Beating a Dead Horse (Or Good Prose Writing) by Matthew Maichen

I want to address something that, in hindsight, should have been brought up before. We’ve posted a few editorials about the process of writing, but it occurs to me that I’ve never stated what, to me, makes writing great.

Everything in the following post is my opinion. Not that I’m going to say anything controversial or even all that original. These are things I’ve learned from other very talented people. Great writers.

I’m bringing this up now because we, at The Metaworker, have rejected a lot of people. People I know; people I like. It doesn’t feel good to do this. If I had my choice, everyone’s work would reach, stir, and move us as intended. Writing would be so much easier, reading so much more rewarding.

But that’s not the way it is. Hopefully, this will give you a better idea of what we’re looking for.

In writing prose there are two major factors: Brevity and Clarity. Whatever other concern you might have, whether it’s sound, or diction, or anything else, it just isn’t as essential. Any effective piece of writing could be likened to a window into a world, or at least a scene. If you’ll indulge me, all those other factors would be the window dressing. Sure, they make it pretty, but your capability to be brief and clear is what makes the window itself.

The more important of the two is probably clarity, in my opinion. But it’s up to you whether you think of good writing as “clear while being brief” or “brief while being clear.” (Those are two different things. Remember we’re writers, the placement of words counts.) You need to give me an image, a strong one. “Show, don’t tell” is a golden rule, if a poorly worded one. I mean, we’re using words here. All you can do is “Tell.” A better way to think of “Show don’t tell” is: “Tell me the details.”

If a horse is lying dead in the road, tell what it smells like. Tell me where its wounds are. Give me the goop leaking from its eyes, the sound of the buzzing of flies. Sometimes, it helps to close your eyes and imagine the last time you were scared or grossed out. What did it feel like, and how would you have described it? Give me that human perspective. Show me people’s averted eyes as they walk past, trying to ignore it because everyone else is. Don’t look at it. They think, as their stomachs rise, as their throats curl and catch. No one else is. Just don’t look at it.

Why are people ignoring the horse? Why is everyone walking past it as it sits there, rotting? There you go. We’ve already got a story on our hands, one with a hook. People so often see description as contrary to storytelling. This is because, for a lot of writers, it is. Bad writers describe everything, even the things that don’t matter. But when you give me a few key details, among them the townspeople’s gazes avoiding the dead horse, you are giving me a story. Discerning what gives me that story, and what stands in its way, is where brevity starts to come in.

I edited this article at least twice. Each time, I chopped up gorgeous sentences. I removed words that fit beautifully. To the reader, they just would have slowed the pace. Imagine long-winded writing as a movie. People check their watches, and when they look back up it hasn’t even  progressed without their attention. They need to continue reading every agonizing word. And make no mistake: words that go outside the scope of what’s needed are agonizing for the reader. To keep themselves sane, they’ll skip them. The worst part is that they can. If your reader can actually skip a paragraph and not miss out on something, you have failed. You don’t gain anything through lengthy description, anyway. Your reader forms a mental image faster than you can sculpt it, and they’re stubborn to change their idea of a brown horse if it takes you a paragraph to tell them that it’s black. You may as well leave the color up to them. What’s important about the horse is that it’s dead. Of course, you can use the color to give the image an initial innocence that makes it all the more shocking: “A black mare lay in the middle of the street, dead and reeking.” Sentences like these are why adjectives are great.

Brevity and Clarity are in constant conflict. Your in-depth description isn’t brief. Your one-sentence explanation of: “There was a dead horse.” is not clear. Dealing with this conflict is hard, so here are a few pointers: speed things up and strengthen them with active voice. “Dana ran” is much better than “Dana was running.” Avoid adverbs. If Dana ran, we know she ran “quickly.” Adding an extra word slows it down. Unless you’re writing dialogue, cut out every instance of “very” or “really,” they say nothing.

But this is all just general composition. There’s more to it, of course, but there are entire books written about this subject.* And there’s one other issue I want to address: conception.

You need ideas. Not always big ones. Excellent stories have been written off of small ideas. But those small ideas meant something. (Or gave the impression that they meant something. Let’s be honest, art is kinda bullshit.) These ideas become poignant based on how you look at life, the world, and experiences; your own experiences as well as the ones you create. Writers are thinkers. They’re people who see the hidden strings, the symbolic logic behind why things work the way they do. Does this sound crazy? Good, because writers are also prone to insanity. And depression. And addiction. It’s not an easy life we choose for ourselves. It’s not practical and it really doesn’t pay the bills and in the end most people don’t enjoy it as much as a pretty picture.

Does that frustrate you? Good. But don’t settle for that frustation. Turn it into inspiration by digging into it. What’s the core of this thing you’re mad at? Ignorant publishing houses? An illiterate public? My pretentious blather, coming from the mouth of someone who ironically doesn’t appreciate your work? (Fuck you, Matthew. You’ve only ever published yourself. You have no right to say any of this.) Don’t just be mad at them, understand them. Know why they do what they do. Know what’s at the core of your hatred, as well as what’s at the core of your love. The angrier, the sadder, the scarier it is, the more you need to understand it. Because your emotions are warranted. There’s something important there. Something you need to grasp, and the less you want to do it, the more you need to. Being comfortable is useless, even if you intend on writing something comforting. Even comedians humiliate themselves.

Wrap the scope of your mind around that thing that makes you angry, or sad, or even (if you’re really good) happy. See it from every angle. Understand it like no one else does. Then you’ll be ready to write about it.

Which means it needs to be deep and meaningful from the first draft, right? No, actually. Here’s the trick, and it applies to everything above (even the super deep stuff that readers will see as being at the ‘core’ of your story): it probably won’t be there at first. I’m not sure if it’ll be there the second time. Some of my stories still aren’t there after four full rewrites, at which point I might give up because I’m not superhuman.  Every time I do that, though, I do it knowing that if I gave the piece more time, if I was willing to add or subtract elements (even ‘essential’ elements), it could become something beautiful. Oh well.

There are innumerable other aspects of great writing, of course. I’m not a Creative Writing professor. There’s only so much I know how to articulate, and writing is one of the hardest skills you can possibly learn. After twenty years doing it, this is the best I can say. I started early. I know that. Some people start writing in their teens, some don’t start writing until they enter college. We all begin at different times, and there are no prodigies. There is only time and work. That, to me, is empowering. Nothing matters more than the effort you pour into it. So work for it. It’s just that simple.

I believe in you. Because you’ve sworn to yourself that you’ll make words beautiful. So make words beautiful with me.

*The books I’d recommend off the top of my head are The Elements of Style, for general composition, but also Stephen King’s On Writing, which was essentially my first Creative Writing teacher and is great if you want to go into novels. As long as I’m recommending books: Jesus’s Son is the perfect example of everything I’m talking about. Creative Writing Professors love to assign it, but if yours never did, read it now.

When Matthew Maichen isn’t writing about sad things and women, he’s ranting.

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