Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Mr. Cizak's Writing Tips #5 -- Get to the point!

The fall semester has started. I've been busy teaching college freshmen how to write essays and sophomores how to write about reading. I had forgotten my original topic for the fifth and final installment of my brief but pretentious writing tips series. No worries, my students have provided a replacement topic.

When I delivered my style presentation, a lecture I've been giving students for three years now, a mini-riot broke out. My livelier 101 class did not like the idea that flowery language was frowned upon by contemporary writers like me. The presentation consists of long, convoluted sentences with giant, thirty-cent words, and rewrites of those sentences in a more minimalist, rational phrasing. I finally explained that I was not forcing them to write in a nice, concise manner, merely showing them how to do it. They worried that if they wrote long, convoluted sentences with flowery language, would I dock their grades? I explained that their primary obligation was to make claims, support them with credible sources, and do so in an orderly, structured manner.

It seems to me that the "maximalists" have gotten to my students. You remember "maximalism," don't you? This was a movement started in the late 1990s. Short story writers were worried that movies would wipe out fiction (an alarmist cry I heard as recently as 2012, when a jaggoff film professor from Minnesota State University told me I was wasting my time writing fiction). In effort to combat the "damage" film had done to fiction, "maximalist" writers rejected the tidy, efficient minimalism that had been developing in fiction since Hemingway. They decided to cram as much as they could in an 8000 word short story. Or maybe they were just trying to get paid more by writing more. Who knows? The result was/has been nearly twenty years of The Best American Short Stories volumes crammed with excruciatingly long, boring narratives about upper class twits pondering the mortality of their belly-buttons.

I suppose young people, having grown up with "maximalism" being the dominant form of fiction, have developed a myopia that prevents them from seeing the value of concision.

Well, I do recognize the value of concision. Readers don't have time to count the fibers in the lint of a writer's belly-button. So get to the point.

I've read numerous mystery novels where the patterns on the drapes of a room are described before it is revealed that there is a dead body on the floor. This is problematic. I realize fans of the genre are detail-oriented. There's nothing wrong with that. But let us know essentials before you delve into the architecture of the room (UNLESS, of course, the architecture is crucial to solving the murder).

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