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Pen and NotebookThe term “writerly” fans a flame inside me. It’s a virtuous word that speaks of crafting words into sentences and paragraphs with passion, imagination and love.

I just searched for a definition of “writerly” and found this:

1. of or characteristic of a writer

2. characterized by the qualities of a writer’s craft, esp. by those that reflect a self-conscious display of literary techniques

But “self-conscious display” suggests pretension, and being pretentious is not what I think of when I hear “writerly.” Pretension is when someone tries far too hard to be writerly and ends up with a convoluted mess. When I write something I consider writerly, in a sense it’s because — albeit with mental effort — I stumbled on the turn of phrase that flowed most simply and effortlessly.

For example, when I typed that opening paragraph, my first attempt mixed two or three other metaphors along with that of fanning a flame. Just because I’d strained to sound literary, it didn’t sound good. It lacked simplicity and sounded forced. In the end, I whittled it down from three or four sentences into two, and what remained sounded both creative and effortless to me. Pretension would have been to throw as many adjectives, verbs, adverbs and metaphors in there as came to mind, without discrimination.

Not everything I write is writerly. This blog’s tagline reads, “Advice from a good writer who aspires to greatness.” I’m confident enough to say I’m good, but I don’t pretend to be great, and in the same way, I aspire to writerliness. I don’t always get there, but I try.

Here’s something I really enjoyed writing recently: the first in a regular online column, The Charm of Evil, in which I share my thoughts about the horror genre, mainly in film. I enjoyed the experience because I felt I was producing something writerly. When I read the final version, I felt proud. The end product went beyond perfunctory. This is good writing, I thought.

Do you want to make your writing more writerly? Here’s some advice: Cut out the crap. Simplicity is beautiful. Play around with words, experiment and shift things around with abandon in search of what works, but do settle with what works. Don’t throw impressive-sounding words out there like dung and hope some of it sticks, because even the bits that stick will still be dung. Instead, present the one idea in which you have total confidence. Edit your own work ruthlessly, because just getting words on the page is only part of the job. Shaping those words with care into their final form will make you a great and writerly writer.


This was originally published on the Good Writing Blog
Image: Markus Rödder

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