We begin our second episode of Remarkable Writing Techniques with a lesson in distinctiveness from Dada artist, writer, and general fruit-bat, Kurt Schwitters. On the face of it Schwitters' sound poem, "Ursonate", doesn't make sense, but I think that it's an excellent illustration of the need for distinctiveness.
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A writing lesson from the back of a motorcycle
(3:15 mins.) We follow that with more on writing distinctiveness – this time from the back of a Triumph Bonneville. Except that this one doesn’t just concern writing: Distinctiveness is more than a writing technique. It’s something you have to create across your brand, in everything you do on your platform.
The message is this: Beware the cliché of every kind - clichés of form, clichés of ideas, cliches of perspective, of design, of conception, and so on. Go through your writing and your branding and find the clichés. Then do a Kurt Schwitters on them. (For an in-depth Slideshare presentation on avoiding convention and cliche, go here.)
Do you want to sound like everyone else?
(6:30 mins.) More on the technique of distinctiveness. We move to a discussion of George Orwell’s quote from his essay Politics and the English Language:
“Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print”
Or, of course, on pixels. So, do you want to sound like everyone else? Don't answer that. If I ever see you use terms like “rockstar blogger”, or “WTF?”, I’ll come to your house and do a Kurt Schwitters on you. Do you hear me? You’re supposed to avoid buzzwords and catch phrases – unless, of course, you want to sound like everyone else.
Orwell was wont to make constant changes and re-writes until he found the right words:
I know what you're thinking
Now, I know what you’re not thinking: “Clichés in writing are handy. I don’t have to think - I just slot them in and that saves me time.” Erm, yes. That’s correct.
But thinking is the whole point: Good writing is about choosing the words that capture your true meaning, not reaching for the easiest cliche. So, learn to take a moment to look for accurate, interesting, fresh, clear ways to do the capturing. Your readers deserve it.
The most useful writing technique of all?
So, here’s one of the most useful writing techniques ever invented: Stop and ask, this question
“What exactly am I trying to say here?”
The question is so simple that we often ignore its power. It amazes me how often I've struggled with a piece of writing, for hours on end until I really faced up to this question. Ouch.
So, what are you trying to say? Your writing should reflect your voice, not everyone else’s. To find your voice, think your word choice through. It'll help.
Distinctive writing in drama
(12:00 mins.) We head to the lobby of a local theater only to find Host regaling his literary lackeys. Amidst the swill of hooch and the clink of glass, Host takes his cue from Edmund White, who wrote:
“Great theater begins with great talkers… and great talkers… never sound like anyone else…”
The need for distinctive writing is as true for non-fiction writers – meaning you – as it is for screenwriters, playwrights, novelists, and everyone else: You have to find your own voice and make it distinctive. Cheers.
How to sell half a million digital books
Now, (15:20 mins.) Host changes the subject for a few moments to talk about a fitness instructor called mike Geary. Geary has sold half a million digital books that he wrote and marketed himself – no editiors, no publishers, no gatekeepers, no middle-men – all by himself. See the book here: www.truthaboutabs.com.
Now Geary would never have become a writer in the days before the platform. And his writing is not the pristine stuff you'd expect to see in the New Yorker. But it serves its purpose. There are writing techniques behind the sales pages if you look closely. I’ve been an entrepreneur for the last 25 years. I know I’ve said it before but, everything is changing. We’re seeing the rise of the solopreneur and the age of the information product. And the ability to perform certain crucial writing functions has enormous potential value. Are you with me?
"Too many -ings"
Here’s a stealth writing technique from Roy Peter Clark that impacts distinctiveness:
Avoid too many –ing verb endings.
I recommend that you listen to the anecdote that I take from Clark’s excellent Writing Tools (21:00 mins). I highly recommend that book – there's a kind of audio summary of it here.
But why are ‘too many –ings’ bad for your writing? Well, first of all, when you have too many verbs ending in -ing, the verbs all start to look like each other. With too many ings there’s a dullness and a sameness about the piece. It’ll look flat and generic, rather than vigorous and distinctive. With each –ing ending that you use, you’re almost certain to lose a little bit more of the reader’s interest. Still with me?
Weak verb forms
Beyond the sameness problem, –ings are inherently weaker verb forms. The ing ending creates what’s known as a gerund. But gerunds refer to generic activities, things that we can’t envisage. ‘Swimming’, ‘singing’, ‘walking’, ‘talking’ refer to activities in some general sense, not to a specific person doing something.
It's always better to write about specific people doing specific things so the reader can follow visually. Specifics, and in particular, specific people doing specific things, make for engaging and distinctive writing. Like in the audio anecdote from the busy office. Or when we track down George Orwell.
Watch out for the ings, watch out for the gerunds.
Respect the verb
Respect the verb. Because the verb is the motor of the sentence. But it has to refer to a specific person doing a specific action if it’s to take the reader anywhere interesting. Let verbs be verbs. Don't convert them to nouns – especially generic nouns i.e. gerunds. Gerunds are abstract. Martin Amis talked about the need for a war against cliche. I think we need a war against abstraction and I plan to start that war in an imminent installment.
So, let the people in your prose swim, or swing, or walk or talk and avoid the generic verb forms - the ings. Do you rely on too many ings?
George Orwell’s crib
Orwell doesn’t appreciate the intrusion, but who cares? This is Writing Techniques, with Ken Carroll. I find some gems in his papers: Here's one: Two qualities that he inevitably finds in bad writing – stale imagery and a lack of precision.
Hmmm. This squares exactly with what we’ve been saying. Clichés and stock phrases are almost always stale images - putting all your eggs in one basket, thinking outside the box, free as a bird, go the extra mile, and so on. Stale as three-week old bread.
And imprecise. Because clichés, by definition, are generic things that you slot into place. They may kind of convey your meaning but they'll also distort it.
The alternative is to think and choose your words according to precisely what it is you want to convey. That’s how you make your writing precise. And precision really goes a long way in giving power and vigor to your writing. It also makes for distinctiveness.
Does Orwell live up to his own standards?
“Don’t let us disturb you, Mr Orwell. Please. Keep writing…” The question I have as I wander around George's crib is whether or not he lives up to his own standards. I find the manuscript of Coming Up For Air. Here’s how it begins: “The idea came to me the day I got my new false teeth.” Ha! Not flash but original, unexpected.
“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
Hmmm. Concrete. Very concrete. Orwell doesn’t do distinctiveness in a Kurt Schwitters way. He does it through plain language. This helps me understand distinctiveness in writing but also in branding.
First off, you have to avoid doing what everyone else is doing. That’s the avoidance part of distinctiveness. But at the same time you need to develop your own voice. If you’re weird, then be weird. If you’re political, then be political. This is true for your brand and your writing.
And Orwell's distinctiveness has penetrated deep into our culture:
Gorge Orwell loses it
But it seems I disturbed George Orwell once too many times. I'm tempted to use a cliché, or worse, to describe what happens, but I think you should just listen instead.