17. The Echo Chamber
One morning a while back, I tweeted: “Don’t write like everyone else.”
A coworker replied: “But how can you always tell? I sometimes can’t.”
I said: “Let me get back to you. Eating breakfast and reading the paper. Where everyone writes like everyone else.”
The next day, I messaged her: “I wish I'd thought of a nifty, concise answer before tweeting that! Part of what inspired it was the echo chamber I see in writing, especially online—the same rhythms, the same catchphrases, in many cases the same ‘insights.’ Best I can say is when something sounds familiar to you as the writer, that’s a signal to do it differently. Not just clichés but anything—the tics that everyone out there is using.”
They say—and I believe—that one of the best ways to write better is to read a lot. But sometimes, counterintuitively, maybe you need to read a little less to drown out the echo chamber and let your own voice take shape, in silence.
16. Putting Sentences Together
Sometimes it’s enough just to put sentences together. Not write a story. Not complete a draft or bang out 1,000 words for the day or come up with a new idea. Just tell yourself, “I’m going to put some sentences together.” That alone has value and beauty and sinew. That alone is honest work.
Anytime you write “there is,” ask yourself whether you can think of a more active formulation of the same statement. (In that sentence, I actually started typing "...ask yourself whether there’s a more active formulation…”)
“There is/are” isn’t necessarily to be avoided at all costs, but more often than not it gets in the way of your subject. This isn’t just my personal preference. Whole articles have been written on the topic. Such a phrase is known grammatically as an expletive, defined as “a word or other grammatical element that has no meaning but is needed to fill a syntactic position, such as the words ‘it’ and ‘there’ in the sentences ‘It’s raining’ and ‘There are many books on the table.’ ”
Compare “There are two people who have changed my life” with “Two people have changed my life”: The first one hesitates; it backs into the room. The second makes you sit up and listen.
It seems almost obligatory these days for books to have an epigraph—a resonant quotation at the start of the first chapter (often before every chapter, come to think of it), but more and more I see it on essays and articles, too. Epigraphs can be powerful and enticing. (Hmm, how is this intriguing quote relevant? Guess I have to keep reading to find out!) Yet might you be in effect borrowing someone else’s gravitas, poetic facility, or name recognition? If the other person’s words do actually help deepen your narrative—and judiciously used, they can—could there be a way to integrate them with it rather than setting them atop it like a burnished urn?
Ask yourself if an epigraph really adds a note that your writing can’t strike on its own—and with originality at that. Remember: Your work has the potential to say everything you want it to, all by itself.