The False Note: Small Decisions in Writing

I found a nice excerpt from an article in the NYT which I think applies to all writing:

Here is Amos Oz on writing a novel: “It is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”

I love this quote because it gets at the goal we should have as writers—to make the writing disappear.

I don’t agree that those molecular decisions are harder to make than the big ones. I spend days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months trying to make those big decisions, lots of pacing around, long walks, reading, ruminating when I should be sleeping. Perhaps it would have been better to say those small decisions add up to make a bigger impact. This I believe. Bad writing can be spotted instantly, regardless of how cleverly the plot is laid out, whereas great writing can make me forgive a few inconsistencies and even a few grammatical errors…a few.

What also struck me was the phrase “false note”— a terrific metaphor. A false note on a guitar can be missing the proper fret entirely so that the prevailing sound makes everyone stop in their tracks. Or it can be something barely noticeable, like the bending of a string slightly too high, or timing that’s a little off, or bad technique, or something else that only musicians would recognize. In other words, there’s a huge range of falseness.

But what is the range in writing? Obviously there are typos and grammatical errors—these make me stop reading if they become too frequent. These are easy to spot and fix. They are like missing the fret on the guitar. You work on strength and agility and practice, practice, practice…sooner or later your finger will get where it needs to be.

The other “false notes” are sentences that simply don’t make sense, not because of any mechanical error, but because the ideas behind them are either confusing or devoid of meaning. These are often sentences that seem lyrical or poetic. Like a guitarist who feels the need to sling his guitar low and play with flashy but terrible technique, flailing his fingers all over the fretboard to make what he’s doing seem harder than it is, these sentences are meant to fool the audience. They often do. Writers and rock stars love getting their egos stroked, and so the cycle of bad quality continues.

These false notes are the most dangerous to writers because we easily get caught up in our own cleverness without realizing that discerning readers don’t give a damn about our cleverness, they want the meaning. They want the truth. This “poet at work” stuff bores them.

The best writing advice I’ve ever heard (and I’m sure some famous person said it and I apologize for not giving proper credit):

Don’t ask, Is this writing good or bad? Instead ask, Is it true or false?

I think this advice achieves a lot with very few words. We tend to aim for good writing, but trying to establish what that is can be difficult, maybe impossible. Debates ensue. It’s hard to achieve something that’s nebulous and external to us.

But truth is approachable, maybe even attainable. To know the truth in writing, we can look within, ask ourselves questions, and scrutinize our words. We can leave the good for literary critics and focus on our work.

Fiction: Would this character really say this? Why is this person sighing? Is this sighing an affectation? Do I want it to be? Why does she cross her arms? Do people really cross their arms in these situations, or did I just put that in there to add a beat, a break from the dialogue? Does the sun really look like that? Would she notice her shadow in the dark, or in the middle of the day, and what makes this possible? Does this plant look like that in that season and that place? (If I can’t remember or know through reflection and research, I find myself going out into the world to experience these things first hand. Just yesterday I squished my face against the door to be sure I got my description right.)

Non-fiction: Should I take out “all” and replace it with “some”? Are there any cases which would prove this statement not always true? Should I look up this tidbit to be sure it’s correct? Should I add a citation? Does each word add to the one before it, does each sentence add to the one before it, does each paragraph follow from the one before? Or am I going off into la-la land? And if I go off into la-la land, does that work in an interesting way, is it deliberate?

(I have to admit, when I come across nonfiction narrative that reads like a syllogism, my little philosopher’s heart goes pitter-patter. I try to congratulate these writers whenever I can, because I know such clarity often gets overlooked. But meandering prose can be effective too, although meandering must have an overarching purpose, it must be unified and controlled by other forces, such as theme.)

To write well, you need to get your ideas clear. Sure, start with your muddy ideas, get them on the page, but put on your Truth goggles in your later drafts. Don’t let your purpose drown in the poetic current, even if you are writing poetry. Your hard work will pay off. Readers will enjoy forgetting that they’re reading. When the writing gets out of the way, they will get swept along.

What do you do to avoid false notes in writing?

How does the context affect what you see through Truth goggles? In the music metaphor, a false note is false in relation to the context. I wonder how this applies in writing.

As always, feel free to comment on anything.

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43 thoughts on “The False Note: Small Decisions in Writing

  1. “. . . there are typos and grammatical errors. . . these are easy to spot and fix.”

