The Most Valuable Word
I was an adult before I understood what bad writing was. I knew when I liked a story, of course, but I couldn’t tell if it was really bad or good. Worse, I worried that I was guilty of bad writing myself. I was afraid I’d show a manuscript to someone who would somehow know, and they’d laugh at me.
One day I picked up a book called The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter because I liked the title. The book had been written more than sixty years before, but the writing inside was fresh and luminous. Each word seemed to have been chosen carefully, like gems for a mosaic.
“Singer brought out from the closet the tin box in which he kept crackers and fruit and cheese. He selected an orange and peeled it slowly. He pulled off shreds of pith until the fruit was transparent in the sun. He sectioned the orange and divided the plugs between them. Jake ate two sections at a time and with a loud whoosh spat the seeds into the fire. Singer ate his share slowly and deposited his seeds neatly in the palm of one hand.”
-The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers wrote like her character Singer peeled oranges.
I suddenly understood that good fiction is good because it’s true. It’s a paradox, but fiction has to be true. Not just what goes on in the story, but every word you choose for a story has to also be true. No false notes. It’s the falsity that makes for bad writing. This is why you don’t need a degree in English literature to tell a good story from a bad one, and sometimes the most adept critics are people who don’t necessarily know anything about books. They just have a sense for when something rings false.
Now when I edit a story, I go through each sentence and each word and ask myself, ‘Really?’ ‘Really?’ is the most useful word I know right now. If something fails that test, I take it out. This has improved my writing immensely.
- Writing Tips #1 (piapiumsententia.wordpress.com)
- Advice to a Young Writer (bilerico.com)
- Key Writers: Famous Writers With Their Typewriters (the1955hudson.com)
- Just a Bunch of Pics of Carson McCullers Smoking (biblioklept.org)