I’ve been lucky enough to have been chosen to be a mentor for a writer in the Pan-African Witticism programme.
One thing I learned long ago when in another life I was a science teacher, is the best way to truly understand a subject is to attempt to teach it to someone else.
The best teachers are people who can break a complex subject down in a simple way and get another person to understand it.
But in doing that, in finding a way to teach someone else, you learn as well. And this is what I see happening as I’m mentoring this writer.
I’m learning more about how stories work and why some writing is good and some just is not.
One thing I’ve realised is that new writers often believe their job is to make a simple idea more complex.
That the reader must fight to find the meaning of a sentence if that sentence is to have any worth.
They write long, convoluted sentences in the misconception that they impress someone. This is wrong.
Writing is communicating, and for communication to be effective it must be clear. This applies to literary fiction writing just as it applies to all other writing.
I’d advise new writers to use the simplest language possible, but to use it in fresh, interesting ways to let your reader get a mental picture of what you want to communicate.
You’re not meant to leave your reader confused. You are meant to tell a story.
Many people believe that you should choose a big, complex word when a simple one will do. But again this is wrong.
You should choose the correct word. Sometimes you might need a bigger word because that’s the correct word, but don’t pull out your thesaurus and go searching for a complex word for the sheer want of using one. That is not good writing.
Your inexperience shows through such antics.
Another thing I’ve noticed during my mentoring process is poor writing is often made up of sentences that the writer likes but that together have no meaning.
This is often a problem in bad poetry too. Often writers are told to “kill their darlings” when editing their work.
What that means is to get rid of phrases and sentences that you might like, they might sound lovely, they might convey an image you think is quite clever, but they don’t work with the rest of the story. They must go.
Another common error I’m finding is in description. If you’re writing a short story, and this is even more important in flash or micro fiction, and you’re taking time describing something, that something should be important to the overall story.
Often you find an inexperienced writer taking three or four sentences describing a house, for example, but that house has no significant role in the story.
You’re leading your reader down a path that ends in a dead-end. They won’t like that and they will hold it against you.
An adept writer chooses specific things to describe and the description furthers the story. Look at this excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s story “Warlords”-
“The warlord sits at the centre of his own power, inert but potent. Sycophants spoon food and good news into him; vulture-handlers handle his pet vultures; babes lick his toes.”
Nearly every word in those two sentences of description furthers the story and packs more punch than one might expect.
There are no ten penny words when a one cent word will do.
You might say sycophant is a big word, but it is the correct word.
This is a case where the correct word is used because it is the word that is needed.
Look at a phrase like –“babes lick his toes” -what a fresh way to show the decadence of power.
Specific description using simple words to communicate a big concept.
It’s beautiful, simple writing that communicates in a fresh, exciting way.
This is what we should all be trying to achieve in our writing.
Flashy writing with no point to its flashiness shows inexperience, nothing more.