    I agree with the latter, not so much the former Tina. Are you going to be proof-reading your own work? If so, you’ll probably need to do so half a dozen times, or more. I was amazed to learn that the publishers of some top writers employ maybe 5 or 6 proof readers on each of the writer’s ‘final’ drafts. Even seasoned professional proof readers are subject to the vagaries of the brain it seems – unsurprising I suppose. The brain seems not to fall for these visual hallucinations in respect to grammatical errors – I suppose they’re just too jarring – yet finds it all too easy to overlook typos. As ever, we see what we think we see rather than seeing what it is that we see.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have done a lot of proof-reading for others myself as well. I also do it for myself. I often find mistakes (typos etc.) in what I have written if I re-read it after several weeks. We see what we expect. So the old advice to put your manuscript into the drawer and let it stay there for some time might be good. After some time, the context that was inside your mind at the time of writing is gone. You will notice typos, run into misunderstandings indicating ambiguous formulations that you did not see while writing it, see gaps in arguments etc.
      Another experience I got is that if you throw away what you have written and start again, it comes out better the second time. I learnt this the hard way when programming and deleting by mistake the work of several hours. That first version, however, contained the remnants of different trials that had to be corrected, remnants of code I had written before really understanding the problem. On writing the programm a second time, I avoided all of that and it came out more elegant and clear. This sometimes works in writing essays as well. You copy text around, make changes etc. and that does not improve the text. After some time, throw the text away and write it down again, and it might come out much clearer.

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      • That all sounds spot-on Nannus. I lived with a professional artist (a painter) for many years, and learned from them just how ruthless the true artist must be with their work. For the rest of us, getting things 95% right then leads to an attempt at fixing the remaining 5%; yet the artist sees that this never can work, that the complete work needs to be borne again from the blank canvas, the seed of the idea, or whatever. I also used to move in a circle of session musicians in London, and they would often describe their work as ‘polishing turds’ i.e. trying to create art by adding it to an already existent mediocrity. It simply can never work; all one arrives at is more accomplished mediocrity.

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        • “Polishing turds” is exactly how I felt about my first novel, which I never completed. The writing teacher really liked it and begged me not to throw it away (I was halfway done), but my heart wasn’t in it. Verbal masturbation is probably how I would describe it. There were some funny scenes, but on the whole, I felt like there was no point. I came upon the Plato idea and got some mixed opinions about it. Very mixed. My first novel attempt seemed to be unanimously liked. So it was hard for me to throw this external gratification out the window, but I just couldn’t sustain something that felt wrong.

          It probably helped that on the first novel, I knew I had no idea what I was doing, and I just wrote in order to learn how to write. It was from the beginning a writing exercise for me. (I basically tried to write a modern version of Madame Bovary).

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      • Wow! I admire you for being so ruthlessly true to your vision, and for keeping your inner creative integrity unsullied Tina. That takes some doing, to throw away a complete work that others – writing teachers no less! – say is good. I would have had it out there as an ePub under a sobriquet at least.

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        • You are hilarious! Well, you know, truth be told, I still have the files. I even told the teacher that I’d get back to it someday, but I don’t know that I will. I might do it if I ever finish this book and get bored, but more than likely I’ll reread it and abandon it. I did, however, use the first chapter to get into the Tucson Festival of Books master’s workshop, so it had some use.

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    • I agree with what Nannus says as far as the first round goes. I rely on myself and the distance of time. If I’m publishing something on my blog, I try not to get too exuberant and I like to let it sit overnight. But hey, it’s a blog, so typos and exuberance happen.

      With my novel I have the people in my writing group read it, and my husband, and this is just the first draft. If I ever get it to something like a final draft, I’ll put it away for some time, then go back over it with an eye for certain things. Then again, and again, and again, until the words no longer have meaning for me anymore and I just can’t stand to look at it. Then I’ll put it away again and do this all over again. Then I’ll push it into the hands of anyone who’ll read it, then I might even consider paying an editor to do the final check. My husband is really one of the best editors I’ve ever met, though. He finds things the writer’s group doesn’t, and loves to check my grammar…he’s one of those weirdos who enjoys such activities. But he does a lot more than that—he has an eagle eye for precision. He’ll often cross out words that aren’t working hard enough or point out things that could be confusing or duplicitous in meaning.

