Monday, 7 October 2013

5 questions to ask for your writing style

In my Dead Good Poets Radio interview, Ashley Lister asked me what I thought were the five most important things a writer should consider when putting pen to paper.
The difference between “putting pen to paper” and reworking one’s writing is very important, but increasingly I use in my first drafts some of what I do when I revisit work. Because we were talking about poetry, the principles here are more about writing style than about story architecture. I also dislike set rules in writing, so instead I offered five questions I pose when I’m writing.

1. Do I want to read this?
I want to make sure that I’ m not writing something so esoteric and experimental that I wouldn’t enjoy it myself.

2. Is it staying tangible?
I want to keep my writing from surfing away into abstracts.  One of the greatest writing practices that I did was to write an entire short story specifically for an illusrator, which meant every paragraph had to include a new, interesting visual. That kept the story active and tangible – and it went on to win the BFS Short Story competition in 2012.

3. Can I cut the language back and make it bolder?
Originally this was something I’d ask more in editing my work than in writing, but as I progress as a writer, more of this happens in the writing. (That said, if it becomes inhibiting, I just write freely, knowing I can edit later.)

4. Does this phrase surprise me or have I seen it before?
If I spot a cliché, it goes. Even collocations are suspect. Fixed collocations (you do homework, you don’t make homework) are necessary, but tried and tested collocations go. That said, I love playing around with clichés and set phrases deliberately, tweaking them to invent new ones that fit a story’s world better or consciously using a cliché and giving it an entirely different etymology.

5. Am I having fun? OR Is this as honest and true as I can make it?
This is two questions because it depends on the nature of what I’m writing. I do believe that writing should be fun, and even when the subject matter’s difficult or painful, that can have its own aesthetic pleasure. It doesn’t necessarily show if you hated writing something (one of my favourite short stories was written with my head halfway through the computer screen in despair) but these are my values of the place writing holds in my life.

Feel free to add any touchstone questions you use in your own writing


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