In our “Killers and Poets” Facebook group (you should join us!), we’ve just launched a book club to read Ursula LeGuin’s recently published writing manual, Steering the Craft.
The first chapter is about “the sound of writing” — about the music of written language, from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
LeGuin has an exercise called “Being Gorgeous” that calls on us to write an exercise piece that plays with sound. It’s an exercise we do for pleasure. You could certainly even call it self indulgent.
In the group, Aaron raised a point that I think is important to talk about — is this kind of “gorgeous” writing appropriate for a working writer?
Not a working poet or short story writer, but a conversion copywriter, like Aaron, or a content creator (and sometime conversion copywriter), like me.
Killers and Poets is mostly made of pros — people who make a living putting words together.
Isn’t there a danger of writing cloying, self-indulgent drivel? Don’t we need to keep a tight focus on our audiences, instead of indulging our own creative whims?
Yes, absolutely. And also no, partially. Let me explain.
Everything good comes from the audience
For working writers (this includes fiction writers who actually make a living writing books), everything good comes from the audience.
They’re the ones who buy the books, pay for the product or service, take the action that moves toward our content goals. Whatever you’re trying to accomplish with your writing, the audience is made of the people who actually make that happen.
The flip side of this, of course, is pure self expression. Content (and other forms of commercial writing) exist to meet a goal. Art exists to be itself.
So are we wasting time when we pursue something like music in our writing, or even “gorgeousness”? Is that something we should save for time carved out on weekends and evenings, after we’ve done our chores?
In my experience, no. And here’s why.
What audiences don’t want any more of
The world already has enough bland, generic content. It’s one thing to strive for a voice that’s subtle and not show-offy. It’s another to have a voice that’s so transparent it’s invisible.
We have enough generic novels, enough generic screenplays, and enough generic blog posts.
I love LeGuin’s approach in this chapter — and it can be uncomfortable — because it gets us back into a very honest, very un-cool place. Back into playing and tomfoolery.
Many of us who have spent time with small children become enamored with how they use language. It’s full of errors — and also full of rich, exciting music and meaning.
When my young son talked about being “trip sick” to explain how he was feeling about being home from vacation, or when he described his leg falling asleep as being “full of sparkles!” I found that exciting. And memorable.
What audiences also don’t need
Audiences also don’t need any more self-indulgent train wrecks. We’re set.
Writing that’s so un-selfconscious that it totally forgets the audience won’t work.
Writing that’s so stuffed with “exciting” elements that it’s nearly impossible to read can be enjoyable when it’s done really well (Rushdie), but it rarely works when we’re trying to serve a goal.
Writing is like painting, or dancing, or singing. You have to loosen up enough to be yourself. But if you want anyone else to pay attention to it, you need the craft to shape it up.
What serves our readers
In my experience, what audiences respond to most strongly is human writing with a real voice, that speaks to their real concerns.
Facts and figures matter. Clarity definitely matters. But for clear, straightforward facts and figures, we already have Wikipedia and all manner of bot-created content.
If you want to know the score of last night’s baseball game, a bot can handle that for you.
If you want to know the background and the analysis of the game, you want a sports writer.
And if you want to know why the game broke your heart, you want Roger Angell.
Each of those has a place. One of them endures.
Strong writers are fearless (eventually)
I chose LeGuin’s book because I admire her writing a great deal.
When I read her fiction and essays, I don’t see someone trying to “get out of the way.”
She doesn’t make careless or distracting mistakes, but she also knows there’s a place for her in her own writing. And she claims it with confidence.
In 2018, it’s not so easy to be fearless. We may (wisely) think twice about posting certain pieces publicly, given the political and cultural climate.
But a strong writer fears no combination of words.
A strong writer isn’t afraid of adverbs, or new ways to use language, or even the much-maligned passive voice.
My upcoming creative writing workshop for content creators will be about finding that creative courage — through experimentation, formal practice, and compassionate critique.
If that sounds like something you’d like to learn more about, drop your email into the form below.
And if you’d just like to come hang out in the Facebook group, that would be great as well! You can find us here. And yes, you do have to answer the questions — it’s one way we can keep spammers and scammers out of the room.