Jan 21 Written by 

Workshop Advice That Will Ruin Personal Essays

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Here is what I was taught about writing descriptions in both poetry and fiction:

  • take the adjectives out
  • choose verbs carefully; "the difference between the wrong verb and the right verb is like the difference between the lightning bug and lightning" (a misquote, but it's functional)
  • never use adverbs
  • cut, cut, cut every word you don't absolutely need
  • make every word count
  • detailed descriptions are old-fashioned and slow down the story and annoy the reader
  • use short sentences and paragraphs
  • "If you write a passage that you think is particularly fine, strike it out," also expressed as "Kill your darlings"
  • be extremely economical and concise with language; the writers who did that correctly were Ernest Hemingway and Emily Dickinson, so write like them
  • never write "very"; if you have to use "very" you have chosen the wrong adjective

In other words: Put your poetry and fiction on a strict diet and treat words like calories.

All this was very 20th-century when the style was for stripped, bony, "masculine" prose like Hemingway's, not sparkling and vivid like Fitzgerald's, although nobody pointed out that Hemingway's style was right for his subjects, hunting and war and fishing, while Fitzgerald's was right for describing romance, youth and parties.

When I came to write essays, I realized almost all of the above advice was ruinous for personal essays. I now think essays about life should have the shape and texture of life. They should be long and rich and fill pages and explore tangents and use the five senses. I revise creative nonfiction NOT by stripping the piece to the bone but adding facts and details to enrich and clarify and layer it. Not fat, but flesh. James Baldwin, whose style is sumptuous, first inspired me to write personal essays, and I noticed he makes his most careful choices when selecting adjectives rather than verbs, although if I must choose between them, I will work harder on finding a good verb.

Of course I have somebody read my drafts and tell me where I went overboard and where there isn't enough, or where I'm unclear, and then I revise until the essay makes sense to everyone who reads it. It can't be merely expressive, as some poetry is; it must make sense, and not just to me.

I still believe in not using "very."

Catherine Rankovic

Writer, with 30+ years' writing and publishing experience, 20+ years' teaching experience. Last book read: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton.