Welcome to My World

When you open an Eric R. Johnston novel, you are transported to a place of dark creatures and dreadful nights. There is no hope and no escape; only despair. Enter if you dare.

Series of Darkness

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Writing Well Through Intuition

In Stephen King's book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he states, "Fiction writers...don't understand very much about what they donot why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad." This isn't to say writers are ignorant of their craft or don't know good/bad writing when they see it. Far from it. It simply means that a writer's skills cannot be enumerated into a set of prescriptive rules, principles, etc. Bad writing can't be corrected by a cheat sheet or a writing class. Writing is an intuitive skill that you either have or you don't.

That isn't to say that someone can't learn to write well, but writing well isn't about memorizing by rote the aspects of good writing or having a cheat sheet nearby, just as having a thesaurus handy doesn't give someone a large vocabulary. And like those who overindulge in a thesaurus, you can tell the difference between the truly gifted and those relying on a crutch.

So how do you internalize the aspects of good writing that will improve your own writing? In other words, how do you get to the point where intuition is all you need?

Read, and read a lot.

When you read regularly, you pick up on what makes good and bad writing. You'll learn about voice; organization; plot; story; character; you increase your vocabulary; learn punctuation; and, most importantly, you learn to distinguish between worthwhile advice and pure bunk--because it will be offered to you whether you want it or not. Intuiting what makes writing greateven if you can't explain itis far more effective than rote memorization of the facts of why it works or doesn't work.

Unfortunately, this intuitive aspect of writing is often overlooked in our education system. Everything needs an explanation, everything needs a prescriptive rule, everything needs a reason. Which is fine, but I think these things are elevated to undeserved heights.

The problem with prescriptive rules is most of them fall into one of three categories: First, they can and should often be broken (no, you should only write in complete sentences); second, they are only taught in order to prevent students (inexperienced writers by definition) from falling into common pitfalls but are otherwise made-up bunk (the world will not end if you begin a sentence with and. In fact, sometimes you have to!); third, they are just pure useless, made-up garbage that is not based on anything (if someone tells me you can't end a sentence with a preposition one more time!!!)

Good writing has a variety of sentence structures. Sentence lengths. Sentence fragments are a perfect way of providing a pacing cue for the reader. Well-written action scenes tend to mix in sentence fragments, and so does well-written dialogue. No one speaks in complete sentences all the time. Besides, bending grammatical rules helps you give a distinctive voice to your narrative, especially if you are writing in the first-person.

Students are often taught never begin a sentence with the word "and." And I know exactly why, although this is a bogus rule. But ("but" falls into the same category) I know why they are taught this. Starting a sentence with a conjunction can be tricky business and should only be done by professionals. Nah, I kid. In fact, this is what a good writer says. If the sentence structure causes confusion that can be alleviated by just creating a new sentence, go for it. It's perfectly fine. In this case, clarity is king. Really, in all cases, clarity is king.

Students are also sometimes taught never to begin a sentence with "because." Because this bogus rule is so common, I feel I need to destroy it here. Does anyone object to the second sentence of this paragraph? I didn't think so. Students are taught this in order to avoid the dreaded incomplete answer. "Why did the chicken cross the road?" Because he had a death wish? No, no, no. Write, "The chicken crossed the road because he had a death wish." Write a complete sentence! (This is my interpretation of "the other side" the chicken is supposedly trying to get to).

The Made-up Rules: And, finally, the made-up rules.... I gave the example above concerning the prohibition on sentence-ending prepositions, which is just a piece of garbage some guy with bug up his ass made up as he attempted to make English more like Latin. And people just repeated it. He made it up.

But I want to address another item that we often repeat and never think about. The paragraph, something we are taught is a clearly defined group of sentences that include a topic sentence and three to five supporting sentences.

I'd hate to go against my teacher brethren on this, but that definition of a paragraph is pure crap. Writing like this is dry, formulaic, and boring. In other words, it's not natural and I don't like it.

But wait a minute, isn't this definition of a paragraph useful though? For the most part, I've stuck to the basic premise of that idea of a paragraph throughout this blog. But that's the point. The basic premise of the idea is useful, but a paragraph is not only a topic sentence followed by several supporting sentences. Although I categorized this definition of a paragraph as made-up bunk, it can also fall into the category of useful but not necessarily true rules that keep students (or other inexperienced writers) from falling into certain traps.

A well-written paragraph can look like anything. From one sentence--hell, it can even be a single word--to many sentences.

But none of this negates the fact that there is nothing in the English language that says writing needs to be broken up into paragraphs at all.

So then why do we chunk our sentences into groups called paragraphs?

To help the reader. Nothing more, nothing less. And how to appropriately divide those groups is another example of the intuitive writing. There is no prescriptive rule that can teach you more than intuition. I recently heard about an experiment where several highly skilled writers were each given the same written passage that had all of its paragraph breaks removed. They were to break the passage up into paragraphs on their own. Hopefully, I've primed you well enough for you to know already that each writer inserted paragraph breaks in different places. Which should prove to you that paragraph breaks are largely arbitrary.

I saw a chart online yesterday that detailed when to change paragraphs when writing fiction. It seemed useful, but, as I said before, rote memorization and cheat sheets can only get you so far without a good intuitive sense. When a new character speaks, when a new idea is introduced, when time passes, etc. are all there, but none of these should be followed 100% of the time. Why? Because depending on the context in which any of these fall, it may be better to keep the same paragraph or two break up paragraphs in ways that might contradict these rules.

For example, I could write a scene where a character wakes in a hospital and is hearing all kinds of voices spoken by different people: "Eric opened his eyes but saw nothing but stark blackness. 'He's awake,' a deep voice said. 'Someone get the doctor'--a woman. 'Eric! Eric! Can you hear me?!' someone else-- was it his wife? A roar of other voices rose: Eric! Hey! Can you hear us! Please don't leave me!" This is a perfect example of not switching paragraphs with multiple speaks. And it is perfectly fine because of the effect it creates.

I hope I've convinced you that memorizing prescriptive rules is not enough. There are too many instances where they are either completely wrong or do not apply to every circumstance. To write well, you are best served to arm yourself with a good intuitive sense of what makes good writing, and you do this by reading. Reading a lot. Reading every chance you get.


  1. Agreed. There is definitely no formula to writing nor must it follow rules to the point. I especially love your point on how good writing should have a variety of sentence structures. When one paragraph is just a bulk of long, complex sentences, it gets too much for a reader. Variety in length is key. Great post.

  2. That is very informative. Thanks for post it.