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STYLE as Substance (Part Two)

A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare. For the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought; as if we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning or evening without their colors, or the heavens without their azure. - Henry David Thoreau (1817–62), U.S. philosopher, author, naturalist.

IN my last blog, I started on this topic of “Style.” I have four more points. (If you want Part One of this, click here.)

5) There is no bad first draft. As Virginia Woolf suggested, rhythm and style are partly mysterious. No matter how much I deconstruct the elements of writing, there will be a part I’ll never get to, what I call the phlogiston. In Shakespeare’s day, chemists theorized that something mysterious left burning logs and other organic things in combustion. They called this puzzling thing “phlogiston” (pronounced “flow-jist-on”). I use the word as the mysterious element that goes into creativity. You tend to get it, much like oxygen combines with elements in burning, when you write “organically,” which is to say when you are inspired and you write what’s in your gut without pausing to make sure you have all the other elements. Save your analysis for after you write a first draft.

I’m not dismissing analysis, because judging your own work is important. In fact, what separates good or great writers from mediocre ones is the ability to judge one’s own work. While your first draft may have the phlogiston, you may have jumped over points, sacrificing clarity, for instance, or you may have misspelled words or used poor grammar or rambled on when you could be more concise. And so much more. So you rewrite to polish your first draft.

6) Rewriting is a natural part of writing. You’d be surprised how many people feel “stupid” because they don’t write perfect first drafts. Hemingway didn’t write perfect first drafts. He spent revision after revision distilling his writing until it looked so simple, as if it flowed from him in one nonstop vision. Most writers, large and small, are the same. Rewriting is my favorite part of writing because I find and throw out the stupid stuff and replace it with something better (most of the time). I am able to concentrate on each sentence and paragraph. In a first draft, I don’t spend the time analyzing as I go. I allow myself to try new things—some of which may be dumb, others of which may be inspired.

7) Inspiration comes from perspiration. When I bring up inspiration, I don’t mean you should wait for mystery (“the muse”) to grab your soul and then run to your keyboard and write in a fevered pitch. That’s myth. That rarely happens.

Instead, you have to fool yourself into inspiration. It’s work. If you’re writing a large piece, such as a book or script, then sit yourself down at the same desk or table at the same time each day. And write. Some people are morning people. Others are night people. Write during your best time of the day.

Sure the writing at first may suck, and you hate your words, but write anyway. Some people—most people—have to write junk before the good stuff comes. It’s cleaning out the carbon.

Soon your body gets used to the rhythm of writing each day. You’ll see that you get to the good stuff faster and faster, because, simply, this is your time to write.

The same can be said for shorter works and letters. Just sit down and write it. There is no bad first draft (I hope you’re getting to understand this). Just do it, and then rewrite.

8) Read. Writers need to read other writers. You cannot work in a vacuum. Allow yourself to learn by reading material other than your own. If you’re creating a Web page, then read a lot of other Web pages. Figure out why you like some compared to others. Try out a style if you like it. If you’re writing short stories, then read short stories from a variety of writers. Don’t feel guilty if you’re reading some great master and you don’t like the writing. (Personally, Faulkner puts me to sleep.) Read the things that hold your interest.

Want to treat yourself to something special? Take a literature course at the local college or high school extension program. In the college courses I teach, every so often I’ll get one or two people who earned their degrees long ago, but they’re back simply to enjoy reading and writing about literature again. They like to be assigned reading and writing. These older students tend to excel. I’m biased: I think much about life can be found and learned in literature.

In sum, the more you write and read, the more you’ll develop style. So go write and read.