While going through submissions recently for Wild Violet, I thought about both what I look for, as an editor, and what I try to do in my own writing. These simple rules emerged:
1) Strive for a strong opening. The first paragraph, first line, or first stanza is essential to grab the reader’s attention. Often, I find my first draft will contain extra “scene-setting” verbiage that I trim down for maximum impact.
2) Avoid anthropomorphizing inanimate objects and animals. Unless I’m going for humorous effect, I avoid writing that “the sky wept” or imagining that a robin is contemplating his tax write-offs. In a serious work, such language comes off as sentimental and amateurish.
3) Pay attention to structure and form. Whether writing a poem, a story or an essay, I try to address the main goals of that particular type of writing. In poetry, I pay attention to language and line breaks; in stories, I work to achieve a strong narrative; in essays, I lay out an argument and provide support. While I admire experimentation and have written my share of experimental works, I firmly believe in learning the basics. Even Picasso learned to sketch the human form before he developed Cubism.
4) Use the strongest possible verbs and modifiers. While passive voice (“it is,” “she was”) does have a place in the English language, active verbs guide the reader more effectively. Limiting modifiers to only those that matter likewise packs more of a punch.
5) Avoid cliches. Yes, avoid them like the plague. Nothing pauses a reader in his or her tracks quite like reading an overused metaphor. When such phrases tempt me, I think about why they popped into my head and find another way to convey that idea.
6) Know your audience. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a newspaper article or a comic strip. You need to consider who will read it and what you want them to take away from it. I try to remember to “open up” what I’m writing so my readers will understand. This means not taking explaining specialized terms unless I’m writing for an audience who will know them. I try to write in a way that’s clear enough and detailed enough for someone else to understand.
7) End effectively. Just like with an introduction, I’ve found it’s too easy to simply ramble on and on, then tie it all neatly with a bow. Often, on a rewrite, I’ll trim my final paragraph or stanza. I trust the reader to fill in some blanks, as long as I’ve done the work of the poem, story, or essay. Leave the reader with a thought. Make your words count.
Writers: What do you cultivate and avoid in your writing?
Readers: What makes you stop reading? What makes you continue?