Letters to my protege: seminal thoughts on the art of writing (4)

Dear Babatunde,

My last letter to you terminated on the sanctity of simplicity to your writing. You must develop the mental discipline required to consciously curtail the impulse to needlessly use big words every time you write. Big words – those strident bullies in your mind always striving to browbeat simplicity into undesirable submission.
This constant pummelling of simplicity, if allowed to fester and find expression in your craft will disgust the reader and leave him disillusioned with all your offerings. You may lose him forever like some have lost me.

There are some people whose works I can’t stand because you can tell from their writing that they make deliberate attempts at showboating without ever attempting to lead the rooster home. This is why I plead with you to always keep it simple.

There are times when all you need to say is that a character was confused rather than saying he was discombobulated all in a vainglorious display of your knowledge of the word. Most times, the frequency of such words in your writing sidetracks the reader and distracts him from the message. What can be very repulsive is when some “writers” don’t even grasp the appropriate use and placement of said words and end up using an adjective like insidious as a verb. Seriously?

Today, I write to you about developing a personal style which invariably becomes your literary identity; your style forms an integral component of your future literary reputation. Consider this letter an introduction as I will be writing to you on the various elements of style in the days ahead.

Style is not the substance; it is the wrap in which the substance is packaged although both are delicately woven into each other. Style is the “how” not the “what” – substance is the “what”. Style is how the what is presented. It is that distinct approach employed by individual writers in treating similar or varied subjects. It is the hotly debated point of divergence between Wole Soyinka’s works and Chinua Achebe’s works.

Style can be developed consciously by making deliberate attempts to imitate and tailor your writing towards the established pattern of a writer you respect. It can also be developed unconsciously when it rubs off on you as you read and study a particular writer whose style fascinates you. In this instance, after an extended period of deep romance with the writer’s works, you find yourself writing just like them. It could also be developed through a combination of both processes.

An individual’s style can also be a hybrid – a potpourri of styles from two or more writers. In this case you find DNA traces of each writer’s style reflected in your writing.

In deploying any style at all, it is important that you command a good measure of elegance of expression. In our calling, how a message is communicated is just as important as the message itself. What is written is of equal importance as how it is written. Wondrous ideas poorly expressed are like Cinderella before the fictional grand ball – beautiful in and out but distorted by her slovenly apparel and the drudgery of her menial occupation. Such a style holds absolutely no attraction for anyone. On the other hand, wonderful ideas beautifully expressed are like Cinderella at the ball, transformed by the magic of her fairy godmother – her beauty shining through – capturing and arresting the attention of all.

A writer could possess such glorious ideas, yet his writing would be resentful to readers because his style is dull, uninspiring and nondescript. His prosaic style regrettably veils the beauty of his ideas like the slavish clothes hid the comeliness of “pre-prom” Cinderella. Then, there could be another writer who has readers falling head over heels and buying into his odoriferous thoughts and ideas because he writes sumptuously. Style is key.

Bear in mind however, that being able to write elegantly and masterfully is not an end in itself but a means to an end. It is simply the beautiful fragrance and sweet taste that baits the child and compels him to take the medicine he detests but needs. Your readers are like that. Your ideas might be celestial and limitless but their attention span is finite and you desire for them to take it all in from start to finish. To win the battle for their straying attention, you need a bait that will lure them in and leave them hooked to your words to the end that they admittedly can’t get enough of you.

Don’t make the mistake of conflating style with your unwarranted preference for misplaced and misused claptrap. More often than not, your undue use of big words convolutes the meaning of your texts and leaves your readers distracted, confused and no more informed than when they first encountered your work. In fact, I have found that some writers ingeniously mask their mental penury with high-sounding words; it doesn’t take men whose literary tastes have been sharpened and refined more than a few minutes of perfunctory inspection to expose the emptiness of such works. The poverty of ideas screams back at them in deafening tones.

The commanding and arresting style I speak of sprouts from the writer’s conscious ability to combine simple words excellently. It is a sleek and sweet ordering of his thoughts and ideas in such a manner that he transmits his intended message as clearly and simply as possible while also tickling the reader’s fancy, gripping his attention and holding it in unquestioning detention.

With that kind of writing, the reader was perhaps required to read a sentence but unwittingly, he gets drawn into the paragraph; his intention was to extract the paragraph for reference purposes but he finds himself helplessly plunging into the entire chapter. The lecturer recommended a chapter but he finds himself swallowed up by the entire book and unable to detach himself. That is the wonder and magic of style.

Also, you should not be too serious in your writing that it becomes devoid of flavour. Some writers are all gravel! No seasoning to give the work the sizzling aroma and scrumminess that leaves the reader drooling with anticipation and excitement for what comes next. That kind of sternness probably works for some; but if your writing is to be the darling of many an enlightened reader’s heart, you must learn to spin a wonderful cocktail of gravitas and lightness. Let the reader see joy in your writing. Writing is a lot of hard work but it is immense fun. Let your readers feel that it is. If writing is drudgery for you, then you probably weren’t called to write.

You may be required to narrate joyless events filled with enough pain and suffering to move the reader to tears and do it in such a way that leaves the reader engrossed and unwilling to be spared his emotional travail. Your work could have a political slant or even be all-political and still not bore or weary the reader. It is important that your readers enjoy you.

Truth is, no one reads just for reading sakes or merely for the information value: even if they don’t know this or know it but choose not to admit it, it’s a stated fact. If people feel they have to read something, they want to enjoy it. It has to be worth their while. If they don’t find pleasure and relief in your work, they won’t stay with you even if yours was the most powerful of messages. Why do you think students derive utmost pleasure reading sweetly written fiction as opposed to reading their government or physics textbooks? It’s simply because they enjoy the one above the others. And so, except the government or physics subject can be related in a way that captures the interest of the student, he’ll be doing a lot more fiction for a while to come and we’d be left with fewer scientists, innovators in technology and of course, fewer political theorists and public administrators.

Your writing should possess its ample dose of entertainment value. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Would you pay for or spend time to read what you’re writing? What I mean here is this: you are faced with two pathways that lead to a palace filled with all kinds of pleasures and treasures; one pathway is a smooth but vacillating one paved with milk and honey and the other is a labyrinth strewed with thorns, briers and thistles. Which would you rather travel on? If each pathway described above represented a book, an article or any piece of writing at all, which would you read?

Remember that as your readers navigate each sentence and paragraph, they tread the same path you trod before you arrived at the finished article. With probing minds, they share in your experiences. They may not experience the exact same things you encountered as you penned each line, but they are led every step of the way through your writing to see what you saw, feel what you felt and perceive what you perceived. There are aspects of your narration, even if it is fiction, that will resonate with your reader. Every paragraph and passage should provide pleasure. If the intent is to stir the reader’s emotion, it should do just that in an enjoyable way.

If the path to producing a piece of writing was not journeyed upon pleasurably, it will reflect in the work and such work won’t offer pleasure. It will be as drab and dreary as the process that produced it. Even if your writing was spurred by pain – a personal tragedy or in tragic circumstances or is an account of tragic events like say the genocide in Rwanda – the pleasure you derive from writing will ensure you deliver a compelling narration that sustains the reader’s interest.

Keep Writing

Your fellow traveller,

Bamidele Salako

(c) 2014

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