If you knew your work would never be read by anyone else—would you still write?
Why write? Answering with soul-scraping honesty may be too difficult, so instead here’s an alternative question from the end of Lukeman’s First Five Pages. It requires a simple yes or no.
Quote: Ask yourself what you would do if you knew you would never be published. Would you still write? If you are truly writing for the art of it, the answer will be yes. And then, every word is a victory.
In the extreme: if you knew your work would never be read by anyone else—would you still write?
That strikes at the heart of writing as a communication medium between people, but it still leaves one reader that you have to sleep with every night: you. Perhaps writing in that case is an extension of the conscience (and consciousness).
Language is an inherently societal legacy that allows every literate person to feel a part of humanity, even if he or she leaves behind no traces for others. That said, I believe that every life has something to contribute to our common heritage. So next time you think your writing isn’t worth keeping, think again. History, too, is a qualified judge of relevance.
On learning words and the section on vocabulary in Noah Lukeman’s “First Five Pages”.
Modern-day aspiring authors are advised against long words in convoluted punctuation-sausages filled with phrase upon clause upon fragment. Such constructions are said to be either obsolete or abstruse. And why bother when masters of the craft themselves rarely reach for such exotic linguistic contortions?
(Brevity is the soul of wit.
Taken at face value, that kind of advice is equivalent to suggesting you should make a good façade, without worrying whether your building is part of a Potemkin village, that is, whether there exists a building behind the front-facing wall.
It’s the fake it till you make it method, which argues that eventually you’ll pick up the complicated stuff by osmosis.
But any serious piece of writing is cumulative: you can only fake it for so long. Sooner or later an audience member will move in a little closer and touch the brickwork with their pinkie. Which is when the glitzy scenery comes toppling down—paint, plywood, and authorial pride included.
So before making it the hard labour has to be done: the foundations dug, filled in, reinforced, all that goodly construction work that ensures the building can withstand the hurricanes of time and the hellfires of critics. In the case of the writer, that means grappling with (amongst other things) the basic blocks of language: words.
Hands up if you’d love to brush up on your vocabulary.
Hands up if you do brush up on your vocabulary regularly. Or ever.
(I’m not even going ask about learning foreign languages.)
Children imbibe new words; they’re unafraid to experiment with them, to practise their variations, to ask endless chainlinked why questions. The rest of us swallow new words like they’re thistles—it’s painful and digestion takes a while.
But that shouldn’t deter us.
In Negative Writing Advice, I discuss Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages. His approach to telling writers what not to do works well, in part because he also includes some brilliant exercises and positive advice. He won me over with a tight, spot-on section on vocabulary.
Aha, a revelation! Your eyes have been opened; your problems have been fixed.
Negative advice is like being shown the same vase …
… and being told it’s not a vase. Then the interpretation is up to you.
Yes, I did flip the image; yes, I added some black, some white. I not only changed my perspective, I embellished it—according to my imagination.
Negative advice is far more open-ended and sometimes it’s the only kind you can give with a degree of certainty. In particular, here’s Noah Lukeman, in the opening of his book The First Five Pages.
Quote: There’re no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.
Note, however, that avoiding poor writing is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for producing great writing. Indeed, like with my vase example above, even after you’ve been told what not to do, your literary venture—in all its newfound gloss and glory—may fall short of a masterpiece. Just because you’ve been shown which way lies artistic hell, doesn’t mean you’ve found a ladder to the heavenly abode of your muse.
(It occurs to me: eight of the Ten Commandments are of the negative form thou shalt not.)