Monday, July 30, 2012
Some of the eleven tips in this essay by Colson Whitehead from last Sunday's book review section are directed at budding novelists (like how to find a suitable topic and ways to break through writer's block) but at least two of them apply directly to lawyers and those who aspire to be. Nothing here you didn't already know but you might still find it worthwhile to pass this link along to your new students this fall.
The art of writing can be reduced to a few simple rules. I share them with you now.
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Rule No. 4: Never use three words when one will do. Be concise. Don’t fall in love with the gentle trilling of your mellifluous sentences. Learn how to “kill your darlings,” as they say. I’m reminded of the famous editor-author interaction between Gordon Lish and Ray Carver when they were working on Carver’s celebrated short story “Those Life Preservers Are Just for Show,” often considered the high-water mark of so-called dirty realism. You’ll recall the climax, when two drunken fishermen try to calm each other after their dinghy springs a leak. In the original last lines of the story, Nat, the salty old part-time insurance agent, reassures his young charge as they cling to the beer cooler: “We’ll get help when we hit land. I’m sure of it. No more big waves, no more sharks. We’ll be safe once again. We’ll be home.” If you examine the Lish papers in the Lilly Library at Indiana University, you’ll see how, with but a few deft strokes, Lish pared that down to create the now legendary ending: “Help — land shark!” It wasn’t what Carver intended, but few could argue that it was not shorter. Learn to kill your darlings, and don’t be shy about softening them up in the hostage pit for a few days before you do.
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Rule No. 10: Revise, revise, revise. I cannot stress this enough. Revision is when you do what you should have done the first time, but didn’t. It’s like washing the dishes two days later instead of right after you finish eating. Get that draft counter going. Remove a comma and then print out another copy — that’s another draft right there. Do this enough times and you can really get those numbers up, which will come in handy if someone challenges you to a draft-off. When the ref blows the whistle and your opponent goes, “26 drafts!,” you’ll bust out with “216!” and send ’em to the mat.