Striving For Clarity in Writing

stageThere seem to be two vociferous groups of writers nowadays:

1. Self-published writers who insist that they can do everything their way without regard to grammar rules, publishing conventions, and even readers.

2. Writers who want to be published by the major publishing houses, and who scrupulously follow every dictate in the hopes it will bring them the acclaim they strive for.

The first group of writers often strive for originality at the expense of readability. They take the easy way out by choosing limp words that demand to be propped up with adverbs and adjectives. Or they throw out grammar rules, which comes across not so much as being creative but as being too lazy to learn the right way. Grammar is not a straightjacket but a garment that flows softly around readers, keeping their attention on the story rather than the structure. If readers have to read and reread a paragraph to try to make sense of it, then the author has not done her job.

Some of these authors believe that readers should have to work to make sense of their story, that it’s okay if readers are pulled out of the story to look up an unfamiliar word, or to admire a particularly well-turned phrase, but readers for the most part want to be immersed in a story. If you’re watching a play, you want to see the characters, the action, the set. You do not want to be shown the backstage bickering or the ugly scaffolding. You simply want to be immersed in the play. (Unless, of course, the play is Noises Off, in which case all the bickering and scaffolding are part of the story.) And the same goes for books.

The second group of writers strives for perfection at the cost of originality, especially originality of style or voice. These writers are often too assiduous in their dislike of “was”,  “it”, “ly” adverbs, adjectives, or any number of words that make our writing seem amateurish. Yes, an abundance of such words does make our writing seem amateurish and even hard to read, but removing every single was or it or modifier makes for a stilted style.

The truth of good writing lies somewhere in the middle of those two groups.

As I read in an old book called The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker: “Clarity is the first aim; economy the second; grace the third; dignity the fourth. Our writing should be a little strange, a little out of the ordinary, a little beautiful with words and phrases not met everyday, but seeming as right and natural as grass.”


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Who gave you the best writing advice you ever received and what was it?

The best writing advice I ever received I read in an old book called The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker: “Clarity is the first aim; economy the second; grace the third; dignity the fourth. Our writing should be a little strange, a little out of the ordinary, a little beautiful with words and phrases not met everyday, but seeming as right and natural as grass.”

Isn’t that beautiful? I paid particular attention to that advice when writing Light Bringer. I wanted the style itself to show that the characters were a little strange, a little out of the ordinary, a little beautiful. For example, “And then there it was, spread out before her in a shallow thirty-foot bowl. A lake of flowers — chrysanthemums and tulips, daisies and daffodils, lilies and columbines and fuchsia — all blooming brightly, all singing their song of welcome.”

Here are some responses from other authors about how the best writing advice they ever received. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

From an interview with Sheila Deeth, Author of “Flower Child”

I met Jane Kirkpatrick shortly after we moved to Oregon. She told me to keep writing. In fact, she’s told me several times to keep writing. It’s probably the most valuable piece of advice I’ve had.

From an interview with Eric Wasserman, Author of Celluloid Strangers

Frederick Reiken’s literature course on the short story was my very first graduate school class. The very first thing he said to all of us was, “If you’re not willing to submerge yourself in the world of reading fiction, give up now on being a serious writer of fiction.” I wrote this down the moment he said it, went back to my dingy Boston studio apartment that evening, and taped it across the screen of my TV.

From an interview with Sandra Shwayder Sanchez, Author of “The Nun”

The best advice I ever received was from J.R. Salamanca (Lilith, A Sea Change, Embarkation, Southern Light and more) who said the permanence of the written word has more influence on readers than spoken words and to take that influence seriously and try to create a good influence and that is the advice I would give aspiring writers.

What about you? Who gave you the best writing advice you ever received, and what was it?

(If you’d like me to interview you, please check out my author questionnaire and follow the instruction.)

My Topsy-Turvy Writing Life

NaNoWriMo is good practice for me, this writing without stopping to think.

I’ve always been a slow writer, but I can also see that the way I wrote and the reason I wrote created the slowness. I used to write at night when all was quiet, then the next morning I would read the work to my mate. The piece had to be cohesive, well written, and most of all entertaining because that is why I wrote — to entertain us. That way of writing taught me to pull someone immediately into a scene, to make characters come alive in a few words, to add a hook or reward on almost every page.

I had my reward in his smile. Whenever I saw his lips curve in a secret little smile, I knew I’d hit the scene perfectly.

