How To Become a Masterful Writer, with John Gardner

John-Gardner.jpgJohn Gardner – Image from Writer’s Write

It’s difficult to find someone more refreshingly forthright, and with such clarity of expression, than American writing teacher John Gardner. After a long and successful teaching career, Gardner penned a book on how to write great stories—The Art of Fiction—which is held in high acclaim for its precision and effectiveness as a writing guide. As the title suggests, the book’s primary goal is to offer advice on how to write great fiction, though many of its lessons extend to writing in general, making the book a goldmine of knowledge for writers. Though often loftily arrogant and overly critical, in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner attempts to improve our writing abilities, with resounding success.

For Gardner, a key component of quality, captivating writing is the author’s ability to produce clear images in the reader’s imagination, by using vivid and tangible real-world language.

“A scene will not be vivid if the writer gives too few details to stir and guide the reader’s imagination; neither will it be vivid if the language the writer uses is abstract instead of concrete. If the writer says ‘creatures’ instead of ‘snakes,’ if in an attempt to impress with with fancy talk he uses Latinate terms like ‘hostile manuevers’ instead of sharp Anglo-Saxon words like ‘thrash,’ ‘coil,’ ‘spit,’ ‘hiss,’ and ‘writhe,’ if instead of the desert’s sand and rocks he speaks of the snakes’ ‘inhospitable abode,’ the reader will hardly know what picture of conjure up on his mental screen. These two faults, insufficient detail and abstraction where what is needed is concrete detail, are common—in fact all but universal—in amateur writing.”—John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

Where possible, writing should evoke discernible imagery in the mind of the reader, who is being led on a curious journey, sentence-by-sentence. Writing that lacks concrete imagery can be dreadfully dull, like reading a scientific thesis concerned only with the driest and most serious of matters. One of the joys of experiencing great writing is the process of having your head filled with colourful, vibrant imagery, constantly twisting and warping anew, a compelling, elemental topic threaded through the entire process. Expository writing – the style used to explain concepts – becomes alluring when vivid language is used. This doesn’t mean that every sentence must be packed with dramatic, intense imagery, as though narrating an edge-of-seat thriller, but should rather be peppered with the occasional rich example to keep things interesting. This also makes writing itself more pleasurable, urging us to return to our desks to gleefully bash out another thousand-word masterpiece.

Colourful detail is important because it transports us to a place of ethereal wonder – a dream within our own minds, that we happily traverse in the hope of discovering something treasured.

“If we carefully inspect our physical experience as we read, we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind.”—John Gardner

We cannot expect to create an enchanting dream for our reader with a limited vocabulary, or by repeating the same words over and over. A dazzling piece of work will be infused with a great variety of words, chosen not just for their precise meaning, but also for their sing-song rhythm and visual vividness. Stunted vocabulary only gets us so far.

“Limited vocabulary, like short legs on a pole-vaulter, builds in a natural barrier to progress beyond a certain point.”—John Gardner

Another aspect to be toyed and experimented with is sentence length, which can affect the rhythm and emotion of your writing, depending on the desired effect.

“Short sentences give other effects. Also sentence fragments. They can be trenchant, punchy. They can suggest weariness. They can increase the drabness of a drab scene. Used for an unworthy reason, as here, they can be boring. Between these extremes, the endless sentence and the very short sentence, lies a world of variation, a world every writer must eventually explore.”—John Gardner

“By keeping out a careful ear for rhythm, the writer can control the emotion of his sentences with considerable subtlety.”—John Gardner

Though it’s difficult for us to explain why, sometimes we write a sentence that just feels right, sitting snugly within our work, with a level of comfort so elevated as to make us envious. If we’re dissatisfied with a sentence, for the sake of becoming better writers, we must commit the time to ruthless splitting and reworking, until we’ve created something with greater clarity and appeal. With steady practice comes mastery.

“Turning sentences around, trying various combinations of the fundamental elements, will prove invaluable in the end, not just because it leads to better sentences but also because over the years it teaches certain basic ways of fixing rhythm that will work again on other, superficially quite dissimilar sentences. I don’t know myself—and I suspect most writers would say the same—what it is that I do, what formulas I use for switching bad sentences around to make better ones; but I do it all the time, less laboriously every year, trying to creep up on the best ways of getting things said.”—John Gardner

Technical skill isn’t the only thing required to become a masterful writer. We must take the time to satiate our heads with the insightful musings of others, sparking neurological connections and creating something new. As with the process of writing itself, if we have any desire to become experts, this requires relentless practice.

