I was trying to think through an aspect of writing that is generally instinctive to me, to try to figure out what, if anything about it could be taught. This resulted.
A given piece of writing has what I can only describe as a shape. It’s what we usually call style, but we ascribe that more to writers, and this is really on a piece-by-piece basis. Calling it structure almost works, but feels too detached and under the surface, whereas shape is tangible and visible to the reader. It’s ironically difficult to describe, because it is, ironically, a thing I experience in an almost synesthetic way. It’s the aspect of reading and writing that doesn’t feel like words, but instead sensual and physical. This is a difficult thing to describe.
Instead of describing, then, let’s ask how we choose the shape for a piece of writing. The step after having the idea, in other words, ideas being basically trivial things that one generally has too many of, not too few. You don’t actually mean “where do you get your ideas from,” you mean “how did you get that idea to become a piece of art.” And this is impossible to teach, because each shape is unique and you can’t really just stamp out identical copies of a given shape. Well, you can, but it’s very, very hard to do in a way that’s worth doing.
So let’s instead think of it as a bit of decision-making. That is, what sorts of thought processes might go into shape. A couple examples from my own work:
The Rose post had several competing concerns that defined what it had to be from the start. It had to be a “big” post in some fashion. As I approached it, it became obvious it was also part of a big period for the blog and my life, as my Kickstarter did far better than expected and was coinciding with the planned relaunch of my blog under a new name, and on top of that I’d very recently moved.
Eventually the phrase “initiation ritual” hit me – the idea that the Rose post should be an initiation for the new blog and the new series. The other thing that heavily influenced the post’s shape early on was thinking about the opening paragraph – the music/news paragraph. People ask why I do this sometimes, since the news rarely ties in very much with the subject of the article. The answer, ultimately, is to have a bit of structure – something I can reach for when I need something to ground a post. I wanted something beyond numbers to mark the time, and I figured popular music was good because it helped evoke the shape of a time. And news stories serve a similar purpose. It’s just a brief litany to conjure up the feel of right before the story aired.
But in this case, the news section ran into the problem that the obvious piece of news to include is, of course, Rose itself.…