When I travel to new cities, I usually have two items on my personal agenda:
- Find a place to do yoga
- Find an independent bookstore
A few weeks ago I was in Denver, so I visited the Tattered Cover Book Store on 6th street.
Every indie bookstore has its own feel, its own persona.
The heavy wooden door surrounded by stone reminded me of the Bodleian library in Oxford.
Inside was an industrious hush.
One of the tall wooden shelves advertised the staff’s picks, and I noticed a plain little book called Several Short Sentences About Writing.
I picked it up and flipped through, and it looked like poetry.
That only made me more curious.
I started reading:
Here, in short, is what I want to tell you.
Know what each sentence says,
What it doesn’t say,
And what it implies.
Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence actually says.
I knew I wanted to keep reading.
Just that first lesson—that writers are only as good as each sentence they write—is something I have often tried and failed to explain to my authors.
My job as an editor is to put myself in both the writer’s and the reader’s shoes.
I have to interpret what the writer thinks he’s writing,
And then tell him what the reader will be reading.
Writing is hard work.
Here are the three biggest lessons I learned:
“Meaning” cannot be separated from the sentence.
The only link between you and the reader is the sentence you’re making.
There’s no sign of your intention apart from the sentences themselves.
I often see authors with a “you know what I mean” attitude.
As in: Why do you I have to re-write this?
You know what I mean.
But no, I don’t.
Because every word counts, and the order you write them in counts.
You learned to gather something called meaning from what you read,
As if the words themselves were merely smoke signals
Blowing away in the breeze, leaving a trace of cognition in the brain.
You’ve been taught, too, that writing is the business of depositing meaning to be extracted later. …What if the virtue, the value, of the sentence is the sentence itself and not its extractable meaning?
There’s no such thing as “inspiration” or “genius” when it comes to writing.
The writer’s job isn’t accepting sentences.
The job is making them, word by word.
Like I said, writing is hard work, and it’s been hard work for every author who ever wrote.
We’ve built up an image of what a writer should be in our head,
And in this image a writer is suddenly struck with inspiration and sustained by it.
It looks easy.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi popularized the idea of “flow”: a state of consciousness in which the subject is completely absorbed in good work.
In flow, time passes quickly, effortlessly.
But this is a dangerous myth for authors.
Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer. …
The reader’s experience of your prose has nothing to
do with how hard or easy it was for you to make.
Become a better writer by becoming a better reader.
Learn to trust yourself as the reader.
You’ll never know another more thoroughly. …
It means trying to come to your work
Without the immense foreknowledge of having written it.
And it means imagining the reader’s experience
As he gathers what he knows about your piece
Only from what each sentence reveals, one after the other.
This is what I do: it’s my job to be a stranger to authors’ sentences,
So that I can help them see what the reader sees.
But it’s an essential skill for authors to develop.
Editors cannot fix bad writing, but they can maximize good writing.
One tip I loved was to start every sentence on a new line, so that you see the variations in length and rhythm.
You’ll notice that’s what I’ve done in this blog post.
I’ve been practicing, and I like it!
It does take some getting used to, though.
Another tip is to read your work out loud.
The ear is much smarter than the eye.
He gives several exercises writers can practice on their own and others’ writing to become better readers—and therefore better writers.
My copy of this book is dog-eared, underlined, and littered with marginalia.
There are so many quotes I wish I could use in this review—
But I want you to go out and buy it yourself!
If you’re a writer of any kind, you will not regret it.