He and his smile are gone from my life. I’ve had to find a different way of writing and a different reason. For now, meeting the challenge of NaNoWriMo is reason enough. The very nature of the challenge is helping me find a new way to write. Instead of searching for the perfect word, I write any word that comes to mind, trusting that during the rewrites I will find the right one. If no word comes to mind, I leave a blank space and continue with my train of thought.

I also have no need to write a coherent story from beginning to end for there is no one to follow along as I write. I jot down whatever scene is foremost in my mind. I also write in the morning since it’s quietest here then. Also, by writing in the morning, I can come at the task in an oblique way before excuses begin to get in the way.

Some of what I’ve written will need little revision. Other bits read more like notes for a novel than a fleshed out scene and will need to be completely revised. Other parts are redundant and will need to be junked. But I am keeping up with my word count (probably because I am leaving out the hard bits, like descriptions and sensory details), and that is an important achievement.

I’m getting into the rhythm of this topsy-turvy life. From being one of a couple to being alone. From living near the mountains to living near the desert. From writing at night to writing in the morning. From writing beginning to end to writing whatever scene catches my attention.

I’m still writing the same type of book, though — a non-literary literary novel. The way I understand it, a literary novel is a story that addresses the major themes of life, and the way it is written — the choice of words, the sentence structure, the imagery — is more important than what is written. I fail in the second part — I strive for a simple, easy to read style that doesn’t detract from the story — but I do address major themes, especially in this work. Life. Death. Love. Grief. Relationships. The meaning of life. All while telling a good story. At least, that’s the plan.

I’m hoping someday you’ll be able to tell me if I succeeded.

Introvert or Extravert?

I don’t like the words introvert and extrovert. The common definition of an introvert is a painfully shy person or someone who thinks only of him/herself, while an extrovert is an outgoing, sociable person with interests outside him/herself. In our society, which rewards the gregarious, being an introvert seems to put one at a disadvantage. Introverts, however, are not always shy, and apparent extroverts can be uncomfortable in crowds. And introverts are no more self-centered than extroverts.

According to Laurie Helgoe, author of Revenge of the Introverts published in Psychology Today, “It’s often possible to spot introverts by their conversational style. They’re the ones doing the listening. Extraverts are more likely to pepper people with questions. Introverts like to think before responding—many prefer to think out what they want to say in advance—and seek facts before expressing opinions. Extraverts are comfortable thinking as they speak. Introverts prefer slow-paced interactions that allow room for thought. Brainstorming does not work for them. Email does.”

Colin DeYoung, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, says that introverts do best in quiet conditions and extraverts do better with more noise.

So being an introvert is neither a disadvantage nor an advantage, simply a different way of processing information. Which could provide an answer to a conundrum I’ve been considering for some time now: why some authors can effortlessly flood a page with words, and others struggle to find a few words.

All the books about how to write say not to edit as you go, but to let the words gush out of you, to write the first draft as quickly as possible. As much as I like the idea of letting the words flow and seeing what transpires, nothing shows up on the page unless I sit and ponder. So, even though few writing coaches admit it (and why would they? They are probably all extroverts) there are different approaches to writing: extrovert and introvert.

A writing extrovert would be someone who can write anywhere — on a bus, in a crowded room, in a coffee shop. Even when alone, they like to write accompanied by sound, either music or the television. And no matter what, the words gush forth as fast or faster than fingers can type.

A writing introvert would be someone who can only write when alone and in absolute silence. The words come slowly to these authors. Once involved in a scene, however, these writers get into the flow of writing, and the words can come more quickly, though still slowly in comparison to the writing extroverts. And, though they are gradually shifting to computers, their preferred method of writing is by hand so they can get the best mind/hand connection.

Of course, few people inhabit the extremes of this writing spectrum — most authors find themselves somewhere in the middle.

It’s apparent what kind of writer I am — an extreme introvert. I need the quiet so I can find the few words that bobble to the tip of my mind. What kind of writer are you?

Style: The Search for a Voice — NWJC Writing Discussion #44

My writing group on — No Whine, Just Champagne — meets every Thursday at 9:00pm ET for a live discussion, and you are all invited. Tonight’s host is Suzanne Francis, author of the Song of the Arkafina series from Mushroom Books, and her topic is Style: The Search for a Voice. Suzanne writes:

Where do you find it? Is it lurking in the keyboard, in the classroom, or in the back of your mind? How do you know when you have a voice to call your own?

Today’s discussion will focus on how we, as authors, find authentic style.

Style begins with competence. (Unless you want to be known as one of those writers for whom ineptitude seems to be a defining trait. I won’t name names…)

One of my friends, a teacher, once told me that competence has four levels.

