The Problem With "Intuitive Writing"
Why intuition, the Muses, and "feeling it" all have their limits.
Quick heads up before we get into this.
I’m running a writing improvement webinar this Friday, February 23rd.
It’s about actual WRITING SKILLS and the techniques to build them.
(No, not just stuff like “post every day!” or “do your Morning Pages!” or “beat the Resistance”)
You can register by clicking here.
I’d love to have you.
There will NOT be a replay, so plan to come live.
Once upon a browsing session, I posted a burning question to Writing Stack Exchange (a forum about the written word).
How could I classify the following sentence?
Simile or metaphor?
“Susie jumped down from the window like lightning.”
Dave987 answered quickly.
“Who gives a damn? These are all words made up by the academic elite. All writing is metaphor. Quit overanalyzing.”
The Internet is not short on this flavor of sass. Petty, but innocent. I should have shrugged it off. For some reason, though, I couldn’t. What was the point in clarifying and categorizing language? Why can’t we all just… write?
I have an answer. It’s contradictory to most writing advice. And if I’m going to stand against Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and others, I have to explain why first.
I started What Makes Great Writing 11 months ago. During that time, I’ve made the false assumption that everyone WANTS to learn the difference between metaphors & similes, isocolon & polyptoton, antithesis & alliteration. In all likelihood, you don’t care.
Best case scenario, you’re at least a little skeptical as to whether knowing these highfalutin words can help you write better.
Worst-case scenario, you say “that Todd guy sure is smart,” and change absolutely nothing about your work.
(Highfalutin is a Granny Brison word. Imagine it being said with a sweet southern accent).
Let’s start with Stephen King’s most-quoted advice.
“In order to write well, you must do two things: read a lot and write a lot.”
King’s advice, of course, comes from experience. Over 100 stories written. Over 400 million copies sold. His aphorism seems annoyingly bulletproof, especially because of the academic research backing it up.
Stephen Krashen, a language professor from USC, published several papers on what makes great writing, regardless of genre. His conclusion was pretty much this:
If you want to write sci-fi novels, read a lot of sci-fi novels.
If you want to write poetry, read a lot of poems.
If you want to blog, read blogs.
Fill in the blanks with your favorite genre.
Both the advice of King and the research of Kasher hinges on humanity’s ability to imitate. Somewhere in your writing style are the words of all your favorite authors. Where else could your ability come from? Did you dream it?
Of course not. You most likely learned to write by observing and imitating.
So. Read and write. Rhetoric be damned, yes?
For two reasons:
1. Audiences sniff out bad copies like old cheese.
Recently, my meathead cousin hung out with Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph in Los Angeles while filming a show called “Baking It!” The show featured:
Contestants in a tent
Participating in baking-based challenges
To present before judges
In the face of elimination
If you read that and thought “oh, sounds like The Great British Baking Show,” you’d be wrong. It is not “like” TGBBS. It is a poor imitation. A phony. A fraud. In trying to be like TGBBS, it only makes you aware of how dissimilar it is to the Netflix show.
You can change out one water filter for another. An appliance is an appliance is an appliance. You cannot replace one piece of art, or one artist, for another, no matter how similar they may be. James Dean was not “the next” Marlon Brando. He was James Dean. Michael Buble is not “the next” Frank Sinatra. He’s Michael Buble. And in the writing world, Hemingway was not “the next” Herman Melville any more than T.S. Eliot was “the next” Walt Whitman.
All art, and all artists, are independent of one another.
I’ll spare you the sociology behind this (unless you really want it). Suffice to say King’s advice of reading “a lot” is only effective if you read across genres, and across authors.
Otherwise, you become a poor imitation of your heroes.
2. Bad first drafts need care and attention
How do you fix bad writing?
Do you know?
In other words, how do you improve a piece of writing that does not meet your taste? When you are right in the center of Ira Glass’s gap, what will you do?
Common answers to this question are romantic, not pragmatic:
Take a break from writing.
Sleep on it.
Read it out loud.
Start from scratch.
This advice assumes you have a deep, deep library of writing from which your subconscious can pull. If you have read enough, an answer may magically appear. If not, you end up copying another writer (see point 1 again).
This advice also assumes you have unlimited time. Taika Waititi claims that he waits a minimum of one year between drafts of his screenplays. A nice idea that most of us don’t have the luxury for.
In both these cases: copying authors and hoping for inspiration, you are looking to subconsciously learn what can be formally taught. You’re trying to build a house by watching construction workers, instead of learning what a hammer, nails, and plumbing can do.
Unique writing comes from learning the tools that other writers use, not by using the other writers as tools.
How a piece of writing improves using rhetoric (not divine intervention)
Imagine you are trying to capture the atmosphere of a busy NYC restaurant. The paragraph you’ve written doesn’t “feel right.”
Maybe it’s a sentence like this:
“The Zune sizzled with activity.”
You want the restaurant to feel more alive. You don’t feel like you’ve captured detail and scenery like George Orwell does. The restaurant doesn’t jump off the page like those described by Ligaya Mishan.
If you know your rhetorical devices, though, you can simply try on different versions of the same sentence.
Maybe a congeries will help?
A congeries is a fancy word for list. It’s Latin for “a heap.” Could your piece benefit from a heap of details?
Let’s find out
“The Zune sizzled with activity. Busboys sprinted from table to table. Saucepans clanged and sparked. Hosts flagged down impatient customers. Waitresses zipped around corners. Diners sighed in ecstasy.”
What if we add a few more?
What if we personify the restaurant by giving it human traits? Or toss in a syllepsis at the end for effect?
“The Zune comes alive on Friday night. Busboys sprint from table to table. Saucepans clang and spark. Hosts flag down impatient customers. Waitresses zip around corners. Diners sigh in ecstasy. Hot chocolate drizzles across cold ice cream at Table 5, where a white tablecloth gets stained with old wine and new memories.”
Does understanding rhetorical figures instantly make you the best writer? Not at all. I understand screenplays, but I’m not “the next” Steven Spielberg. (Do you see how tempting it is to describe people in this way?)
With the principles of writing, you have a chance to create great work. Or, more accurately, a change to change average writing into excellent writing.
Without them, you are slave to the whims of fate, walking around hopelessly, unequipped with the tools to escape the dungeon of mediocre writing.
And THAT is a metaphor for sure, Mr. Dave987 from Stack Exchange
Much love as always,
-Todd B from Tennessee
A final note here: obviously I am biased.
I run a publication dedicated to teaching the formal structure and terms of writing. My goal here was simply to present the side of the argument that seems to be missing, alongside the hustle-based, get-er-done mantras typically spewed and spread.
I've followed you and Tim for a while now and I've enrolled in a few of your courses but this is actually the first time I've seen a full article you've written. I get it now. I subscribed to the paid version of your newsletter so fast!