Thoughts. Words. Action.

3 Simple Maxims of Writing

In his article in the NY Times, Ben Yagoda reminds us of three maxims of writing.

  1. Kill your darlings
  2. Show, don’t tell
  3. Write what you know

All three of these deceptively simple adages are known, maybe even understood, at varying levels by every writer.  But living them is quite another thing.

Being ruthless on your own creation is not a skill that comes easily.  Yet it is even more necessary in writing than if you are creating a painting.  You can more easily justify the forms and colors in a painting by telling yourself ‘I am making this for myself.  I don’t care if anyone else likes it or not.’  However, when you put pen to the paper (or fingers to the keyboard), it is rarely for your own gratification.  Whether you admit it to yourself or not, the real desire is to have others read your words and be moved by them.  To do that, you must excise every unnecessary word from your creation.  And if you cannot do it, hire a good developmental editor to do it for you.

Making the reader share the image the writer has in his or her mind is even more difficult.  It is easier to describe the scenario is excruciating detail.  But doing it in a way that protects it from becoming a mechanical description is where the art of writing comes into play.  Giving the reader just enough… bringing the reader along to be in the same place, real or conjured, as the writer, while allowing the reader to experience it through their own senses, biases and backgrounds…well, that is the magic.

The third one is tricky.  Certainly, while the writing is much more powerful if you intimately know what you are writing about, I do not think it is always necessary to have lived through something to write effectively about it.  I would like to think that meticulous research and an active imagination can come pretty close to living through something.  It is not a substitute for the experience, but it can be pretty close.  What I do agree with is that, however you do it, you must know what you are writing about.

Try following these tenets next time you write.  You will see the difference.

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