Casting Light in the Heart of Writerly Darkness

highWhen you are rocking and rolling writing your story and the words are flowing and you are way out on that word flow high, it is definitely time for a dose of reality. Whether you break for lunch or revisit what you have written the next day, you should take a long, skeptical look at what is on the page, because when you most get carried away by your writing – in other words when the process feels at its absolute best – you are quite likely to be way off base from what you meant to say. The words can take on a life of their own and go off in directions that have no bearing on actual sense.

Here is the antidote to those renegade words. It is not a poison pill; it is a question:

What am I trying to say?

Before you take a second look at what you wrote, answer this paramount question in actual words, either out loud or in your head. Then compare your intent with what you wrote. And if the written words do not clearly express what you meant for them to, revision is in order.

This question is one of four that George Orwell spells out for writers in his essay, “Politics and the English Language.” It is number one on the list because it goes to the heart of writerly darkness: what am I really trying to say? The other three questions that Orwell says writers should ask themselves have to do with process, how to make the sense clear:

What words will express it?

What image or idiom will make it clearer?

Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

George Orwell said every scrupulous writer must ask her/himself these questions about every sentence she/he writes. Meticulous, huh? That’s the kind of discipline it takes to be a great writer. So fight the writer’s high; writing is work.