I just finished reading Diablo Cody’s Candy Girl, a memoir of the year she worked in the sex industry. When I first put the book down one of my main critiques is that it felt formulaic: Cody writes a breezy, easy-to-read prose peppered with hipster-sounding one-liners. And after awhile it gets tedious. But as I thought about it I realized that it’s possible that all writing is formulaic.

Take Chesterton, for instance. Begin with an amusing but also illustrative anecdote, followed by an intriguing argument and buttressed by memorable, paradoxical one-liners that may or may not follow, logically speaking. Of course, I love Chesterton, but isn’t his writing just as formulaic as Cody’s?

My intuitive guess here is that I’m missing an important but subtle distinction (not unlike Christopher’s distinction between “complex” art and “complicated” art). The problem amounts to this: All writing is formulaic, but some seems to work while others fail miserably. However, the problem can’t be simply that bad writing follows a formula. Rather, the problem isn’t that a formula exists but that the one being used is poor. This begs a further question: In writing, what is a good formula? What makes a bad formula bad?

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

3 Comments

  1. JAKE: To answer your question––”In writing, what is a good formula?––I will invoke William Zinsser’s four principles of good English from On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction: clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity. Click here for an explanation of the principles and examples.

    My favorite formula is from C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children. His 5 tips on writing and talking applies to anyone, and always has the effect of humbling me.

    1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

    2. Always prefer the clean direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

    3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

    4. In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”

    5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

    Kevin DeYoung, a pastor, author, and blogger at The Gospel Coalition, made me aware of this promising book: Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.

    I recommend these posts from DeYoung:
    On Writing: Part 1
    On Writing: Part 2
    On Writing: Part 3
    Writing Tools

    Reply

  2. Dear Jake,

    Good writers.

    Reply

  3. I find that simplicity combined with vivid terminology produces the best writing. This results in a paradox where the sophistication of the vivid terminology is phrased in such a way to produce a sort of mini-riddle that makes the reader think and forces the reader to engage in the writing, combined with a simple message that the reader can understand. In this way, the reader engages in a little puzzle, where s/he has to solve and engage in the concepts/terminology but doesn’t get lost or confused in the puzzle, and the reader’s reward–understanding the author’s intent–is not difficult to attain. In this way, both the author and reader are doing an equal amount of work, resulting in a smooth, harmonious communication.

    It isn’t pleasant when the author is too sophisticated and the reader has to jump through hoops in order to understand what in the world the author is trying to say. This makes the reader do way more work than the author. I hear that the philosophers Immanuel Kant and George Hegel are like this.

    Likewise, if the writing is too simple, it comes of as dull, and doesn’t engage the reader’s mind, as if the author is spoon-feeding you baby food.

    That’s my psycho-philosophical take on good writing. I find oral conversation functions essentially in the same way.

    I think George Orwell provides good writing advice: http://www.george-orwell.org/Politics_and_the_English_Language/0.html

    Reply

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