The goal or the glory
GIVEN THAT MY typical work-from-my-Florida-home garb is shorts and a tee-shirt, it’s not too much of a stretch to consider wearing a soccer kit to my desk one morning.
Why? Well, I’ve always wanted to celebrate writing what feels like a particularly zingy sentence by emulating one of those flashy players. You know, the ones who mark scoring a goal by doing a flip and then sliding on their knees in a “worship me!” salute to their fans. Only the prospect of a rug burn puts me off.
Well, that and looking like a show-boater. If you want adulation, writing is probably the wrong occupation. Unless you’re going to livestream your typical workday (and do you really want people to see you staring into space, rearranging your pens yet again, idly stroking your keyboard, and sighing?), most of your work is done out of sight.
Having said that, I find there’s still a temptation to want to be “seen” through my writing. Here’s four things I try to keep in mind to avoid playing to the gallery.
1. Remember words are like pearls—at their best when they are polished and strung in the right order. Having said that, their purpose is to accentuate the appeal of their subject, not draw attention to themselves. The reader is supposed to go away saying, “Did you see that beautiful woman wearing that striking string of pearls?” Not, “Did you see those gorgeous pearls someone was wearing?”
2. As long as you’re not just preening, don’t worry too much about reading level. Sure, some people might not get what you’re saying, but if you simplify things too much you’re only going to lose readers at the other end of the spectrum who feel like you’re being condescending. (That means looking down on them, to steal an old but good joke.) Stick with what’s comfortable for you; that’s your voice. Don’t be an impressionist.
3. Write a little more than needed. If your assignment has a word count of 1,000, draft 1,100 or so. If the manuscript it supposed to be 50,000, shoot for 55,000 or some. Then cut. Two reasons. It’s going to make you communicate more tightly. And it’s going to keep you humble, recognizing that your words are not inviolate. God writes in stone (the Ten Commandments); we scribble on clay, at best.
4. Read your draft out loud (or get your software to do it for you). There’s something about speaking the words into the air that acts like a pomposity filter; that golden prose suddenly sounds all purply. It’s also remarkable how when you actually hear the words, you’re able to spot typos or missing words that your brain somehow slips over or compensates for when you’re just reading text silently.
As I have previously observed, the goal of good writing was well summed up by the prophet Habakkuk, who urged people to “write the vision; make it plain . . . so he may run who reads it” (Hab. 2: 2). In other words, don’t try to be clever. Be clear, so that the reader is moved to do something. It’s all about the goal, not the personal glory.
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