This originally appeared as a post in August 2011 on The Writing of a Wisoker on the Loose blog.
Writers want encouragement. It’s a difficult task, writing, and few indeed are the writers who aren’t better off with some kind words and advice. That’s what I’m here for, and I’m glad to encourage you not to write.
“Wait,” you may ask, “how is that exactly encouragement? I spend all my time writing, so what do you mean, ‘encourage me not to write’?” You yourself may say it with a few more choice obscenities, but the intent is the same, I’m sure.
I’m not encouraging you to stop writing–far from it. Instead I’m encouraging you to consider the times in your writing where you actually do not need to write things. There are moments you don’t need more words, and in fact may need less words or no words at all. I’m encouraging you to stop writing at these moments because it will make your work all the more effective.
I take a train to and from work every day, and as I wait on the platform, other trains go by. As they pass, there’s the noise and the wind and the thunder of the vibration–and then afterwards, silence. For moments after the great engine barrels by me, I am more aware of all the other things at the station, things I notice only now because of the cacophony that has just passed. I hear birds singing, people talking, and the constant hum of cars going by on the local road. I experience these things anew because something has stopped.
In writing there are times not to say things, to explain events, or describe a setting; a time to stop the train of words so people can experience other elements of your tale. Done right, the very gaps we create in our words can tell our readers more and let them experience more than all the sentences and paragraphs we can rain down on them. Those voids are powerful, forceful, and can draw people deeper into our work and provide profound understandings of what we’ve crafted.
Consider all the times a good story and good prose works by what is not said, what is said sparingly, or when the prose simply stops:
* Mysteries and similar stories depend entirely on omission; if you tell too much the point of having a mystery is ruined. It is by your very silence on certain issues that you make it a mystery–and the fun of filling in these silences intrigues and interests the user.
* Descriptions can bog down your writing as colors, shapes, smells, and so on make your paragraphs unwieldy and slow down the flow of writing. Omission in descriptions can let people’s imaginations work, draw them into a story, and keep them from being distracted. Consider a character described as “handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyes, and well-muscled, yet vacuous and shallow” versus “a stereotypical blond-tressed romance-novel hero.” The latter sentence uses fewer words, but is far more evocative.
* Endings require a lack – a lack of continuation. There is a time to stop writing a paragraph, chapter, and even scene. These moments of stopping leave gaps that can be very powerful. A scene that ends dramatically, with a question or a shocking answer, is far more emotionally effective than going on a few more paragraphs to explain it all. There is a time to stop–and stop effectively–in what you are writing.
* Transitions can be very effective when there’s a proper void in your words. Much like the train, there are times you are throwing prose at your audience to shake them up, affect them, or shock them. The act of stopping what you are doing can drive home the point you are making, and let the reader see things differently.
It’s hard to stop writing, to do less, to cut down that complex description with all the beautiful words. People who are writers are too often grateful for those moments we can produce many words, for we know the fears of writer’s block. Writers are rightfully proud of their craft and their ability to work with words, and it seems blasphemous to not use the gift of language. We who write can find stopping, creating that effective silence, to be challenging because of who we are.
Yet, to be good writers, there are times we must not write.
To remember this, let me quote the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11 (James Legge translation):
The thirty spokes unite in the one nave; but it is on the empty space (for the axle), that the use of the wheel depends.
Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends.
The door and windows are cut out (from the walls) to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space (within), that its use depends.
Therefore, what has a (positive) existence serves for profitable adaptation, and what has not that for (actual) usefulness.
So go on. Get to work. You’ve got a lot to not write.
Steven Savage in his own words:
I’m Steven Savage, and I am Geek 2.0.
OK … that sounds either pretentious or obscure, and I try not to be either too much. So what do I mean by Geek 2.0?
Geek 2.0 is a lifestyle. It’s about taking the geeky values of technology, knowledge, creativity, and media as far as possible. It’s a way of life – and a way of contributing to society.
I believe in taking Geekiness farther – into the next iteration, into 2.0.
Steven Savage is the author of the Fan to Pro blog and books (Unlocking Career Insights With Your Hobbies; Convention Career Connection; Focused Fandom: Cosplay, Costuming, and Careers; Focused Fandom: Fanart, Fanartists, and Careers; Inhuman Resources; and Progeek Rising), has his own web site, and incidentally is the mind behind the popular Seventh Sanctum site. He also writes for Nerd Caliber and Comics Bulletin.