Writing with Meaningful Restraint

The art of writing concerns style and form as much as it does clarity and grammatical accuracy. Technically proper sentences can be operative but uninspiring if not also touched by feeling and flow.

Consider the following pair:

     He fully opened the window and looked at the sunset. It had been a long day. He was ready to put it behind.
     He opened wide the window and gazed at the setting sun, which slowly closed the day he knew he must forget.

The first sentence succeeds in conveying information in plain, short, linear thoughts. The second one puts us in the same spot with the same person doing the same thing, yet it offers more imagery, depth, and even mystery, all guided by rhythm and sound.

As writers, we want to spark readers’ minds in interesting, original ways. At the same time, we want to maintain self-awareness and balance. Just as a cake can have too much frosting, so can our writing have an excess of flair.

When we are composing, we should be mindful of whether we are drawing more attention to words than to ideas. Perhaps motivated by giants of literature we have read, we may try to compose our own grand expressions, thinking that real writers aim high.

Unfortunately, until we have practiced and perfected the skills we admire, we can produce sentences such as this one:

     With an iron will forged on the anvil of conviction, the solitary traveler with the aching, calloused, sandaled feet crossed the rolling blanket of desert dunes toward the flaming horizon from which the unforgiving heat like a colossal palm pressed down.

While we may not fault the ambition behind such writing, we can agree it tries too hard. We sense the writer’s inflated excitement that he or she might be starting to sound literary. By focusing on being less “fine,” we could express the same sentence as:

     Feet revolting, will unyielding, the traveler crossed the desert alone, pushing through the pressing heat toward the horizon that had to be reached.

We also want to avoid writing that aims to be “poetic,” particularly if it is clichéd or otherwise unoriginal. Authentic poetry has its place throughout our language when it is shared by those who have mastered the form. For the rest of us, we will serve all (including ourselves) by refraining from phrases such as lips red like the rose, her raindrop tears, eye of night (meaning the moon), or ocean blue like the sky, as well as archaic words such as oft, alas, ere, and ’twas.

Let us likewise be wary of too much alliteration, which is the repetition of vowels or consonants in the same line, especially at the beginning of words (desert dunes, opened wide the window). When applied with adroit moderation, it can make writing pleasing and memorable. When unleashed, it can lead to grating passages such as the fate that forged friends from forgotten fields in France.

Art is often driven by passion, and that spirit tends to dislike self-control; rather, it prefers to run freely in releasing thoughts and emotions. We will make a greater mark as writers if we harness its strength in the right ways at the right moments through restraint that shapes technique.

Posted on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, at 11:00 pm

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2 Comments on Writing with Meaningful Restraint

2 responses to “Writing with Meaningful Restraint”

  1. Simon says:

    Thank you very much. I have been wanting to start writing for a long time (decades). I will follow your suggestions and probably take the first step!

  2. Janice H. says:

    Your message today on florid writing brings to my mind the famous “It was a dark and stormy night” of Edward Bulwer-Lytton and the “Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest” from the 1980s. I have read a few novels that might win a prize in that contest.

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