The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever forgotten.
This comes from the most recent rejection letter I’ve received from The Comstock Review, one of the most prolific and diverse literary magazines in publication today. This little gem of advice has always been something I was prone to overlooking, in various stages of my writing life. Whether I would heed that advice or not, it set the stage for how I developed my style.
I remember one piece of praise I received from a classmate. He told one of my teachers, “I like David’s story because it has big words.” To which the teacher replied, “It’s good to have that kind of vocabulary, but that’s not the mark of a good writer.” What started as the first example of blunt-force trauma to a teenage ego became a valuable look into a reader’s frame of reference. I just hadn’t figured that out until I really became more serious about my writing.
Fast forward to now, where my body of work turned into something much better than I’d expected. Today, I always cringe at the poems I wrote 8-15 years ago, which I hear is common with most artists. I’ll elaborate more on that in a later entry, but one of the things I hated most about my style back then was the egregious abuse of vocabulary. I read it now and can completely understand how hard it is for a poem to resonate with someone when the author crams in a bunch of over-dressed, pretentious words that a reader would never read outside of an SAT prep course.
Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I have my share of gripes with my early work, which of course spawned a constant bout between 2016 Dave vs. 2004 Dave. But specifically, it’s the presence of xanthous sunrises and otiose shadows that exist way outside the reader’s frame of reference. They were mediocre pieces that didn’t come together well, but since there are so many fancy, often obsolete words, so it must be good. All those words did was interrupt the flow of the piece and distract the reader from a concept that didn’t gel within the body of the poem. In other words, I put a nice wreath on a shitty house.
Once I got this letter from the Comstock Review, I realize that there are still traces of this habit lingering around. It’s a simple lesson here and I’m passing it onto anyone who’s interested. A piece of literature is not about the words you use. If you have to go out of your way to look up fancy SAT words to spice up your work, it’s simply not going to reach your readers. Reach your audience with stunning imagery and hard-hitting ideas and concepts, make it about the mood, the tone, the atmosphere it creates. Take the wreath off the front door and fix the foundation so it stands solid. Happy Writing!