      When I said mechanical errors were easy to spot and fix, I meant in comparison to hitting on the truth of whatever you’re trying to say. I can force myself to focus on typos and grammatical errors, or if there’s a systematic problem in someone else’s writing, I can tell them the rule they don’t seem to know, but getting at the intentions behind the words is a bit trickier. I can’t tell a writer what the truth is behind those words, but I can say, “Hey, this part seems off. Why would this person say this? What’s his motivation?” Or something like that. But I can’t write it for the writer. (Actually, if the language seems flowery or lyrical to the point of obscuring meaning, we have a code we use in the margins: PAW=poet at work.) 🙂

      This is the stuff that can make you rip your hair out because you’ve just realized you have to throw away something that sounded so beautiful to you. A lot of times writers get a writer’s high, and the words are just products of the high. Later on I usually find the words aren’t really all that beautiful, they just sound like hard-to-read nonsense. Yet even when I can spot the nonsense, I still have an urge to salvage it. The hard part in discarding such nonsense is remembering how beautiful those words seemed and forcing yourself to forget that prior evaluation.

      You’re right though about typos being hard to spot, harder than grammatical errors. I often see them in published works, Tolstoy even!

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      • “Yet even when I can spot the nonsense, I still have an urge to salvage it. The hard part in discarding such nonsense is remembering how beautiful those words seemed and forcing yourself to forget that prior evaluation.”

        I certainly recognise that one Tina. I wonder if it’s tied-in with our compulsion to be productive? We think that in making an arrangement of words that we’ve produced something worthwhile, artful (in the best sense), or useful, even though if it has no context, meaning or relevance, it cannot possibly be so. One has to admit it, it is being a bit precious about one’s endeavours is it not?

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        • I can definitely see that it’s tied to notions of productivity and being precious about one’s endeavors. I want to avoid being precious about my endeavors in everything, but it’s not always easy. (I sense it gets better with age for a lot of people.)

          I keep trying to tell myself to focus on myself as a writer rather than the commercial success of the writing. I also remind myself that the likelihood of getting published or recognized is slim, and this has a strange calming effect on me. Of course I want to get published and I’ll do what I can to make it happen, but when those external forces go away, I can focus better on the craft.

          Besides, what the hell, I have my blog and you guys to talk to! That might turn out to be better than fame.

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      • Well, I for one will certainly buy your book. And there will be one Tina; once you are happy with the work, you will publish it if others are not yet prepared to. It can be a necessary stepping stone, as doubtless you know. Still, in the meantime, then better to use whatever psychological devices you can to keep dwelling in the creative frame of mind rather than thinking about publishers, and cover designs, and blah, blah, blah.

        Gillian Ayres is a painter I have known and admired for some time. She epitomises much of what we are talking about here, and focuses totally on her creative output. It all came good for her as a result of this approach, and you could not wish to meet someone less interested in receiving acknowledgement or gaining financial recognition. In maintaining her creative integrity, she won both in spades.

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        • Thank in advance!

          I got to thinking, what if no one but a few people from my blog buy my book? Well, that’s freaking great! I told myself, “Think of all the time it takes to read a book—you should be honored anyone wants to devote that much time to reading what you have to say—and there’s immediate feedback. And the words won’t go unheard, and they will be actually understood.” If I had a small audience, this would probably be the most perfect outcome really. More is not necessarily better (although it would be nice to make a ton of money, I’m not gonna lie about that). The rest of it I honestly don’t think I would enjoy. Having to do talks and such sounds terrifying. Having people expecting things of you sounds terrible. I’m not looking forward to finishing my novel, truth be told, because I don’t like thinking about agents and crap like that. It hasn’t been hard for me to avoid it. In fact, I “should” be trying to submit short stories or articles on the side, but oh well. Maybe I’ll get the motivation someday.

          The funny thing is, I started this blog as a way to start the ball rolling for my novel, because every writing workshop tells you you must have a blog, etc. I did not want to do it. Now I’m really enjoying it and finding it fills that little part of my soul that actually is social.

          I’m glad to hear a success story like hers. It takes a lot to make it as a painter. They say the same thing about writing, but for some reason I feel like it would be harder for painters. I’m not good at painting, so that might be the reason I think this way, but it feels like a much more elusive process.

