“You write well because you think well,” my writing professor told me.
To me, the two key pieces of good writing are thought and voice. One is the bones, the structure, the construction, and the other is the flesh, the flow, the poetry.
The act of writing demands thought. To take what we have inside and transform it into symbol always requires running it trough our brain. Saying things out loud can focus on voice, on the very human act of hearing tones and rhythms, responding to sound and expression, but when the heat is taken out by putting it into cold text, thought becomes exposed.
The art of writing demands voice. So much of what we communicate is between the words, revealed in the characteristic twists and turns of expression. It is the voice that pulls us along, the voice that draws us in, the voice that gives body to the bare thoughts. Dry, legalistic and clinical writing has a place, but it has little power to engage and move us.
The requirement to care about both thought and voice, about both substance and style, about both plot and poetry keeps tension in writing. When we try and write quickly, galloping to get our story down, one or the other tends to drop away.
For me, writing is about detail. I believe that I take the reader with me one sentence, one paragraph at a time. If I lose them there is no guarantee that they will care enough, have enough attention and desire to catch up with me later. I know that I live in an age of short attention spans where there is always another distraction ready to jump to, not a time when someone committed to a book, long sentences, twisty paragraphs and all.
I would love readers to understand my context, to bear with me, to have a deep understanding of my world so they can get out all of what I put in my writing, the connections and the references. I just don’t think that is a reasonable ask nowadays. I know, for example, why TV shows can get better as they age and viewers have a deeper awareness of the history of the characters, but that is a luxury most of us don’t have.
Attention to detail is the reason that writing is rewriting. Throwing out your darlings to simplify structure or to sharpen voice is the way you make your writing better, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. The more clearly you hear the voices the more clearly you can capture them, the depth of knowledge showing not just in the text but also in the subtext, not just in the substance but also in the style. Making too much explicit takes away the power of reader engagement.
Finding ways to talk to writers about their work is always hard. Most people know what they want to say and get frustrated when others just don’t understand. Rather than revelling in the act of creation they want to have created, getting their content down and moving on.
Asking people to think more clearly or to go more deeply into the voices beyond the conventional is hard stuff. It takes deep practice rooted in deep commitment, the kind of focus that demands precision in the details.
Getting more skilled at thought and at voice is at the heart of writing well, at least to me. Getting clear enough to think well and fluid enough to express well often seem like contradictory challenges, but together, they help us share what we know of the world.