Sunday, September 20, 2015

Smart Writing That Really Isn't

We writers all do it. We write something especially smart or clever. When we reread it, we feel a self-congratulatory smugness. Look how insightful we are.

A few days later, if we're observant, we become aware that we're still noticing our words, oozing with perspicacity. Wait. Is that what we really want? Words that emanate intelligence?

No, we want our writing to be intelligent to the point of getting our story across in the best way. But if the reader is distracted by writing that seems so intelligent, then the writing is failing at transporting the reader to the place the writer wants to get them. Unless, of course, the writer primarily wants the reader to think that they are really smart. Which almost guarantees that the writer will have very few readers.

Mark Twain said, "Never use a quarter word when a nickel word will do the job."

Clever writing tends to dog entertainment writers who are uncomfortable with merely telling an entertaining story. So they spruce up their writing to make it appear, well, smarter.

It also happens to literary writers who are a little too taken with the idea that they are producing great art. So they write sentences that are puffed up and pretentious. Precious is a word that writers use to describe such writing.

All writers do this, writing fancy words and sentences that call attention to themselves and distract from the story. Our job is to go back and find those sentences or phrases or words, and edit them out.

The late great Elmore Leonard was famous not just for his novels and short stories, but for his Ten Rules Of Writing. He followed those with an eleventh rule that summed up all ten and said, "If it sounds like writing, rewrite it."

All writers, entertainment and literary, do best when they follow Leonard's last rule.

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