“In order to achieve mastery he must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter.”—John Gardner

A curious disposition is advantageous to the writer, as it causes her to seek out valuable sources of information, drink them in fully, and becoming a more rounded, knowledgeable human, with better worldly awareness and emotional intelligence. Interesting people are interested people – an essential trait of the writer who wants to create compelling work.

“Part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values can we affirm and, in general, what the moral risks are.”—John Gardner

“Anything we read for pleasure we read because it interests us. One would think, since this is so, that the first question any young writer would ask himself, when he’s trying to decide what to write, what be ‘What can I think of that’s interesting?'”—John Gardner

Throwing ourselves into the world with courageous zeal, tasting every experience, and committing fully to our lives (the good and the bad,) helps to develop an intricate, multi-faceted character, filled with wisdom, lending an unmistakable magic to our writing. We’re able to understand the world, offering insightful, original, and resonant frames of reference for our readers.

“On reflection we see that the great writer’s authority consists of two elements. The first we may call, loosely, his sane humanness; that is, his trustworthiness as a judge of things, a stability rooted in the sum of those complex qualities of his character and personality (wisdom, generosity, compassion, strength of will) to which we respond, as we respond to what is best in our friends, with instant recognition and admiration, saying, “Yes, you’re right, that’s how it is!” The second element, or perhaps I should say force, is the writer’s absolute trust (not blind faith) in his own aesthetic judgments and instincts, a trust grounded partly in his intelligence and sensitivity—his ability to perceive and understand the world around him—and partly in his experience as a craftsman; that is (by his own harsh standards), his knowledge, drawn from long practice, of what will work and what will not.”—John Gardner

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is filled with gems, which the studious writer can use to become a more skilled and engaging artist. With the right knowledge, a ton of effort, and a little help from Gardner, we can gradually ascend to mastery within our field.

Our Precious Paragraphs Are Being Destroyed

paragraphOriginal image from KissPNG, edited by Antidotes for Chimps

Our humble, trusting paragraphs, an essential component of quality writing, have been led into dark alleys by content-producing “experts”, and found themselves mutilated. Once a solid, distinguishable group of ideas with the purpose of demarcating meaning, the paragraph is now an amputated, unrecognisable mess, writhing on the page while surrounded by its detached, isolated limbs, as though Hannibal Lecter decided to pursue his passion as an editor.

It’s hard to resist the advice of the so-called experts, who boast tens of thousands of Medium followers, and claim to earn thousands of dollars from writing. We want to be successful too, and we’ll try whatever it takes to get there. But when you become successful by altering an essential component of writing – a rule crucial to reading comprehension – you may be a personal success, but you’ve failed everyone else. You’re strengthening our abhorrent quick consumption culture, which is more interested in cherry-picking short, sharp sentences from an article, and so losing the coherence required to properly understand it. We cannot scan an article and expect to comprehend and retain the information fully, appreciate the rhyme of the sentences, or indulge in the vividness of a beautifully descriptive word. Scanning is fine for simplistic, dull writing, but untenable for properly-written pieces. Our desperation for expeditious success is folly – the more frantic our pace, the less we retain. Rather than finishing an article with an entrenched, meaningful idea, we’re left with disjointed bits of incoherent information, carelessly flung into our brain.

A paragraph is determined by a group of related ideas. It cannot be cleaved into smaller pieces without affecting the quality of the writing, or impairing the reader’s ability to understand your intention. If you’re targeting cherry-picking scanners, maiming the paragraph might be a suitable approach for you. But if you’re a writer who wants to produce unhindered, precise content – conveying your ideas perfectly while being a joy to read – don’t listen to the success-at-all-costs charlatans who advocate shorter paragraphs. Their unallayed ambition is wreaking havoc on popular online writing, with impressionable, aspiring writers copying the technique in the hope of becoming successful, contributing to the disfigurement of our once-wonderful art, and making the world a bit more stupid.

