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Clare Cooper & Felicity Van Rysbergen

Clare Cooper & Felicity Van Rysbergen

What I learned about writing from the Modernist literary masters. Or, how to Marie Kondo your writing style for greater clarity.

Good writers are those that keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear.

— Ezra Pound, American poet, editor and critic

 

As all the great Modernist writers knew, delving into your imagination and expressing emotion via words is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Ezra Pound’s contribution to literature was immense, not least because he taught writers to keep it simple. Before Ezra, poems and novels were often ponderous and lyrical. After Ezra took a red pen to T.S Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts, the accepted writerly language was more concise, succinct and mimicked the cadences of the spoken word.

In short, he was the Marie Kondo of Modernist Literature!

We’re still following Ezra’s writing rules today – perhaps even more so. Everyone has a personal writing style that uniquely conveys his or her opinion. Finding that unique voice is as much to do with what you take out (or edit) as what you leave in.

Here are some easy editing tips a’ la Ezra to perfect your own voice:

Think about your intended audience

When forming a concept, it’s important to decide on the audience you want to address. Writing with an intended audience in mind encourages you to relate your words to your readers. While eloquent or smarty-pants phrases may look good on paper, they’re not ideal for every situation. Write as if you were directly speaking to your audience and you’ll nail your message every time.

Word choice

No one enjoys reading excessively long sentences. Before you send your work out into the world, go through it carefully and cut out words that don’t contribute anything to the message you want to convey. Common examples of words you can immediately take a red pen to include:

  • Just
  • Very
  • That
  • It seems
  • In my opinion
  • I think.

Brevity

Readers today are lazy. Long, winding sentences may throw them off. Nobody wants to work that hard.

So, keep your sentences at a maximum 15- 25 words. Break down your ideas into smaller sentences and you’ll captivate your reader’s attention.

Similarly, paragraphs should comprise one to three sentences only. Large blocks of text are very off-putting and will encourage people to skim over your thoughtfully constructed work. No writer wants that!

A great way to check if you’re over-writing your sentences is to use Hemingway – an online tool dedicated to slashing the meaningless phrases from your work just as Ezra Pound did for the actual Hemingway.

Voice

You’ve got two voices to choose from when writing: active or passive. Active voice is far stronger and direct because it usually contains fewer words per sentence and keeps the concept you want to convey simple. Ezra Pound loved it. For example, ‘I want cereal’ (active) is much easier to understand than ‘the cereal was wanted by me’ (passive).

Format

Your writing’s format is defined by the white spaces in between paragraphs. Fiction writers use this white space to give their readers time to breathe and think about what they’ve read.

To generate more white space and allow the reader’s eye to move freely down the page, try using these formatting techniques in your work:

  • Bullet points
  • Headings
  • Bold text
  • Numbered lists.

Grammar

Correct grammar and spelling are vital to great writing. Grammar justifies the structure and form of your sentences (morphology) and how you arrange your words in a sentence (syntax). If you don’t conform to grammatical rules others may find it difficult to understand your writing.

On the other hand, don’t get too caught up in grammatical correctness. The great Modernist writers famously played with the rules because – hey – once you’ve mastered grammar, tone of voice and style, you’re free to mix it up a little.

Consider one of the most iconic paragraphs in all of Modernist Literature from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Don’t try this at home unless you’re a bona fide master!

 

half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

— Ulysses, James Joyce

As you can see from the above excerpt, punctuation, especially commas, can change a sentence’s meaning. Let’s eat, grandpa’ has a very different meaning to ‘let’s eat grandpa.’

Removing all commas, like Joyce has, allows the reader to determine their own meaning from the text.

In everyday writing, it’s better to maintain some control over your message. Use punctuation accurately and you have a very powerful tool in your writing arsenal. There are online tools to help if it’s not your strong point – try Grammarly.

Challenging your creative mind to convey thoughts and emotions on the page can be a very difficult task.

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