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From My Desk To Yours with Michael Lydon

October 22, 2015

For a couple of weeks, I’ve been skipping around the Write the World site, sampling writing by many of you, finding much excellent writing and realizing, once again, how amazing is this art we love! With 26 letters and a vocabulary of maybe 10,000 words, you and I and anyone who tries can, in a few sentences, get bits of our unique selves, ideas, hopes, passions, fears, quirks, and life stories across the gap that yawns between us and other human beings. 

In this second column, however, I’ll point out a few possible improvements. Please take my comments not as directions how to “fix” bad writing, but as ideas which, if you grasp them, will lead you, almost without knowing how or why, to stronger, clearer, more convincing prose and poetry. And remember, even though I am (ahem), “The World’s Greatest Expert,” I may be wrong and you may be right!

I love the six word stories—here a gem by 18membrinbob called The Musts:


—but this one, Tears of the One, by GeekyGirl:

A lie was told, I cried.

—would be better out of the passive voice:

He (or she or I or we or they or you) lied, I cried.


Betty lied; John cried.

The passive voice hides people, in this case the liar. Readers want to meet people in writing, Hamlet, Captain Ahab, or Tom Sawyer. Putting in a personal pronoun or name in those six words instantly starts a story of two humans, and that’s more enjoyable, I think, than the story of one human and one abstraction. Whenever I find passive constructions in my first drafts, I turn as many of them as possible into the active voice.

I felt something similar reading in thisThat sort of person” post:

She smiled as everyone passed but when they had all left a tear slipped from the hidden reservoir. 

—I’d prefer “a tear slipped from her hidden reservoir.”

IndieX sent in a poem on fashion with these two opening stanzas:

What outfit can transform a thin frame,
Into a sassy hourglass figure?
What has a perfect balance of conservative and class,
And not forget to – a meek pinch of sexy touch?

The demure beauty of a silk fabric,
Which flows like a delicate acrobatic.
Moulding to the purest shape of a women’s body,
Fitting the fragile silhouette of an oriental lady.

I like the delicate nature of the piece, but I also note that the first stanza’s lines don’t rhyme and the second stanza’s lines do (though imperfectly). Anything goes in poetry today, rhyme or no rhyme, long lines or short lines, crystal clarity or maddeningly obscurity. Yet a poem needs some adherence to the rules of its construction, whatever those rules may be. So I’d prefer Indie X to choose rhymed lines or unrhymed lines in her stanzas and, whatever her choice, stick to it. 

April Storms writes an amusing and colorful passage about watching people walking:

Ever notice the different way people walk? I do. There are those who walk with long, stretched-out strides, and those whose steps are so small that an onlooker might not be able to tell which direction they were walking at all.

After these two examples she goes on give us a delightful surprise: “I am your shadow.” My comment: to establish how differently people walk, April needs more than two examples. Why? Because ever since our ancestors learned to count “One, two, many,” humans have felt that two items make a couple, but three are needed to make a series. So I suggest that April add one more style of walking. Then, with the variety of walks fully suggested, April can pick one to focus on.

Missbookworm33 sent in a paragraph of dramatically colorful writing:

On a cold wintery night, in a small town the sky was midnight blue lit by only the full moon. Shutters creaking in the light breeze, crickets chirping, swishing of the leaves, cows mooing, people chattering away it all seemed normal. A curious traveler was wandering around the town and walked upon a massive Willow tree. He stared at it taking in every eerie inch, as he started to turn around and walk away someone came running through the bushes.  

The problem: the paragraph is much too long, 2034 words to be exact, without a single indentation, which means that unbroken text crowds the page. Writing is more speech than picture, but we do use our eyes to read, and when confronted by a page black with words, our eyes complain, “Give us the white space of indents, short paragraphs, blank spaces at the ends of sections.” An agent once sent me back film script saying, “You characters talk so much that your pages are too blankety-blank dark.”

I admire Laura’s plea for a green planet in Grass Roots Change, but this passage:

The few times I saw [environmental change] shift were when the people gave voice, and rose like seedlings from beneath the pavement. So I ask you to connect and speak out for what you treasure. Lend your voices and hands so that your little seeds may grow to mighty trees for future generations. 

—while not exactly a mixed metaphor, tangles rising voices and seedlings growing through pavement. I say: pick the rising voices metaphor or the growing seeds metaphor and stick to it.

That’s all for this month folks! Keep writing, everybody! And if you’re feeling discouraged, let this from Deathlyhallows inspire you:

There is something purely captivating about a fresh start… perhaps an invisible magnetic force drawing you closer to a blank sheet of paper...A creamy ivory color spreads over its face, blank and unmarred by any graphite marks, clear space for you to start your work on. A world for you to imagine upon...  


About Michael

MICHAEL LYDON is a writer and musician who lives in New York City. Author of many books, among them Rock Folk, Boogie Lightning, Ray Charles: Man and Music, and Writing and Life. A founding editor of Rolling Stone, Lydon has written for many periodicals as well, the Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, and Village Voice.

He is also a songwriter and playwright and, with Ellen Mandel, has composed an opera, Passion in Pigskin. A Yale graduate, Lydon is a member of ASCAP, AFofM local 802, and on the faculty of St. John’s University. 



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