They are:

1. Unconscious Incompetence–This is where I started. I wrote and wrote, thousands of words a day, and I thought every one of them was pure gold. I was surprised and offended when my critiquers pointed out that there were flaws, inconsistencies, poorly constructed sentences, flabby paragraphs etc. etc. Sadly, many writers these days seem to be published while they are still in this stage.

2. Conscious Incompetence–The great eye opener. You realize that your work is mostly crap. Some people quit here, because they don’t want to do the work of objectively editing their work down into something readable. But if you keep at it, you’ll eventually graduate to…

3. Conscious Competence–I like to think that I am here, on a good day. I can see when the pace drags, when I am telling instead of showing. I work hard, examine my prose, recognize the flaws and fix them! I don’t get them all, but when my writing buddy finds something else I fix that too.

4. Unconscious Competence–Sometimes, very rarely, I get to visit this place, but I don’t live here. I’m sure you have had those moments when the words just pour from your fingers. Perfect fully formed sentences spring forth like Athene from the forehead of Zeus. I imagine there might be some writers who are able to keep this up long term, but I am not one of them. 

So once you have achieved level 3, or level 4 if you are very talented, do you have a style?


Now you have to do a little detective work–look at your writing and listen to your instincts. Which words sing out from the page? Where do the characters say just what they need to? What settings add heft and bedrock to the action, or transcendent beauty?

That is where your style is hiding. Read those passages again and again. Zero in on what makes them tick; why they are so successful. Then, slowly, carefully, begin to put those discoveries to use in other places. The more you do it, the easier it gets. And eventually you find your style, a distillation of your very best writing, enriching every page.

Let me make one thing clear…

Style isn’t about following rules, despite what I said about competence earlier. We have all read things that were grammatically correct and well-structured, but still left us cold. The warmth in writing comes from our ability to know when to break a convention in order to add impact. It takes time, and the patience to write and read many, many thousands of words. There is no substitute for the hard work involved. But the moment we realize that we have written something that is recognizably ours and ours alone, can be very rewarding.

So–how and when did you discover your own style?  Do you think style should be dictated by genre, ie hard boiled for mystery, flowery for romance?  Are there any authors whose style you particularly admire?  Is your style evolving and if so, in which direction?

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will discuss these questions and more during our Live Discussion on Thursday, December 4th at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there! (A reminder: to participate, you need to be a member of gather, but it’s free. And to see the discussion, you will have to keep refreshing the page. It’s not like IM.)

On Writing: Finding Your Style

Most books on writing I’ve read talk about developing a syle, but recently I came across the remark that “style happens.” If style is simply the way you write, how does it come about? In my case, I don’t try for a specific style, such as gritty or sentimental, flamboyant or minimal, sassy or grim or lyrical. Whatever style I have does not even come when I write, but when I edit. In paring away all the excess, I end up with a matter-of-fact style (or so I’ve been told).

I recently entered a contest to rewrite the first 263 words of The DaVinci Code. Dan Brown has a melodramatic style, one that sublimates good writing for effect. (For example, it is a physical impossibility to freeze and turn one’s head at the same time.) In editing his words, I changed the style, but not the basic meaning of the piece.

Here are Brown’s words:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Carravagio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-three-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

As he anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring.

The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive. He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide.

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils. The albino drew a pistol from his coat and aimed the long silencer through the bars, directly at the curator. “You should not have run.” His accent was not easy to place. “Now tell me where it is.”

“I told you already,” the curator stammered, kneeling defenseless on the floor of the gallery. “I have no idea what you are talking about!”

“You are lying.” The man stared at him, perfectly immobile except for the glint in his ghostly eyes. “You and your brethren possess something that is not yours.”

Here is my edit:

Jaques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the Louvre’s Grand Gallery, lunged for the Carravagio, and tore it from the wall. He collapsed under the weight.

Fifteen feet away, an iron gate dropped with a thud, barricading the entrance of the suite.

Sauniere lay still, struggling to breathe. The sacrifice of the Carravagio gave him a moment’s safety. But he needed to hide.

He inched from beneath the canvas.

“Do not move.”

He froze. That accented voice was unmistakable. How did the albino find him so quickly?

“Where is it?” the albino demanded.

Sauniere turned toward the hulk on the other side of the gate. His gaze shifted from the silenced pistol in the man’s huge hand to the pink eyes with the dark red pupils. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You and your brethren are in possession of something that does not belong to you. I want it.”