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“Writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks.”

The late Raymond Carver, a master of literary minimalism, has choice words for those of us who try too hard.

Image by Jean-Baptiste Maurice (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you write for an audience — be it millions of strangers or your mom — you inevitably think about how your words appear to others. Very often, this self-consciousness results in overstuffed prose and too-clever storytelling. Here to remind us of the virtue of simplicity in writing is Raymond Carver, a master of narrative and linguistic economy:

“I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing — a sunset or an old shoe — in absolute and simple amazement.”

Raymond Carver, Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories

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  1. My personality is something I have to handle with.I like charades and I also like hidden meanings,meaningful messages,etc.I like poetry but I can’t write one in English.Feel free to judge me for that.

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  2. I needed this. Though I usually start my writing with good intentions (my own, personal enjoyment), I tend to slowly steer my thoughts to what the audience would perceive through that writing, which often, for me, leads to self-editing during the writing process while losing confidence in what I’ve written. Now I have something to look back on when I start to steer into the ‘audience perception’ lane. Thanks!

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    1. I find too that I wonder whether the writer will understand the ‘thread’ of my thought and try to bring in explanations .. I acquired this habit in writing a thesis when lecturer insisted I explain source of my ideas etc. It definitely does not help in honest unadulterated writing … at least now am aware of the difference which I realized only when responding !! thanks ..

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  3. I agree that simplicity is best. If the right words are chosen we can say so much with so little. I get irritated with writing that over-describes everything and says everything twice. I wonder if the writer did any editing and stop reading.

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  4. This is really true. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing that. Many times I’ve had to refocus and think “Cut the crap, Marina. What do I actually want to say?” Writing for myself and not for others has been one of my biggest challenges.

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  5. I just find it so difficult to write less or in the active voice. People say I write like I speak. Which, if really true, means that people get exhausted by my writing just as often as they switch off when I speak. i think I should hire an editor, because I just find it so difficult to write less and thus get read less!

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  6. So true. I’m new to this, but I find that my brain-to-blog posts are my best. They are honest and genuine, and you can read that in the sometimes awkward sentence structure and rambling rants. My story is more important than perfect writing.

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    1. New to this all here too. I can only “brain-to-blog” as you aptly put it. I start with a title and being a fast typist that can keep up with my thoughts, i have an end. It’s probably faaaar wordier than it should be. I ramble, I’m a rambler. But now I’m concerned it might be perceived as trickery.

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      1. Does it sound like it would if you said it out loud?

        I guess it depends why you’re blogging. For me, it’s an outlet, so at the end of the day I’m not too concerned with how it comes across so I just lay it all out there. This is a good place to try new ways of doing things!

        I’ve read some posts about improving my skills, and found a few useful tips. You might find that helpful.

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      2. I’ll keep hunting for further tips, I guess this post was helpful in that i took from it to write as myself, staying authentic to my own personality.

        Thats a good reason to be blogging/writing. It’s similar for me, i guess. Just a chance to develope a skill that has always intrigued me. Also an outlet, i live somewhere that I’m not able to frequently socialise at the moment, so a chance to still share things within a community environment is appealing.

        Thanks for your reply :-)

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  7. You must be you and if you think what you write then you will be free.
    No se si lo habré escrito bien pero lo que quiero decir es que tu esencia no tiene que cambiar por nadie porque tu sientes y piensas de una forma y tienes que vivir contigo en paz.

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  8. So funny that several of my professional writer friends have commented that my style of writing is similar to Raymond Carver’s. I must be honest, I did not know who he was, but since have enjoyed reading and getting to know his work. I think by nature, I am to the point and blunt. Although, I tend to like prose and love Luc Besson’s ability to create prose in his screenplays.

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      1. I think you’re absolutely right that this is an entirely subjective call. Even more so, language works within specific contexts, so the same word, the same expression, even the same narrative element, can feel natural and organic in one context, yet superfluous and jarring in another.

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    1. I can’t speak for Carver, who’s passed away anyway, but I interpret it as using things like flowery language when it isn’t necessary, employing narrative twists that draw more attention to themselves than amplify the story you’re telling, etc. Of course, what is a trick for one person could very well be a legitimate writing tool for another. There are really no clear-cut rules here.

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      1. Thanks Ben! “Using flowery language when it isn’t necessary,…drawing more attention to the [language than the story]” is truly unhelpful. I try (and fail sometimes) to heed that caution. Ultimately, we want the stories we write to be understood. When the readers get our story, they will get us. That should be a good incentive for us to focus more on making the story readable (understandable), which, invariably, comes with simple language. Perhaps we should not sacrifice readability for flowery language, nor simplicity for our unique writing style.

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      2. But surely, if there are no clear cut rules, and what is a trick for one is a legitimate tool for another then as long as people write in their own “voice” then there are no tricks and gimmicks.

