I am currently in a workshop with Dan Barden. Here is one thing Dan said last week: “Don’t try to be a better writer than you need to be.” That is an important statement. Let me break it down for you as Dan did for us.
This statement is about Voice & Style. Less experienced writers of fiction believe that they need to “find their voice” and “develop a style”. This is because we read writers we deeply respect (the example Dan used was David Foster Wallace, an example I’d use is Ha Jin) and we are in awe of their way of writing. All you need to do is read the blurbs on a novel to see the critics commenting on this “…a suppleness of style, and a subtlety of vision…” The reality that the unexperienced writer needs to grasp is that their voice – the one they use every day – is good enough! The style their favorite writers employ isn’t a style, it is the way they think! Concerns of voice and style are in fact concerns of the critic, not concerns of the writer.
This statement is about Clarity. Less experienced writers believe that simply telling a story in their own words is not good enough. They think they need to write to some higher, imagined level. Clarity trumps beautiful writing all day, every day. Just tell us the story. If your reader detects any ambiguity in what your prose means you are at risk. If your reader is confused by what you write, all is lost. Your reader will not re-read to gain understanding. They will put your work down and move on never to return. Aim for a seventh grade reading level in your story-telling. Then aim for fifth grade and you’ll be in great shape.
This statement is about Ego. As writers we want to create a gorgeous work of heartbreak and wonder. When we write simple sentences with straightforward meaning we think the result is bland, boring, and flat. We see our work as lacking. Our ego isn’t satisfied. Our ego has higher expectations than our readers. Our egos think that ornate, mysterious, and complex are higher aesthetics than simple, realistic, and plain. Our egos don’t think stories can come from such places. Our egos are wrong. The fact is that ornate, mysterious, and complex are inventions of the mind when consuming fiction. They are not the stuff of stories being told. The action of story is only fact laid bare. It is the reader that will consume the raw story and it is the reader that will create, from the experience of reading, the ornate, mysterious, and complex.