Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The secret to good writing is exude confidence, keep the beat and remember your audience

Here's an interesting Op-Ed from the New York Times in which novelist Michael Cunningham discusses the way in which translating his books into a foreign language changes their meaning.  What's especially interesting to readers of this blog are the lessons he draws about the ingredients of compelling fiction writing (and don't the same observations generally hold true for good brief writing?). 

To make his point, Mr. Cunningham analyzes one of the most famous lines in literature - "Call me Ishmael" - and asks why does that work so well?  The answer is "confidence."

Three simple words. What’s the big deal?

For one thing, they possess that most fundamental but elusive of all writerly qualities: authority. As writers we must, from our very opening sentence, speak with authority to our readers.

It’s a little like waltzing with a new partner for the first time. Anyone who is able to waltz, or fox-trot, or tango, or perform any sort of dance that requires physical contact with a responsive partner, knows that there is a first moment, on the dance floor, when you assess, automatically, whether the new partner in question can dance at all — and if he or she can in fact dance, how well. You know almost instantly whether you have a novice on your hands, and that if you do, you’ll have to do a fair amount of work just to keep things moving.

But confidence, by itself, isn't enough.  As Mr. Cunningham says, opening with "Idiot, read this!" may command one's momentary attention, but is certainly not effective beyond that.  Instead, sentences have to have "rhythm and cadence, they should engage and delight the inner ear."  But keeping a good beat still won't help you if you're not focused exclusively on the needs of the reader, rather than one's own. 

I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to [the reader]. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. I’d seen, rather suddenly, that writing is not only an exercise in self-expression, it is also, more important, a gift we as writers are trying to give to readers. . . . It also helped me to realize that the reader represents the final step in a book’s life of translation.

Keep your writing direct and authoritative, always focus on your reader, and keep a good beat.  Simply, right?

You can read the full Op-Ed here.


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