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    2. I think a great example of gimmicky writing is “The Shipping News” – a work by Annie Proulx. Sorry Ms. Proulx… worst reading experience ever. Half to the book was written with incomplete sentences; no verbs or no nouns. It’s the best example of writing getting in the way of story I’ve ever experienced. I stuck with it to the end because I was still in the stage of finishing everything I started. Now? I don’t waste my time! If you ever need to be reminded of how your writing should just be the stage you sail across smoothly, just pick up a Harry Potter book! JK Rowlings is a master of telling the story – she never gets in the way.

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      1. JK Rowling…I tend to agree that she is a master story teller if we’re talking about HP Books 1 to 6. I tend to see Book 7 as less than delightful because of unnecessary details, “gimmicks” if you will. I think it has more to do with knowing she had to extend Book 7 because of its tie-in to two movies and not just one. An example of how commercialism destroys one’s art/writing.

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  9. interesting advice, but it would be more useful if he said what he meant by ‘trick’. a trick is possible on a stage, but my understanding of the word tells me that it’s not possible to use a ‘trick’ when writing. or is this humpty dumpty?

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  10. Overstuffed writing is a matter of style and time. Language is in never-ending changing process. Many times in the past nonconformist writing was a sign of revolution. Think about modernist literature versus realism. On the other hand, if overstuffed writing is just a lack of quality and has nothing to do with a goal that writer wanted to achieve with such style, then garbage should be recycled.

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  11. I just referenced Raymond Carver in my last post! For such a simple man, he sure does provoke a lot of thought and wisdom with his writing.

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  12. yes…when i write the pen just goes on and on like flowing and it’s hard to stop. It is all just natural, a true gift..something we all share but showing it in our own ways…that’s when the word unique comes in

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  13. As a student, in many drafts that I wrote contained those kind of fancy words; however after reading the majority writings of mine the logic says I could have reach the readers mind about 2/3 less of the original word mass.

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  14. This is a great reminder. And yet, we are not all Raymond Carver …. yet! ;) I HAD to learn to write for and audience for work, most everyone should know how I guess, but definitely I can tell/feel when my not-for-work writing, whether fiction or essay, becomes overly responsive/reactive to an imagined audience, overly self-conscious, versus when I’m really doing my own thing: writing from the most honest/truthful place I can find. BUT that place can be hard to get to, entailing a very delicate excavation of sorts that can take a long time — it took some of us a long time to get so “complicaterized” in the first place (to use one of my favorite made-up words courtesy of a friend of mine w/ a special gift there).. So while I do think, yes, we’re at our best —in life and writing, all things — when we’re keeping it as simple and real as possible, not gunking up the works with tricks, gimmicks, cleverness (though I’d like at least the option w/ this last one — nice to get a break from what feels like hyper-earnestness on my part), I also believe trying different these things out (like walking around in an admired, free-spirited friend’s funky shoes for a day) can be a great learning experience, teach you what feels right (or not), help you find your voice and your story. I do see my own writing riddled with parentheses, em-dashes, etc., and wonder….. but I know I’m a moving along a path that’s not so clear yet. I often find myself in the woods! The important thing, I think, is to keep trying to get back on the path most closely aligned with the truth as you see it, that part of it you’d like to shine a light on and share. Maybe I’ll never lose al the gunk (at least I’ve avoided footnotes, but judt barely); definitely I will never be

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    1. “The important thing, I think, is to keep trying to get back on the path most closely aligned with the truth as you see it, that part of it you’d like to shine a light on and share.”

      So well said — as well as your comment on the process it takes to distill what’s essential to your style, and what isn’t.

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  15. Oh, looks like I got cut off (happens to me all the time on voicemail). A sign, maybe, from the writing gods? Anyway, I was saying I know I’ll never me Raymond Carver, or Raymond Carver-ish, but then I don’t equate minimalist writing with more honest/truthful writing. I’ve seen it used/overused — as a gimmick I guess you could say — to such grim, bloodless effect, maybe even more often than not. Anyway, when I feel bad about ALL MY WORDS, I think/remember: simple is good; simplistic is not (worse –> it’s bad). And I think of this Neils Bohr quote: ” Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think.” And I think: EXCAVATE! And I feel better and keep trying.

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  16. I believe that obscurity in writing is overwhelming and simply tiring for the reader, and so I concur with Carver that sometimes tricks are “ultimately boring”. Writers are almost always better off stating the obvious truth about the subject at hand, unless, of course, a writer can perfect their trick, and do it well.

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  17. Thank you…I need to know how to be a writer. I want to engage others in my story. If I can reach out and grab there attention and get them absorb in my endeavours, I have struck gold – it makes my efforts worthwhile….Karen

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