Good writers write by the rules. I’ve known many good writers, rule followers who package their thoughts in squared paragraphs and clean verticals, adherents who envision the writing field as chalked with boundaries and stalked by umpires. There’s technically nothing wrong with this … except rules constrain and force ownership upon a writer.
Consider it arrogance if you like, but I once considered myself a “good” writer. I suppose it was arrogance because I enjoyed the rules and I enjoyed applying them rigidly. My writing itself or a “friendly” edit proffered … it all suffered from “the application” … i.e., a top-down, bottom-up, side-to-side rule-washing of every word, period, comma, and paragraph.
Any good writer can do this … strictures, parameters, constraints. But too much is ruinous, a truth hidden behind our perception of what’s not ruinous … strictures, parameters, constraints! If you can find a writer and he follows the rules and follows them well, there’s a perception that this writing will be “good.”
And it will be good … though good within the rules.
But will it be creative? Different? And most importantly, interesting?
Free Writing In A Strange World
Having written for social media, I’ve learned to become a free writer. There are two reasons for this. First, social is an alternative writing universe, a place without rules. It is a Wonderland, very different from the topsoil boredom of Alice’s real world. And I mean this literally. In social media, it is as Alice said it is:
What a strange world we live in…Said Alice to the Queen of hearts.
“Strange” because the rules of grammar are inapplicable. Like light into a black hole, grammar bends and stretches in social media, torn apart and warping within social’s great gravity. To write for social and to write well, one must be an unwell writer — repulsed by grammatical norms and reveling in the less normative … slang, odd punctuation, incomplete sentences, colloquialisms, poetics, informality, etc.
Free Writing in A Vast Universe
Second, social — as mentioned above — is a universe; it’s vast and far reaching and yet somehow constricted and crowded. The social heard is celestial in its reach (4 billion strong) but also bestial in its capacity to trample (again, 4 billion strong). To rise above the many, to be heard by the heard, one must be a free writer.
Good writing rarely works for social as the academics of writing grind to dust in the organics of the collective. Putting pen to paper suggests good words and good rules, while putting words to a network (a frothing of minds, a hurling of thoughts, a roaring of ideas) demands the shattering of language, an indifference to rules. Through this intentional shattering and consistent indifference, one has an opportunity to be heard in the social universe. Yet for the rule follower — the good writer — social is nothing more than an infinite deafness.
Oiling Up Your Stiff Ink
I’ve been writing for 20 years — first as a lawyer then as a marketer, primarily as a guy who builds social presence and brand reach. While (as mentioned above) my transition from good writer to free writer evolved as a social writer, this freedom has slowly seeped into my just-about-everything writing.
Others have arrived at this universal freedom in different ways … I think of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who does it better than me, who (and this is just a guess) got there more innately, more directly through long form. Mine came through micro-style — a/k/a short writing — a type of constrained poetry, the lyrical locked into a digital box … a box limited by character counts and speeding attention spans.
However you get there, it takes practice, a continuous (and uncomfortable) stretching of the norm … i.e., the sovereignty of “stiff ink.” Because ruled writing is nothing more than stiff writing (though it’s not necessarily bad writing). To gain your freedom, your writing …. words, punctuation, grammar … must first be crumpled, wrinkled, and twisted. There’s no substitute for practice (as unnerving and difficult as it might be), but to get you started, here’s three things to think about:
#1. Free writing isn’t an abandonment of good writing.
The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious. — Marcus Aurelius*
A step into the non-obvious (free writing) isn’t an eviction from the obvious (from what’s self-evident). Once you break the rules (and this is difficult), nothing stops you from returning to the unbroken (your original default). Because good writing is like bicycle riding … once you do it, you never forget.
If you seek freedom in your writing, you’re not exorcising the good writer within. You’re actually adding to your arsenal by creating a secondary style, one you can shift to when needed. I still need good writing … when I’m composing a presentation or a formal proposal. But living in the attention economy, I especially need free writing … to capture, to create, to rise above the noise.
#2. If you can’t break the rules, at least bend them.
I try not to break the rules, but merely test their elasticity. — Bill Veeck
I’d say that I’m “all in” on free writing, but then again, “free” has some gradation when it comes to anything and everyone. As a free writer, I break some rules, bend some rules, and still bow to others. Those more courageous than me, they soak the rules in gasoline and rain Zeusian fire upon their strictures. Bravo to those brave souls!
In seeking your freedom, you don’t have to be an arsonist; you can take a more pacifist approach … a comfortable bending if you will. “Gonna,” “wanna,” “gotta” … these informalities will bend your writing — slightly — but a bend all the same. And even slight bends — a test of elasticity — is both freedom and, at the same time, a first step towards comfort in one’s expanding freedom.
#3. Pain is the only path to freedom.
There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth. — Friedrich Nietzsche
Am I twisting Nietzsche? Yes, but there’s freedom in this twisting … free from your audience and their policing of words (and Nietzsche). But while this freedom offers a beautiful surface, it also requires a terrible depth. And that depth is in the getting there … free writing takes time and effort.
Ruled writing suffers from sedimented thinking; years upon years, layer upon layer, of structure and stricture. To dig out — to launch your terrible depth — requires the very uncomfortable and the very alien … i.e., an intentionality toward odd words, ellipses, alliteration, slang, etc. … basically, an artistic sloppiness, the antithesis of your dogmatic tidiness.
To be tidy is good (cleanliness is next to godliness, right?), but to be free, that’s the key to “godlimost,” your personal state of fluidity, creativity, and uncheckedness. But if you want to get there, it won’t be easy. There’s pain (i.e., lawlessness) and danger (i.e., judgement) in unwinding those tightly wound rules. But if you’ll risk the pain and danger (a little at a time), I can assure you, you’ll eventually discover a much more beautiful surface to write upon.
* While there’s some debate around who said this, I’m sticking with Marcus Aurelius.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.