It is always the writer’s responsibility to anticipate the reader’s needs.
That’s the overarching principle of good writing.
I learned that in my tenth-grade English class from a brilliant teacher (and writer) who ignited my love for the craft. Beneath the overarching principle, there are three sub-principles, two of them are:
+ Show, don’t tell.
+ Keep it simple.
For those familiar with my writing, it may be ironic to read this. Where do I get the nerve pontificating about the principles of writing when I betray them at every turn? It may even appear that I’m not anticipating anyone’s needs.
So what gives?
Well, a few things.
First, let me say that if you are frustrated and unimpressed by my ridiculous vocabulary, you’re not alone. I’ve heard the same thing countless times. So why the prolixity?
To understand that, we must come to our third and final principle of good writing:
+ Kill your darlings.
As far as I can remember, this has been the thing I’ve struggled with the most — like a habit you can’t kick. Even as far back as the aforementioned English class, my wordiness was a problem.
Oh, the verbosity!
Darlings are a primary symptom of this type of literary pathology. Typically, they comprise quotations, expressions, turns-of-phrase, figures of speech, idioms, axioms, loquacious adumbrations, and lavish, gratuitous word choice.
A darling is a literary tool, word, or mechanism that you love (it’s your darling!) but does nothing to enhance, and indeed detracts from, meaning and message. Filling an essay with pointless, fancy words and expressions that most people aren’t familiar with is a guaranteed way to confuse and lose your audience.
That’s the truth — and I already know it.
The problem is that I love words. I love them. I really do.
And it’s a true love. The sort of love I have for chess. Or baseball.
They are my darlings.
And the inherent ineffability of human experience makes word choice all the more critical. The more I knead and massage language — the more precise I can make an expression — the closer I will be to the truth.
At least, that’s what I envision in my head.
To me, the expressions “tales of her wanton past made him tumescent” and “his movements were auspiciously inconspicuous” sound clear and concise.
But they’re not, are they?
So, I’ve become a killer.
I kill my darlings when writing to friends, family, and colleagues. I kill my darlings as a content and copywriter. I kill my students’ darlings as an editor.
Figuratively speaking, I’m quite the butcher.
Editing my novel has become an act of genocide. Even in everyday conversation, more often than not, I catch myself slaying a darling here, executing a darling there.
So where do all the dead darlings go? Where do all the pointless, pompous, fancy-for-the-sake-of-fancy, needlessly convoluted concatenation of words go to rest in peace?
You guessed it: here, in my Literary Elba—my Darling Necropolis.
This is where the words I want to use, but know I shouldn’t, come to play and die. Here is where I experiment and play with language, unencumbered by the pesky quibbles of an illusory audience. Here, I put unlikely bedfellows together in sentences and watch them interact.
I’ll admit, things sometimes get a little out of hand. In many ways, this is my laboratory, training ground, and flight simulator. This is where I learn new words, expand my vocabulary, and sharpen my pen’s tongue, so to speak. It’s futile only to search for meaning. Anyone can look up a word, read it, understand it, and promptly forget it.
But words don’t become yours by reading them. Learning about or knowing a word doesn’t make it yours. That’s just a word on loan, a fleeting relationship.
To own words — to rip off the tag and take off the cover and store them permanently in your mental library — you must use them.
This is (in part) what I do here. This is the best solution I’ve found as a genuine logophile.
While most of what I produce must have the shine and polish of a final draft, these entries are mired in complex (often to the point of face-palming) sentence structures and vocabulary just for the fun of it.
Does that make any sense to anyone?