The other day, I read an article by a well-known author whose skills as a writer were usurped by his incessant attempts to prove it. The result was a dead flop. His central point was lost in a morass of flowery language, made-up phrases, and never-ending belaboured metaphors. When the goal is to dazzle an audience with literary brilliance, writing becomes a circus act. Masterful use of language is short, unadorned, powerful and to the point. The art form should always be about telling a story, while caressing the audience with a sense of wonder. Good writing is ego-less, a love affair with the reader.
The Nobel-prize-winning poet, Seamus Heaney, filtered down writing's herculean power of persuasion to just a few perfectly-nuanced words. In his poem, Digging, he writes “Between my finger and my thumb; The squat pen rests; Snug as a gun.” No embellishment, no flowery trips of fantasy. Just one metaphor, brilliantly constructed. What would have taken another less adept writer pages of text to explain, Heaney achieved in one short sentence. No ego here. Just pure skill. The result is a powerful punch, expertly executed.
Good writing always unleashes the reader's imagination. But that effect is never accomplished with heavily adorned long dissertations. A writer has to keep their ego in check to avoid the pitfall that so many of us fall into – the temptation to “wow” the audience, instead of engaging them. The most interesting and elegant writing is concise and to the point, carefully using words that evoke magic. However, the enticing language of Seamus Heaney shows us that the true secret of irresistible writing lies in its precision and formatting. A great writer knows how to weave words skillfully, stringing them together in specific ways for maximum impact. Metaphors and other tricks of the trade are used to enhance the meaning and move the reader to feel strong emotion, not arrogantly pound them into a stupor.
Try to remember your favourite books, the ones you fell in love with, that set your imagination on fire. Were they long cumbersome tomes like Lord Jim, where Joseph Conrad unabashedly used one page for each sentence? Probably not. His literary ostentation appeals more to pseudo-intellectuals than to anyone who simply desires a good read. Or did your favourite books resemble the work of legendary Ray Bradbury, as they “stuffed your senses with wonder” while you frantically turned the pages, hanging onto every word of Something Wicked This Way Comes? His extraordinary classic, The Martian Chronicles, swept me away to different galaxies and worlds in the tenth grade. I wanted to stay on Mars forever and never return to earth.
The ability to put people under a spell, with a few perfect words sublimely assembled, is an art form - the result of many years of polishing a natural gift. But we will only arrive at that mecca in our careers when we humbly get out of our own way first.