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I hope you are keeping to your writing schedule now that it’s winter in the northern hemisphere and the end-of-the-year madness is in full swing – wait; you don’t have writing schedule? Oy!
Writers need to write.
It’s always best to write first thing in the morning, right after breakfast. That said, some people prefer the afternoons or evenings, so do what’s best for you. Regularity (the same time every day) and consistency (6 days a week) is what you’re aiming for.
How to create a realistic writing schedule
Start with 5 or 10 minutes, and work your way up to 15 or 20, then half an hour, then 45 minutes, etc. Find the right amount of daily writing that is comfortable for you and stick with it.
If you have no current project (called a WIP – work in progress), you could follow the Method Writing regimen, or simply write whatever comes into your head. Some writers do this even if they have a WIP, as it gets the creative juices flowing and frees their mind for concentrating on whatever project they’re currently working on.
Other writers prefer to write a certain number of words per day, and that’s fine, too. I’ve just written a bit more than 200 words, so you can see how small of a commitment that is. Start there, and work your way up, week by week, to 1,000 words a day or more. You will get faster as you go along.
If you’re currently working on a specific writing project, spend a bit of time at the end of each daily session outlining what you want to write about the next day. If you’re doing Method Writing, choose a topic for tomorrow. This way, you’ll be ready to spend your entire session writing and not trying to figure out what to write about.
For those of you who don’t know what to write about, I have an ebook with 144 prompts, so that should keep you busy for a while. You can get it here.
Overstatement, understatement, and plain speaking
Honestly, I wasn’t that impressed with the cutesy language Clark sometimes used in the article (not only when he was demonstrating overstatement), and neither is Poynter to my taste. (And there was one egregious error in the essay. See if you can find it, and email me your answer.)
However, the article introduced me to Charles Edward Montague, British author, editor, and veteran of World War I. Montague wrote an essay called “Three Ways of Saying Things: Statement, Overstatement and Understatement,” and that essay is Clark’s jumping off point. As Clark says:
Know when to back off and when to show off.” To back off, especially when a message is inherently dramatic, may require a form of understatement. Permission to show off comes when the subject is quirky or surprising, inviting the writer to do a little dance…
Exaggeration vs. euphemism
Montague is a better writer than Clark, and the examples Clark includes from Montague’s writing are tight and descriptive. Montague Shows more than Tells; the excerpt about Word War I is incredibly visual. I also like what Montague has to say about overstatement. His analogies and clever use of words are worth reading the article for. Here’s one bit:
Almost every leader of an opposition, however talented, says of almost every big government bill which he has to oppose, that it is the most monstrous hash of crude and undigested proposals that he remembers in a long parliamentary experience….Nobody, speaker or hearer, thinks of believing these flourishes….It is all a form, a flourish, a figure of speech, and yet somehow it does serve a purpose, if only to convey a vague impression of robust and salutary trenchancy.
Other than for politics, why else do we have such a desire to be dramatic with overstatement and ironic with understatement (e.g., calling the Atlantic Ocean “the pond”)? Clark summarizes: “The overstater and the understater seem to crave more attention to an idea or bit of news than the item may deserve.”
What we can learn from this
Two lessons can be drawn from the article:
- Be more discriminate in deciding whether a fact or statement is worthy of extra attention
- Don’t be cute
Deliver the truth directly. This doesn’t mean you have to be boring and always use “to be” words and Tell, like, “World War I was a terrible war. There was a lot of mud and vermin in the trenches.” Use visual, industrial-strength words. Raise the bar on your verb choice. And for an amazing, one-paragraph description of what it was like in the trenches of World War I, read the article.
What I’m reading
These past two weeks I’ve read a bit of trash and also finished Warriors Don’t Cry, which I wrote about in my two previous emails. I didn’t love the book from a technical perspective, but the story is fascinating. I recommend the book, but not only because of the story. It’s also instructive to read books whose writing you don’t always enjoy, as it helps you be more discriminate in evaluating writing styles and abilities. And it’s helpful to learn to separate story from style.
I’ve just finished Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog. Wow; talk about good writing. She’s brilliant, but not for the fainthearted. Her plots are always quirky, and there’s “language,” so not everyone will like her. I hated the whole plot/theme of another book of hers, Life after Life, which I mentioned on my blog a few years ago, but the writing was so good that I ended up finishing the book anyhow. Life after Life is a good example of separating style from story.
I’m now in the middle of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which is a classic detective novel. It was first published in 1929, and the writing is top-notch. Here’s a book that’s super well-written, even though it’s written in stylized, “tough guy” language. Hammett’s word choice is outstanding and the dialogue characterizes each speaker. The protagonist is so Humphrey Bogart; in fact that’s who played him in the 1941 movie.
The interesting thing about The Maltese Falcon is that it has all the “sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll” stuff that we’ve unfortunately come to expect in 99 percent of modern thrillers, but Hammett does it subtly and modestly. There are few, if no, gratuitous elements of any kind in this book.
Here’s how Hammett describes one of the bad guys using a popular insult on the protagonist:
The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second, “you.”
Is that totally brilliant or what? Talk about finesse and elegance!
Maintaining an uneven balance between overstatement, understatement, and just plain statement is one of the keys to lively, elegant, and tight writing. And this boils down to knowing how to use description effectively. Charles Edward Montague understood this; Charlotte Bronte and Kate Atkinson, among many other classic and modern writers, did too. Description is a prerequisite of good writing.
Soon I’ll be launching the completely redone, alpha version of my course, “Wake Up Your Prose: Description Unpacked.” Keep your eye on my emails, or sign up here to be the first to hear about it.