Before my dark writing period, my stories and poetry were very (how can I put this in a way that still leaves me some credibility?) sappy. They were filled with love struck imagery, loaded with cliché, and written with a hurried hand. If I was prolific in my dark days, my teenage writing was a gushing waterfall of words. I could (and often did) write 15 poems a week. They were all about the current love of my life (whoever that was during a given week or month), and how she would certainly fall for me if only she knew the depth of my devotion. It was heartbreaking (-ly bad) stuff. I’d share some, but it all burnt up in a tragic fire (it didn’t, really).
I also believed in those days that editing was sacrilege. What I had written was what I meant to write. As I was composing, I would occasionally cross out lines and words I didn’t like, but rarely went back to fix anything more than an obvious spelling error (how many d’s in didn’t, o’s in loser?). I did not believe my work was perfect, but its honesty needed to be preserved.
A poetry writing class at the Community College was my first exposure to the value of editing, and the absolute necessity of paying attention to line.
There are as many ideas about what line means in writing as there are styles of poetry and prose. In my mind, and for the purpose of this post, line is more than just how something looks on the page, but how it reads. Is the writing terse or verbose? Does it dance around the subject without ever really getting close to it, is the writing explicit or implicit, is the imagery consistent or does it lose cohesion (or is the text functioning somewhere in the myriad of other options in between)?
At first, my exposure to line was all about editing- Cut this word, add this, pick a different one here. I would write three page poems and cut them down to three five line stanzas. It felt powerful. I started playing with line breaks, punctuation. I loved leaving one word alone on a line, or creating stanzas with line breaks in the middle of words. I learned to dislike predictable rhymes and rhythms, obvious breaks, and fell in love with writing poetry in various forms (which years later, became another writing lesson ). It was like discovering a new toy, one I never bored of playing with.
During a fiction writing class at the University of Utah, after reading another batch of mostly bombastic, overwritten, sloppy stories by his students, a wise professor, offered this comment-
“I don’t know why you all believe you don’t have to pay attention to line when writing prose. You need to pay as much attention, maybe more, to line when writing fiction than writing poetry. Longer work requires added attention to detail and structure.”
It wasn’t just about being brief for the sake of brevity. It was about writing in way that was succinct, and showed trust in the reader. There is nothing intelligent about writing something in fifteen sentences when it can be better conveyed in five.
My writing life was forever altered. Now, when I edit, line is everything. I rarely add sentences or words. I am trained to cut, see where I can say more with less. I seek consistency. This carries over into the composing process. I often find myself stopping mid sentence, my fingers over the keyboard, waiting for the better sentence to come out.
I feel attention to line makes me a better writer. I guess better is always debatable.
What do you think about attention to line? Do you have a different definition or word for what I am talking about? Tell me if I’m missing something.