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      • Your subscribers and fellow bloggers will indeed by the book Tina. I just bought the paperback of a subscriber to my own blog for example: http://www.lulu.com/shop/poppy-currie/tickling-the-eagle/paperback/product-20612176.html That is a non-fiction work (though quite an amazing story), and Poppy has her books produced on a ‘print on demand’ basis. The quality is okay, but you really want proper offset-lithographic printing with a slick cover and stitched binding I think. Then the thing won’t disintegrate after a couple of readings and will also look good on bookstore shelves. I did my little book on meditation that way, and although I’ll end up giving more away than I sell, I am pleased I chose that route. Still, the eBook outsells the paperback about 10:1; and that’s because I had to price the paperback so high to break even. Amazon want 60% off the cover price, and then there’s distribution costs and so forth. The eBook sells for peanuts because the production costs are virtually zero. I have a feeling though, that eBook readers are more inclined to discard the thing, and I get very little feedback from purchasers in that format.

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    • It has been scientifically demonstrated [1] that the number of proof readings is always N+1, where “N” is the actual number performed. This rule holds regardless of the value of “N”.

      Before the days of spell check, we used to read the text backwards to fool the brain’s expectations, but that doesn’t help much with grammar or more subtle issues.


      [1] Not really.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome post. I have written countless words, and I also play the piano. That mix is interesting, because I can tell you very few people will notice when you make a mistake; either in piano or in writing. There are just the 0.01 percent that will point stuff out (and I am thankful to them), but if I can sell to the 99.99 percent, I don’t care for the pros out there. Still, lots of love.
    Of course, write on a blog with buddies who are amazing writers and you will be in a world of hurt when you bust out a wrong rhyme. Know your audience, I suppose.

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    • Thanks so much!

      You must be good if people don’t notice your mistakes. Unfortunately most of my friends are professional musicians, so I can’t fool them. However, on guitar I play rhythm and it’s pretty easy in comparison to piano. If I screw up, it’s usually because I play the wrong chord, and then, as you say, people rarely notice (except those musician friends, they would, those jerks). I usually just go on and act like I meant to do that. 🙂

      I actually have a beautiful baby grand piano that I don’t play. I thought I’d be able to teach myself, but that didn’t work out. I really don’t know how to read music. I tried to learn one of Chopin’s nocturnes, but that was kind of insane. Since I can’t quite read music, I kept going back and forth from the CD to the music, which is probably all wrong. But when I saw a double sharp—that kind of blew my mind. I’ve heard that those make sense in the context of the piece, but I just found it confusing. Anyways, I needed the CD to figure out things like that. It took me a year to figure it all out (in my head, playing by memory because sight reading was impossible for me) and I could play certain portions of it, but I could never get through the whole thing without screwing up. Sometimes it worked if I could play at warp speed and forget that I was playing. I’m coming at it from the wrong angle, I’m sure. I taught myself guitar and that was so much easier. I’m considering taking a class at the community college to learn the proper way, but I’m being lazy.

      But yes, back to the point. Of course I take writing a bit more seriously—I’m aiming to get it right for the 0.01 percent. I think in writing that percentage might be higher, though. I know for sure that my readers here wouldn’t put up with any nonsense. 🙂

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      • I don’t know if I am good or my friends are just less awesome than yours! We’ll keep that a secret for now, just in case any of my buddies is reading this…

        That said, you are correct. Pros will always be ‘in the know,’ so you have to bring your ‘A’ game. Exempla gratia: I was conscripted to the church choir as soon as people knew I was taking piano classes – accompanying music of course, even though conservatory did place me in choir so I could understand pitch better. I played to my heart’s content in that church group, making all sorts of mistakes and improvising on the good ol’ tunes. No one noticed – except for the improvisations, when I really got out of hand and, even though they were complete crap, everyone loved them. However, when I had a concert at the conservatory… well… teachers with rulers and musicians with metronomes, all of them… so I had to behave. It is the same thing for audiences. If I am writing a teenage novel I will not concern myself with language and grammar. What comes out will be good, because I am a good writer. If I am writing on my blog here… man… I really try to excel, and even then I fail sometimes. I know you guys all notice, and that makes me even more concerned – you are my 0.01 percent. I had a friend once tell me that he stopped reading one of my papers because I had made two grammar errors. I love that guy to pieces, even more now that I know I can count on him to be honest about my writing. So ya, if you are writing for that 0.01 percent, you better be on top of it.

