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.