Thursday, November 13, 2014

Strike It Out

I have been out of the loop lately, largely because I have recently become an "empty-nester". After twenty three years of having children in the house all hours of the day and night, my wife and I now find ourselves in the strange position of being back were we started during our courtship and the first years of our marriage. We still speak to our children every day (mostly by Skype because they are both overseas) but it's not the same.

Having so much extra free time has lead to a certain amount of retrospection, especially in regard to our success or failure in the parenting department. Were we too strict? Were we not strict enough? Did we give enough guidance? Did we give too much guidance? At the end of the day, all we can do is trust that God is in control and know that we have done the best we can.

One thing that I have noticed during my chats with my children is that they now recount things to me that they have discovered about life in the big world that I clearly remember telling them, often many times. Back then they did not seem to take my fatherly advice on board. Later, having experienced it for themselves, they get what I was trying to say. Some things, it seems, can only be learned by experience.

And so it is with me and my writing. There is an awful lot of advice out there for writers. Sometimes it seems that people spend more time writing about writing than actually writing (just as I am doing now, for example). I do appreciate this advice, however, because, let's face it, I need all the guidance I can get, but sometimes the nugget of wisdom goes over my head. Like my kids, I need to experience some things before I get them.

These gentle "eureka" moments can happen when I am editing one of my manuscripts, but it is usually when I am reading something by a best selling author who really should know better. It's at times like this that I want to contact the author and tell them what they are doing wrong. It's not a judgmental thing. I'm well aware of the multitude of planks in my own eyes. Rather, I feel the need to help the author not make the same mistakes I have been making for so long.

One particular piece of advice that has become clearer to me over the years, I honestly did not understand it when I first read it. Now it makes perfect sense and I do try to follow it at all times. Sometimes I need the help of an unbiased reader to point it out but generally I manage to spot it myself. What is the mistake? Well, rather than explain let me give you the snippet of advice given by a college tutor, as quoted by Samuel Johnson:

'Read over your compositions and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'

When I first read this my response was: "Okay, but why on Earth would I want to remove good writing?" If you are not sure what this means then there is a simple test. Have you ever written something (a sentence or a paragraph) that you immediately wanted to show someone? Or, from a different perspective: have you ever succumbed to an invitation on a social website to post a favourite piece of your own writing? If so, then you need to take heed of this advice.

One thing I have noticed with my own work is that my beta readers seldom comment on my favourite passages. Usually, they remark on a piece of text that I considered normal or even dull. I may hover around them, waiting for them to get to the "good" bit, and watch with some dismay as they read past it without a flicker of emotion. Horror of horrors, they may even suggest deleting that particular line.

So what did the college tutor mean, and why is it so important? For me, the best analogy would have to be animated film. According to a Pixar producer, their goal is to make the animation of a standard where the audience forgets that they are watching an animation. The aim is to tell the story. Everything else is there to support this. If the audience is distracted by the animation (because it is not good enough, or even too good) then they have failed. It's the same with the script, music, and acting. Anything that distracts the audience's attention from the story is bad.

Writing is exactly the same. As an author, our job is to tell a story. The reader should forget that we are even there. Bad writing full of typos and grammatical errors, or with a distracting voice, will pull the reader out of your story, as will writing that is overly florid. If the writing is too bad or too good, then the reader will be distracted and we have failed. But how can something be too good? To go back to the Pixar example: there was a point in one film where the animators created a character that was too life-like. They actually had to lower the standard a little because this character stood out from the rest and was distracting.

When we write a scene, we have to be careful of creating something that is (at least in our eyes) "particularly fine" just as much as we have to eradicate poor writing. While listening to the best selling novel these past few days, there were times where the prose really distracted me. It was usually a description or metaphor which, had it appeared in a poem or on the book's cover, might have been suitable. The problem was that I could almost feel the author hovering around me, waiting for me to get to that bit so that she could enjoy my reaction to her brilliance. They were all wonderfully descriptive turns of phrase to be sure, but they stood out like a sumo wrestler at a ballet. There is a time and place for sumo, but a ballet is not one of them.

So the next time you write a line that you want to show someone, or post on Facebook, take a deep breath, read it again, and seriously consider hitting that backspace button. Save it somewhere if you have to, but chances are it does not belong in your novel and you should "strike it out".


  1. Excellent advice. Keeping the reader immersed in the story is the goal, not showing off our "great" writing. I've had to cut sentences for that very reason.

  2. Paul, I agree, story always rules. We need editors and beta readers to pick up the sentences and phrases that will distract readers and pull them out of the story.

  3. Such a thoughtful post, Paul--thanks so much. And yes, I get what you are saying--although I'm not sure, even after writing eight books, that I would have the heart to carry it out completely! Hmm. Still lots to learn.