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.