        Man! I cannot believe you have a grand piano! I would kill for one of those. I have a vertical studio, and that thing plays like a cat died in it, but it is not bad for keeping up with my piano skills. I don’t play much anymore, my mother thought it would be good for me to stop writing for a while and do something else, so I wasn’t too fond of the four years I spent at conservatory. I admire the fact you are willing to teach yourself, that stuff is hard! If you can play harmony on the guitar you are doing well. It is that reading thing that seems to be the most problematic issue for you. I am classically trained, so I don’t understand the whole C, D, E, F, G, A, B system you guys have going on in the US; I know the keys as Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Si, like in the “Sound of Music.” It gets worse as I try to explain European music to people, Flats look like little ‘b’s because they are ‘bemolles’ not because we Europeans are crazy. Same thing for ‘sharps,’ they are ‘dieses.’ I think its hilarious flats are called flats because the note you play is already a flat by virtue of the scale in which you play it. All bemolles and dieses do is increase or decrease the pitch of the ‘flat’ note. But ya…I digress. Going back to your comment, it was musical suicide, trying to play Chopin to learn piano. That would be like trying to learn English as a baby by reading Shakespeare. You have to start with the Dr. Seuss version of music, exercises. There is nothing more fulfilling than reading the “Sam I am” of music and being able to play it by sight, not that the music, like Dr. Seuss’ books, makes any sense – they are exercises, who cares, right? I bet if you go online and pull some training sheet music you will get to reading Chopin in no time. I spent a year playing training music under the harshest teacher ever to exist; but at the end of that year I was able to pick up Mozart and play it by sight. Chopin was third year stuff. The rest of the masters were picked up forth year.

        So don’t despair. Baby steps, in writing and in life, are what makes us great.

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        • Yes, your baby steps point is what I’ve been told. I just get bored if I don’t like the piece I’m working on. I was considering getting into pop music. That way I could actually enjoy what I was playing and it wouldn’t be so ridiculously hard. But here in the pop music realm, you see, I’d cheat. I’d go online and find videos and I wouldn’t learn how to read music. With guitar I did the same thing, only I didn’t have internet, so I bought Guitar World magazine and used tabs and CDs to get through it. I took piano lessons as a very young girl and I cheated then too. I pretended to read the music but really I just made my teacher play them for me so I could memorize the pieces. They were so easy there was no way anyone would know. So with the Chopin I tried to trick myself into not cheating. Instead I just didn’t learn anything.

          Cheater cheater, pumpkin eater. That’s me.

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          • Wahahaha, I love it. Consider this: it is not cheating if the tools are available for you. Although, I see the crutch. I took three classes in conservatory: Form, Practice, and Choir. Practice was good, I basically did what you did. Choir was, well, choir. But Form was the best of them. I basically sung notes! I would literally read music without a piano, out loud, and making the notes last as long as they would if I played them. That’s how I learned to read. I could definitely not cheat then. Maybe you should give that a try.

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  3. Excellent post; excellent points; excellent comments! I would echo the idea that most people aren’t good at spotting mistakes, and these days especially people are inclined towards an “it’s all good” point of view (which is actually one of the social sticks in my craw, but that’s another discussion).

    I once spent many days painting an octagon pattern on masonite panels we laid down on our small “theatre in the round” floor for staging Hamlet. The flooring was meant to look like elegant marble tiling. The audience was practically in arm’s length, so they could see it very clearly. I knew every flaw in that floor, and I thought it looked ghastly. All I saw were the mistakes I’d made. (I’d spent days with them inches from my nose.)

    The audience raved about that floor, and I learned an important lesson.

    I had an English teacher who talked a lot about the importance of transparency in writing, although there is such a thing as style. I recently read (and posted about) a pair of SF novels by Parke Godwin whose writing style was anything but transparent. But it was part of the charm of the stories, so clearly transparency isn’t one of those inflexible rules. It probably does take a confident and capable writer to pull it off, though.

    But then art is one of those places where the rules are just “of thumb” and breaking them creatively is often the key to a great work.

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    • Oh yes, there’s the content/style debate over what’s more important, and of course, they’re inseparable. I tend to focus on content because I expect style to follow like a shadow. Others focus on the style and the content follows like a shadow. I wonder how that works out for them? 🙂

      So you’re an artist too? Do you have photos of that floor? Your back must’ve been aching after that!

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      • I’m not sure one is more important than the other so much as it depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. If pure storytelling is the goal, I think one wants to be as transparent and “style-free” as possible. The idea being to allow the reading to become lost in the content.

        But if the goal is exploring the boundaries of text or creating something stylish or unusual, then the sock is on the other foot. The blend of transparent content and style then becomes just part of a given artist’s approach.

