Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Let's be clear

A writing coach at my university once said that clear thinking and clear writing go hand-in-hand. That advice popped into my head today when I saw Nathan Bransford's post referencing an article in The Atlantic about a floundering school trying to boost students' performance by teaching writing.

Not surprisingly, the school's administrators found that teaching students to write in a clear, analytical manner improved their scores across subjects. It seems that there's a relationship between learning information well and knowing how to communicate it to someone else in a logical, succinct fashion.

This brought me to two problems fiction writers often face when we try to translate the jumble of images and events in our minds into something that's interesting for other people to read.
  • We don't have a clear, concise idea of what our work is about. I dread the question, "What's your book about?" It brings a cold sweat to my palms and a spew of banalities to my lips. What should be a one- or two-sentence summary stretches into a post-apocalyptic wasteland of subplot, backstory, and nervous stammering as I realize that I've already gone on way too long. Nobody wants to hear this. Even I've lost track of what I'm saying.

    Have you ever heard the saying that you know your subject really well when you can explain it to a first-grader? It's kind of the same thing here. Summarizing a 90,000-word novel in 50 words is critical when it comes to querying, pitching, and marketing your work, and it's also a good litmus test for whether your novel contains a cohesive plot or a nebula of marginally-related events.

    Thinking clearly about my plot and characters helps me dodge plot holes and inconsistencies when I'm writing, and it guides me towards a stronger, more focused story when I'm revising. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much for stage fright.
  • We don't show readers why they should care. Someone somewhere said something famous about the best book being the one that's still in your head (hit up the comments if you remember the full quote). It's true, and not in the least because we know why our characters, setting, and plot are interesting. It gets tough when we have to convince someone else.

    A writer who's thinking clearly knows that there's nothing compelling about Mary Sue going through her morning routine. She also knows that a series of mysterious occurrences is boring unless it leads to the possibility of something horrible. Thinking clearly means seeing your work through the eyes of your readers, and that means raising the stakes enough to make them care.

    The best persuasive essays don't begin by explaining a problem (or its solution), but by clarifying why that problem is relevant. Thinking about my writing this way helps me structure the story and cut the fluff.

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