It’s woefully distasteful to read an article that is mashed up like a dog’s dinner. The thread of our understanding is cut, discarded, temporarily lost, and we scramble for it like blind fools, finally locating it, only to lose it again during the next “paragraph.” Though the writer may be bursting with good ideas, their failed and misguided execution ruins the reading experience – an encounter that might have been blissfully satisfying. It’s a tragic situation for both writer and reader – the former being encouraged to convey their valuable ideas in a handicapped way, and the latter being deprived of an enjoyable and instructive spell of reading.

An article is not the same thing as a tweet or a Facebook post, and shouldn’t be written as such. It’s a collection of ideas under a common topic, carefully and thoughtfully expounded. Appropriately-sized paragraphs are essential to communicate an idea properly – what is writing if not a method to transmit ideas? What does it become after being butchered by dollar-hungry content frauds?

It’s time for us to collect the remains of our precious paragraphs from the crime scene floor, throw on our scrubs, and like skillful surgeons, stitch them back together into healthy, related units of information. Their treatment has been grievously unfair, and it’s our responsibility to restore them to their former wondrous glory, so that our treasured ideas can be fully comprehended once again.

Life as a clap-addict, and how to beat it

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My name is Rob, and I’m a clap-addict.

In the hours following a new blog post, I check my Medium notifications at least 10 times an hour. I’m woefully desperate for my articles to be liked and appreciated by others, and fully aware that it’s an unhealthy behaviour. And yet, like a wretched crack-smoker, those hits of dopamine yank me back to the bewitching little green circle.

I’m relatively new to blogging, only recently mustering up the courage to start publishing my thoughts. Putting yourself out there is unnerving, especially when you’re not entirely confident in your own abilities. Though my surety has certainly grown in recent months, I’m still at the point where approval of my writing is crucial, and so I check my stats obsessively.

Views, reads and claps are obviously an important indicator for success, but like much else in the world, a felicitous balance must be struck. The occasional check is great to understand whether my articles are resonating with people, but looking at them 10 times an hour in a desperate craving for validation is obviously futile. It’s wasted time that could be spent writing valuable content.

I’m also aware that as a social animal, approval-seeking is infused into my brain. It’s one of the reasons why Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks became so popular. We love being loved, and the neurochemicals that flood our brain when being validated can make slaves of us.

What’s even worse — I believe that approval from others is the biggest obstacle to forming a personality that is uniquely your own; a character with which you live according to your own values, not someone else’s.

“It is a new step towards independence, once a man dares to express opinions that bring disgrace on him if he entertains them; then even his friends and acquaintances begin to grow anxious. The man of talent must pass through this fire, too; afterwards he is much more his own person.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Claps on Medium are a small measure of my success as a writer, and given my determination to succeed in this endeavour, my willpower is almost non-existent when it comes to checking them.

There’s also procrastination to content with, that diabolical arch-enemy of productivity. Putting your thoughts into words in a way that’s helpful, compelling and amusing can be challenging to an anxiety-inducing degree, and Medium stats are always peeking around the corner at you, beckoning with a seductive stare. Each concession to temptation strengthens the procrastination habit, making it harder to resist next time.

This article is an inducement to stop this clap-checking madness, and if you suffer from these frustrating behaviours, the following might help.

Set boundaries

Checking your stats a couple of times a day is enough to gauge your progress on Medium. You can figure out which stories are succeeding and failing, and hopefully have a slightly better understanding of why. You’ll still receive those enticing little dopamine squirts, just much less frequently than usual. Once in the morning and once in the evening is a good balance.

Consider your reasons for writing

“Don’t worry about getting credit, do the work anyway.”

Richie Norton

One of the main reasons I write is make sense of the absolute chaos inside my own head, which hopefully, when solidified in print, helps other people as much as it helps me. This is a motivation worth remembering and adhering to; a motivation that actually has value, as opposed to worthless, addictive stat-checking.

Figuring out your own core motivations, and reminding yourself why they’re so important, can move your unhealthy desires for approval into the background. They’re suddenly overshadowed by something much more personally meaningful, and with a bit of luck, will start to fade into obscurity.

Recognise your discomfort, and work through it

“My mother always told me I wouldn’t amount to anything because I procrastinate. I said, ‘Just wait.'”

