“Hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading.” William Zinsser (author of “On Writing Well”)
Too many people think writing is about expression. That puts us in the ballpark of a few billion people. We all express, but what separates a good writer from, say, a shopkeeper is knowing when to stop. Actually, shopkeepers probably know when to stop better than most writers. They see bored customers whereas a writer doesn’t.
Maybe that’s the problem. If writers could see their readers walking off, they might improve — but they don’t. It’s like a comedian not being able to see the audience’s faces. He keeps tossing out one lousy joke after another, finally saying at one point, “You’re a tough crowd,” and expecting a laugh.
We respect those who explain things in simple terms.
Well, the reading audience is a tough crowd. Even social media is far tougher than writers imagine. I say “imagine” because most writers — like the comedian — don’t see the looks on peoples’ faces or the rolling eyes. So they write to bleed, figuring if they churn out 10,000 words a day (as someone bragged about last week), people will respect them more.
Actually, the reverse is true. We respect those who explain things in simple terms. If Mark Zuckerberg can describe Facebook as “Something where you can type someone’s name and find out a bunch of information about them,” surely writers can stop flinging words around like confetti.
Learn to Read Out Loud (Like Clint Eastwood, Not Lucy Ricardo)
So how does a writer hone their writing? First you have to want to be brief. Then you have to learn to read your work aloud. I know a lot of famous writers advise this. What they don’t advise is the voice to use. This is absolutely critical. If you’re going to sound like Lucy Ricardo, you won’t edit your work at all (she never did and look where it got her).
You’ll notice I said Lucy Ricardo, not Lucille Ball. Ball created Lucy Ricardo, using her goofy, long-winded explanations for comedic effect. In real life, Ball was the complete opposite.
Which brings me to Clint Eastwood. Obviously, he wasn’t one to mince words. Yet hearing him say “Well, do ya, punk?” speaks volumes about the man. If he’s quotable — and who can’t quote Clint Eastwood — we remember the simplicity as well as the delivery.
“If it sounds like writing,” Leonard explained, “I rewrite it.”
I’m not suggesting you have to write like Clint Eastwood. I’m saying you have to hear him say your words. Hearing and writing are two different things. It’s what happens to your ears when the words come out of your mouth. If they come out sounding like Eastwood, you’re probably in a good place.
Listen to his dialogue and you’ll notice very few adjectives or adverbs. As Stephen King once said “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Imagine if Eastwood had said “Are you feeling particularly lucky today, punk?” he would have been back doing Rawhide instead of Dirty Harry or Fistful of Dollars.
Brevity is a sound. It’s clipped, it’s clear, it’s unmistakable. Elmore Leonard might have used Eastwood’s voice. So many of his characters sound roughhewn and to the point. It was all intentional and, no doubt, crafted. “If it sounds like writing,” Leonard explained, “I rewrite it.”
Don’t Create Word Mountains Out of Word Molehills
Reading aloud is like hearing a transcript back in court. Your first reaction is to ask for a retrial. “Did I really say that?” you ask, knowing it’s you, and only you could have said it. We’re all guilty of this. That’s why some writers won’t read their stuff out loud. They’re afraid of what they might hear.
Instead, they write on and on, checking their word counts, feeling pretty good about themselves. Nobody’s told them they’re creating word mountains out of word molehills. The idea of reducing, editing, murdering the occasional darling, never occurs to them.
After a long career of over sixty movies, he must have learned which words ring true and which don’t.
“Few people realize how badly they write,” William Zinsser wrote. “Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they’re trying to say.”
To write is to cut out the bad bits. When you hear them out loud, you realize they’re bad for a reason. They’re trite and they sound trite.
“I don’t worry so much about the words as the honesty,” Clint Eastwood told a reviewer. After a long career of over sixty movies, he must have learned which words ring true and which don’t.
Take Out The Words Nobody Needs to Hear
In a comment I made to another writer on beBee, I said “The more you write about a subject, the more you convince people you either know what you’re talking about or you don’t. Very often, you end up proving you don’t.”
One way to avoid this is to limit the words nobody needs to hear. Eastwood made a point of this throughout his career. If it didn’t sound like him, he wouldn’t — or couldn’t — say it.
You have to see the reader, imagining them sitting across from you saying “Go ahead, make my day.”
Anyone who says, “Well I’m writing, not speaking,” is drawing a distinction that doesn’t exist. Words are words. Any form they take, any medium they populate, must do the same job. You’re not writing to show how much you know. You’re writing to interest your audience. They don’t care about your brain capacity as much as they care about your insights.
That doesn’t come from writing more, it comes from knowing how little you need to get your point across. You have to see the reader, imagining them sitting across from you saying “Go ahead, make my day.”
If you aren’t making their day, you need to listen to Clint Eastwood.
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores.