The first in a periodic series of observations about writing.
About three years ago I started a Tumblr as a birthday present to myself. It consists entirely of paragraphs, because while there are tons of sites out there devoted to quotations, they’re mostly one- or two-liners; I didn’t see anything dedicated to the particular juicy pleasures of a well-constructed paragraph. The only words of mine on the entire Tumblr are the summary lines that introduce each entry, and even then, I only include one if context is necessary. And I’m learning two great lessons from writing them.
1. Concision. Depending on where the paragraph falls in the story, a lot of material has to be condensed into a single line. Every nuance of every word has to contribute, and the wrong one can derail an entire intro.
Here’s the summary line for WE WERE LIARS, by e. lockhart:
17-year-old Cadence Sinclair Eastman, eldest grandchild of a rich, beautiful, damaged family, watches as her history professor father leaves her mother for good.
Two things about this:
First, the original line had an adverb modifying the word “damaged.” I took it out because WE WERE LIARS has a huge, delicious twist, and I realize as soon as I published it that the adverb came way too close to giving it away.
Second, I added and deleted and added and deleted the phrase “history professor” from the description of Cadence’s father. From a concision standpoint, I’d prefer to leave it out, but the class distinction between Cadence’s mother’s family and her father is the driving force behind the dissolution of the marriage. Given our general cultural assumptions about the income difference between a history professor and a financier, I left it in to convey that, even subtly.
2. Point of view. I’m firmly of the belief that you, the reader, shouldn’t be influenced by what I think is great about the paragraph I chose. In the same way that, as a writer, I believe the reader can and should have their own interpretation of my work, as a curator I think the reader should have the chance to experience their own pleasure, instead of me pontificating about mine.
Here’s the first version of the summary line I wrote for CATCH-22:
Captain John Yossarian, the anti-hero of Heller’s absurdist classic about WWII, basks in the pleasures of one of his favorite places.
But here’s the line I went with:
Captain John Yossarian basks in the pleasures of one of his favorite places.
At first blush, “the anti-hero of Heller’s absurdist classic” seems like a pretty uncontroversial way to describe both Yossarian and the book. But it’s still editorial commentary; it tells you what I think about the book, not about the book itself. And who knows? Maybe you don’t think of Yossarian as an anti-hero. Maybe another reader restricts the term “classic” to a time period before the 1960s, or just doesn’t think Catch-22 is one. All perfectly valid responses. By leaving out the editorial commentary, the reader gets an unfiltered experience of the paragraph itself, which is the point.
Both of these things mean I have to consider everything about the words I choose: their various meanings, subtle and not-so-subtle connotations, implied points of view. I have to decide where to draw the lines between the content of my summary and the paragraph, and between my point of view and space for a reader to have their own. Fitting all of those together is a painstaking but fun little puzzle—akin to writing a pitch or a logline (I think)—and one I’m learning a ton from doing.
The upshot: no matter how mundane or task-oriented the thing you’re writing is, approach it with the same discipline and respect you have for your (apparently) more creative writing. Odds are you’ll be a better writer for it.