Judy Tenuta

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Writing can be tough, but it’s even tougher to stay with it. 50% of my writing time is spent with my fingers hovering above the keyboard, staring blankly while I frantically try to figure out what I want to say. These moments are the most difficult, and as a feeling of stupidity washes over me, my craving for approval suddenly hits me like a ton of bricks.

Being mindful enough to catch myself in the act is the first challenge. The next is having the courage to actually continue writing. Meditation can help with being mindful, and bravery is cultivated by just getting the fuck on with it, and realising that it isn’t half as frightening as you assumed.

Tons more tips on defeating procrastination can be found here.

Strive to be a great writer

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” —Ernest Hemingway

Assuming that you’re writing because you actually want to be a writer, why the hell are you wasting so much time checking your stats? Every minute lost is a minute in which you could be writing something insightful, and honing your skills as a master wordsmith. Or you might spend the time reading that magnificent book that has sat on your shelf for six months, providing fuel for your creatively-starved brain.

Striving for excellence is not only admirable, it can put a motivational rocket up your arse. Try your very best to be the best.

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The little green circle doesn’t have to be so alluring. Writing great content is all that really matters, and with a little knowledge, courage, and perseverance, we can ruthlessly destroy our doleful clap-addictions.

Why less is more on Medium

antique-author-beverage-958164Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

I’ve read a ton of articles on how to gain a following on Medium, and I assume that the writers among you have done the same. Most of them offer the same piece of advice: write as much content as you possibly can. I assume that this is either a factor in Medium’s algorithm for promoting articles, or simply the shotgun technique. Either way, acting like a content mill only serves to make my stories shitter.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and consider some of the purposes of Medium, in their own words:

  • Welcome to Medium, where words matter.
  • Ideas and perspectives you won’t find anywhere else.
  • Medium taps into the brains of the world’s most insightful writers, thinkers, and storytellers to bring you the smartest takes on topics that matter. So whatever your interest, you can always find fresh thinking and unique perspectives.

My conclusion is that Medium is about telling engaging, fresh stories, which people find useful. It’s all about the quality of the stories themselves.

As a regular human being with a full-time job and an average brain, I struggle to post five engaging, valuable stories a week. The more stories I write in a week, the worse they are collectively. So if Medium is all about exceptional quality, surely it’s better to write two or three great stories, instead of five mediocre ones? At least I’ll be proud of the great stories, and won’t feel like I’m being whipped by some story-pushing slave master goblin.

The desire to succeed is strong, and I feel like I’m under constant pressure to keep on contributing in order to build an audience. The result is crappy, mediocre work, which benefits few people. By following the advice of the so-called Medium successes, all I’m really doing is watering down my content and damaging the credibility of the platform as a whole.

I genuinely want people to get some value out of my stories, and it’d be nice to have a decent readership too. The question is – am I willing to sacrifice quality for quantity? Should I sell out? What’s more important to me – being a popular, mediocre writer with 10,000 followers? Or an awesome writer with only a 1,000?

Personally, I think that credibility and self-worth is more important than success. The contented feeling that washes over me after posting a satisfying story has infinitely more value than a bunch of virtual claps, and at the same time, there’s more chance of it being beneficial to the readers, even if they’re few in number. It’s foolish and unhealthy to continue stressing myself out by attempting to post five times a week, in order to gain a following.

Earlier today I learned about a tool called The Hemingway App, which reviews your work and passes judgment on what is and isn’t readable. The fact that such an app exists is a shocking example of how desperate people are for success. Whatever happened to having your own writing style, of being proud of your own uniqueness? Writing is an art-form given to us by the gods, and here we are pasting it into apps in the hope of getting a few more readers. You might be a beautiful writer with a fresh and engaging style, a style that the world would love to read. Such apps are ruining that by encouraging you to conform to hard and fast rules, recommended by writers who see nothing but dollar signs in their eyes.

It’s also tough finding the time to read and learn from other people’s content if you’re doing nothing but tapping out your own. Our curiosity is what motivates us to seek out and absorb new ideas, which after being mixed and sloshed with existing ones, can emerge as something profoundly original.

I want to be proud of the work that I produce. I want to write for the sake of writing, not for the number of claps that it receives. You can take your “five stories a week” advice and put it where the sun doesn’t shine, which is precisely where it belongs. Quality triumphs over quantity, don’t cheapen yourself or your integrity for quick-success life-hack nonsense. You’re better than that.

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