How To “Write” Write

By April 29, 2014Writing about Writing

An interesting side-effect of working at the UCWbL is that to some of my friends, I’m now an accessible resource to help them on their assignments whenever they feel that they need my help. I’m an official to them. I can officially diagnose and cure their paper like I’m some sort of word surgeon. The problem is that they don’t bother to go through post-surgery physical therapy and wind up in the doctor’s office when the next assignment rolls in.

So what gives? Am I not helping them adequately enough? Are they abusing my advice and help?

My conjecture is that what they absorb from me is how to write, but not how to write write. What’s the difference? For our purposes here, writing is the act of organizing thoughts in a clean, easy-to-understand structure of words and paragraphs. Writing writing, however, is the act of thoroughly marrying these ideas with the malleability and personal creative tools that words provide us. And don’t mistake me — I’m not disparaging my friends for being uncreative or anything like that. Tutoring someone on how to write is relatively straightforward and somewhat standardized, like teaching someone how to play the guitar. Tutoring someone on how to write write is a much more ethereal jungle of unknown exploration and experimentation — it would be like teaching someone how to play the guitar solo to “Stairway to Heaven” before that guitar solo even existed.

Writing is a skill — a very important, utterly necessary skill — that everyone practices. Writing writing is closer to something of a talent. It’s not exactly entirely possible to teach or tutor talent, but you can discover it — and everyone has it deep within. You just have to know what to look for in the words.

So here’s what I’ve found in my time as an UCWbL tutor to be some core tenants of writing writing:

1. Less is more.

2. Words can mean whatever you want them to mean if it’s obvious to the reader what the new meaning is.

3. There are so many interesting-sounding words. Use them.

 4. Project your humanity.

Since 1 and 3 are relatively straightforward and surface-level, I’ll focus on the even-numbered tenants.

2. Words can mean whatever you want them to mean if it’s obvious to the reader what the new meaning is.

There’s an old quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway (the original another is unverified and will probably remain a mystery forever) that is used as a perennial favorite to demonstrate principle 1, but I think it demonstrates the malleability and extended depth of meaning that words can take on. It’s sometimes billed as the world’s shortest story, and it goes like this: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

That’s it. Six words, three sentences. There’s a nice symmetry and simplicity to it, but the meaning and ideas expressed here extend far past the literal use of the words. Okay great, someone is selling baby shoes, one might say. There aren’t any fancy words or anything, and those are probably sentence fragments on top of that. It’s true, there aren’t fancy words and they are sentence fragments. But what writing writing can accomplish is hidden meaning that requires contextualization and humanistic association on behalf of the reader. Not the writer. What’s the context and human association here? The simplicity of the sentence practically begs the reader to imagine the person selling the baby shoes. Natural questions arise: why are they selling baby shoes? Why would the baby shoes never be worn? It could be that the person purchased the wrong size of shoe for their kid. But what if the baby died before they worse the shoes?

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

Would the wording of the story be so sparse and hard-hitting if the person simply bought the wrong size? Why would Hemingway frame the story so abstractly to get the reader thinking if the hidden depth was something as unemotionally charged as making a mistake? It seems to make more sense that the ultra-simplicity that begs for reader introspection would point to the harsher, human truth of dealing with loss. He could have spent three paragraphs describing the mother’s weeping and depression, but would that have been as effective as getting the reader to discover that emotion themselves? Or as efficient?

That’s writing writing. Emotions by nature are almost impossible to describe literally using words. Try it. Try to describe “fear” to me in a way that would make me completely understand what you felt when you woke up in the middle of the night and heard a creepy noise. It’s… kind of impossible. It’s like describing the color green to a blind person, or trying to accurately describe the taste of chicken alfredo to someone who has never tasted it. You just can’t do it: language (written and spoken) is a flawed, limited medium. That’s why you write around the writing. You write write by hiding the depth of whatever idea you’re expressing so that the reader has to think and search within themselves to discover what you were trying to say. So instead of trying to describe fear, you’d write a sentence or two about something that would provoke the reader to attach their own experiences of fear to it. You make them do the job for you.

So let’s try it out. Let’s describe fear by writing and by writing writing.

I was walking down the street late and night when I heard footsteps behind me. They got louder and louder, and I started to get paranoid, thinking that I might get mugged, or worse. The guy behind me eventually passed me, and the moment he brushed past my shoulder was terrifying, but ultimately harmless.


Disrupting the quiet intimacy of my night walk, each footstep I heard behind me hammered a nail of unease into my brain. Deeper and deeper the nail went, extinguishing any other thoughts I was working on until the whole universe seemed geared to break me.

Admittedly this isn’t the best example since I just came up with it, but let’s roll with it. What seems to connect more to the human universality of feeling helplessly afraid: “I started to get paranoid”  or “the whole universe seemed geared to break me”? The first expressly tells the reader how I felt, whereas the second invites the reader to imagine how I felt. You make the words mean whatever you want them to mean by projecting your humanity. Those are tenants 2 and 4, and they go a long, long way in evolving writing into writing writing.

But hey, that’s just my take. I’m just as right or wrong as anyone about this confusing little medium.