Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing That's 'Good Enough'
Are you a perfectionist? Then don't try writing for any utilitarian purpose whatsoever. It will drive you mad.
You simply can't be like the short-story writer Frank O'Connor, whose editor literally had to rip his work out of this hands. Frank O'Connor couldn't stop re-writing. Oh, no, you say, That's all right. I hate re-writing, anyway. Not my point.
If you're writing to please yourself, or because you believe that someday what you're working on will become Art, then you can feel free to write a certain way because, darn it, that's what you think will make it perfect art. If, however, you're writing to achieve any other purpose whatsoever on this planet, you need to stop applying your own standards and ask yourself some questions.
- Who am I writing this for? How I can I make the text more comprehensible to them, or more useful, or more entertaining?
- What are my limitations in terms of space? Vocabulary? Censorship?
- When's my deadline?
You get the idea: unless you're writing a diary, a journal, a note in a bottle, or the Great Galactic Novel for Someday, you have to take the parameters into consideration. And what you strive for is not some illusory notions of 'perfection', but a utilitarian measure of effectiveness. You're trying to write 'good enough' text.
Take that note you need to add on your nephew's birthday card. What should you say? Something that will make sense to your nephew, possibly tickle his fancy, give him a laugh or make him feel chuffed that you thought of him. You aren't writing it for his parents, or for yourself. You're thinking of your audience – in this case, the person who has the birthday. Everyone's entitled to be the sole right reader of his or her own birthday card.
Are you writing for the h2g2 Post? Then you've got a pretty clear idea of what the audience knows about, and how they react to a joke, new information, a passing reference to The Hitchhiker's Guide, or a random accusation directed at 2legs. If you weren't writing for us, you wouldn't make jokes like that.
If you write for a contest, you read the rules first. If you write for a television series, you request a couple of the writers' bible. If you're doing contract work, you ask for a stylesheet, if there is one. Otherwise, you ask a lot of pointed questions, and pay close attention to rewrite requests, trying to zero in on your target audience – which is, first, the person who's writing the cheques, and second, whoever they're marketing to.
Whatever you write, you try to figure out what the audience knows, and start there. You guess at what will keep them interested, or what they'll laugh at. Even if your intended audience is adult and broad-minded, you self-censor: you trim your discourse to what you think they will accept. You don't usually share the random thoughts you have at 3 am. You know, the ones that make you wonder about yourself. . . you save those for your psychiatrist.
Is all this trimming and audience-matching a bad thing? Not at all. In fact, it's one of the reasons why writing is work. It's also why it is a craft. If just spilling everything that's in your head was real writing, the president of the US would have a Pulitzer right now. The purpose of writing is to communicate. Communication is the art of getting your idea from your head onto a page and into the head of the reader. Which means learning to write 'good enough' for them to understand you. Writing is more about the reader than the writer.
Sometimes writers find this recognition uncomfortable. That's understandable. You have this really great thought, and you realise nobody will understand it. Join the club. You might want to save that thought somewhere so you can work on it. Maybe, just maybe, you can work the audience up to it sometime. If you create the right setting for it. If you lead them by the hand. If you write 'good enough'.
In the meantime, the Post needs another joke page, and the client wants 150 words on the Panic of 1873.