style of Guy Gavriel Kay. He has moments that give me the shivers. His use of foreshadowing is quite excellent. Though it often wants me to throw the book across the room, I can't because I so badly need to find out what he's alluding to!

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