“12. Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. . . Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur. This calls for a scheme of procedure. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape.
A sonnet is built on a fourteen-line frame, each line containing five feet. . . Most forms of composition are less clearly defined, more flexible, but all have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and the blood.”
-The Elements of Style
Whoa. Is it sacrilege to suggest that the claim in the second paragraph is out of date or even weaselly? That “less clearly defined, more flexible” means, in some cases, “not defined at all, total anarchy”?
I struggle with the idea that a novel has a prescribed structure that, if broken in any way, makes it something other than a novel (as would happen with a sonnet). Good essays may have beginnings, middles and ends, but that’s about as specific as it gets, which is not very specific.
Blog posts? Yeah.
So this is my dissent with the idea that you can find a place on some spectrum of structured-ness for any kind of writing. Fleshing out an existing skeleton is one thing; making an entire beautiful woman out of a single rib–which feels like the task sometimes– takes some, uh… supreme expertise.
The reason this concerns me is that writing is much easier when you know where you’re going, when you aren’t staring into infinity wondering which first step is the right one to take.
S & W are as right as ever telling us we’re much better off beginning with a shape in mind, but it seems like we have to invent the shapes ourselves sometimes. And that’s not easy.
May 7, 2012