Secrets of good writing: ‘if you want a lion don’t end up with a donkey’

Mythical animalsWhen they asked one of the great Italian sculptors to share his artistic secret, he replied:

‘How do I sculpt? Well, it is very easy, really: I get a block of marble and get rid of everything that doesn’t look like a lion.’

This is pretty much how it works with good writing as well, with one important difference: writers generate their own marble. If it is a lion we want to end up with, its carving permeates both content and form. But let me explain.

Good texts have a clear message

I believe that good texts have a clear message irrespective of whether these are fiction, media, academic or essay writing. You can test this if you don’t believe me:

Thinking about the novels you’ve read in the past, can you summarise their core idea in one sentence?

Think about the novels you enjoyed and remember, and you may notice that these have been condensed in your mind into a sentence or two. For instance, you may not remember Catch 22 in detail but you would recall its main message: war is pointless to an absurdity. One of the masters of this kind of writing is Ursula Le Guin. Interestingly, I am unable to do recall the message of 50 Shades books (and no, it’s not because I am a prude).

This is true across the whole range of writing styles from student essays and blogging to high fiction and scholarly books: the great ones have a clear message.

To have a clear massage, these texts are organised around a clear idea.

            Common problems

  • The idea is unclear. This is self explanatory and easy to catch. If you find that you are not exactly sure what you are writing about and what your position on the matter is, you better work a bit more on deciding what is your animal.
  • The idea makes no sense. Ideas don’t make sense not only and simply because they are wrong. Sometimes ideas don’t make sense because they are far removed from all that your readers know, and feel comfortable with, and they can’t place it in context. Depending on what you are writing the specific solutions to this are different; but the general rule is to keep your animal consistent and provide more detail. If you decide that your animal is a donkey, don’t give your reader a mixture of donkey, horse and zebra; it is confusing.
  • Mixing ‘clear’ and ‘simple’. Remember I said ‘clear idea’ not ‘simple idea’. While in principle there is nothing much wrong with simple ideas these carry a risk of being boring and over-used. Give your readers a challenge!
  • More than one ideas. This is a very common mistake writers make: they pack their texts with ideas. This is particularly wide-spread amongst academics but examples can be found elsewhere as well (including in blog posts). Good texts are about one or two animals; please don’t give your readers a whole menagerie. It is not only your readers that may get confused (and stop reading) but you will find it hard to write as well.

             The test

There is a simple test I use to check whether I have ‘carved my lion’; in other words, whether I have worked out a central idea that is both clear and makes sense.

  • If I feel excited and the words flow off my fingers I know that my animal has taken shape;
  • if I have a feeling of unease while writing, I go back to planning my text.

Try it: it works.

            Tricks of the trade

I have found the following to be useful when shaping the core idea of my writing:

  • Brainstorm a number of ideas;
  • Start developing further the most promising ones (yes, you know);
  • Work on the idea(s) before starting to write; to do this I use mind-mapping but any other tool that keeps it all on one page will do;
  • Choose one idea;
  • Start writing messy text;
  • Mind map this text and specify further;
  • Repeat cycle of writing messy text and mind-mapping it till idea has taken shape.
  • Now you are ready to create!

Less is better

There was a time when ‘however’ was one of the parasite words that kept sneaking into my texts. When I finished the first full draft of my PhD it was over the word limit. All it took to get back within it was to get rid of all un-necessary ‘however’-s.

That is when I learned an important lesson: even the best shaped idea (argument) can be lost in a text that is not focused and parsimonious. In good writing less is almost always better; to carve a lion you need to chip off everything that doesn’t distract from it. Failing this, your carefully crafted idea (message) will be lost.

For me, writing an article for Science was the real boot camp in ‘less is better’: I am a sociologist, you see. Sociologists are wordy and putting forward a coherent argument in 2,000 words was a real challenge. How did I do it?

  • Started with about 12,000 words;
  • Re-wrote the articles about ten times;
  • Every re-write included: re-phrasing and cutting out the unnecessary.
  • Worked closely with wonderful and highly professional editors;
  • Finally the toss was down to a single word: I decided to drop it.

Following this secret of good writing my texts have improved considerably; that writing has become an exciting pleasure is a bonus.

Would you like to try?

photo credit: KANDYAN ART ASSOCIATION via photopin cc

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