What Are You Trying to Say?

“Write what you know.” It’s a cliche, but — as another cliche reminds us — cliches become thus because they are true.

Everything I’ve written started in something I knew fairly well. It’s just easier.  There’s less research required, which offers more time to chew over the perfect words, phrases, tone, structure.

But almost nothing I’ve ever written adhered very rigidly to this philosophy. I wrote a novel about a girl who takes a train from Los Angeles to New Orleans. I’ve taken most of that train ride (I ditched at Dallas,) and I’ve been to most of the cities in between. All well and good. On the other hand, I didn’t know much about this girl when I made her my main character. I knew even less about the other characters. I had to learn what they did for a living, and then I had to learn what those jobs required a person to do all day.

The book I’m flogging now required me to spend more than a couple hours chasing down information about genetics and DNA study.  And about farming. And about high school football.

Part of the fun in writing is in the learning. Craftsmanship and pride of work well done is a big part of it, certainly, but how do you hone a skill? By learning more, by looking at how other people do it, by reading how they write about things. When I’m doing research on a topic, I don’t just read for information, ‘m also looking at how the writer chose to convey the information and the words they use. I’m judging them, harshly. I’m thinking, “oh, I hate them for doing that so well. Why can’t I do things that well?” and I’m thinking, “Jayzus, I would be too embarrassed to put my name on such a piece of dreck, why wasn’t this writer?”

I’m not a nice person when I’m reading. I suppose it could be argued I’m not a nice person at other times either, but my internal running monolog is especially cruel about the written word. But I figure it’s a draw, because I expect — nay, have witnessed — the same harsh reaction to my own scribbling.

Of course, there’s more to the job than knowing what you write. How you write is every bit as important.  Working in a newsroom can (ahem — should, sometimes actually does) provide valuable insight on this issue. Are you trying to tell a story? Or just share information? Do you really need a thousand words about an upcoming bake sale? Or will a simple “time-date-location” suffice? Part of it is knowing what you want to say, part of it is knowing what your reader needs to know/wants to hear.  It’s a tightrope act to do this well. You need a good blend of arrogance (“I am telling you exactly what you need to know!”) and humility (“120,000 words on the confluence of cooking and car repair? Who the hell cares about any of this?”)

Even if you are the rare human being who can pull that off, you still need a great editor.  One who judges your writing. Harshly.  One who knows what you are trying to say and helps you find the best possible way to say it.

Everyone needs an editor. (Because, you know,  I had to close out this post with one more cliche.)


About arwenbicknell

Editor by day, author by night.
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