        Sadly no pictures. This was back in 1972 or so, when cameras used film and not everyone had one in their pocket. I wish I did at least have a floor plot of the set I helped design. There are more details, plus a small image that’s close to the tile pattern here:
        http://logosconcarne.com/2013/07/05/words-words-words/

        Yes, I absolutely think of myself as an artist (without making any statement on whether I’m a good artist). I define art as “what artists do” which then requires a definition of an artist. I tried to do that here:
        http://logosconcarne.com/2011/08/13/what-is-art/
        and here:
        http://logosconcarne.com/2011/08/15/breaking-the-art-rules/
        for whatever they’re worth.

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  4. I have no idea how to avoid false notes – I just cut as many words as I possibly can and hope I cut the right ones! My general editing mantra is to just try to say as little as possible while still getting my point across. I probably ought to employ this more rigorously on my blog 🙂

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    • Citizen tax collector,
      honestly, the poet
      spends a fortune on words…
      Suppose
      only half a dozen
      unheard-of rhymes were left,
      in, say, Venezuela.
      And so
      I’m drawn
      to North and South.
      I rush around
      entangled in advances and loans.

      Citizen!
      Consider my traveling expenses:
      Poetry –
      all of it –
      is a journey to the unknown.

      Vladimir Mayakovsky

      You reminded me of “Conversation with a Tax Collector about Poetry” with your reply. Cutting and adding words is such a complex thing. Of course, Mayakovsky is trying to get the tax collector not to take his money, so he compares words and their gathering to debt. Later in the poem, he compares the gathering of words to alchemy, saying that he gathers together the ingredients of gun powder to create an explosion at the end of the poem for the reader. Quiet a fascinating read.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Sounds like a great strategy to me. Of course, in everything you cut you have to decide which words are carrying enough weight and which are just not working.

      BTW, I think you do a great job of being succinct on your blog, and you’re often dealing with big topics on which I’d probably go off the deep end for 3K+ words. I have no idea what your other writing is like, but based on your blog, it must be good!

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  5. Another thought: I forget where I heard it, but the statement was that one of the hardest things for a writer is learning to throw away your own work — especially when you’re really happy with some clever bit of writing. But it’s one of the most vital skills to learn.

    A related comment that stuck with me is that, as tragic as losing hours worth of writing can be (due to, say, a computer glitch), when you do re-write what you lost, it’s almost always more tight. It reminds me of the famous Fred Brooks line (about software): Be prepared to throw the first one away. You will anyway.

    Good writing requires “killing your children!”

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  6. The reason small decisions are “harder” than big ones is because with the big ones, you’ll be sure about them once you’ve got it right. With certain kinds of small decisions, it’s a lot harder to know whether or one way is better than another no matter how much you think about it.

    Or at least that’s the way it is for me.

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    • I don’t know what it is, but I always have a harder time with the big ones. I’m never sure of them. Even after I’ve written a chapter, I think of all the different directions I could have taken and wonder if one of those would have been better. Then I take a hike and that sometimes clears my head enough to pick one way or another.

      Oh well, I get a lot of exercise that way!

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  7. Years ago in grad school, I took an e-commerce course. Most of what I learned in that course was immediately forgotten, but a particular insight from it has stayed with me. The teacher had the class go to several textbook retail websites and evaluate their user interface (something web designers often stress over), giving each site a usability score. The teacher then summarized the usability survey results and provided them back to us, and then had us look up each site’s web traffic to see what the effects of usability might be on the site’s traffic. The results of this exercise revealed that, unless it was truly horrible, the user interface didn’t matter. What mattered was whether the site had the product customers were looking for.

    I give that anecdote to explain my thoughts on writing quality and style. I think if you’re telling a good story, the writing style probably won’t matter (unless it is truly terrible with lots of grammar issues or is incoherent). If your writing style is brilliant, it might lead readers, particularly other writers, to appreciate and comment on its brilliance, but it’s unlikely in and of itself to make them read it unless the story is at least minimally captivating.

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    • This is an interesting analogy and I think it works well.

      My IT friend likes to complain about the way websites look/function and I usually have no idea what he’s talking about. I’m might find a few problems or even notice inelegant design if I had to get around in there and actually use the site, but he spots these things right away. I’m just happy to get at the information I need, as you say, without too much trouble. I suppose the same holds true for writing. Writers notice mistakes or problems faster and have less of a tolerance for them than the general public.

      Liked by 1 person

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