Do You Know the First Absolute in Nonfiction?
Since I was in my teens, I’ve browsed the library shelves that hold the books about writing. It’s an ongoing, casual approach to professional development, as I head out with one or more books to at least skim if not pore over.
I figure even if some of the material is similar to other books I’ve read, I’ll surely come away with some nugget of inspiration or instruction I can integrate into my writing life. It’s like having dozens of temporary mentors or attending small conferences with lots of breakout sessions.
Except it’s free.
So the other day I was back at those shelves for a moment — I had not been for a while. As I was scanning the titles, I saw one I’d never seen before. A trim book. A simple title. And a name I recognized.
Regardless of where you stand on her life philosophy and views on capitalism, she certainly succeeded at expressing her ideas through writing — and I appreciated some of her thoughts in The Art of Nonfiction.
Edited into book form from a series of lectures, The Art of Nonfiction begins with an important reminder for anyone who struggles with self-doubt, worried they shouldn’t be writing. Rand says:
If you have difficulty with writing, do not conclude that there is something wrong with you. Writing should never be a test of self-esteem. If things are not going as you want, do not see it as proof of an unknowable flaw in your subconscious…. If you tell yourself you are guilty for not writing brilliant sentences within five minutes, that stops your subconscious and leads to a host of writing problems. Writing is not an index of psychological health…If you do have any guilt, earned or unearned, that is between you and your psychologist. (1)
She assures the reader: “Do not conclude, at the first difficulty, that you are hopeless…you have the capacity to make your work what you want to make it.”
How can she say and believe that to be true? Because she believes nonfiction writing is something one can learn. “There is no mystery about it,” she says. What’s the key? In a world of Google searches, shallow reading. and limited reflection, she says we need to think:
What you need for nonfiction writing is what you need for life in general: an orderly method of thinking. If you have problems in this regard, they will slow you down (in both realms). But writing is literally only the skill of putting down on paper a clear thought, in clear terms. Everything else, such as drama and “jazziness,” is merely the trimmings. (2)
When I taught creative writing to high school students, I emphasized the need for a strong and clear idea, solid organization that flows in a logical way to convey the idea, and sentence structure that supports the ideas and the organization.
Only at that level of sentence structure were we beginning to enhance style and we continued with additional layers of editing. We started at that high level of critique.
Because who cares how beautiful you phrase something if no one knows what you’re trying to say? Why work for hours on finding just the right word for a section you realize you ought to cut to keep the piece moving? Why spend time creating an effective transition if you haven’t yet moved around paragraphs?
In nonfiction, then, start with that idea. Think it through. Make sure you know what you’re trying to say, and work on that above all else. I love this section from Rand’s book: “I once said that the three most important elements of fiction are plot, plot, and plot. The equivalent in nonfiction is: clarity, clarity,and clarity.”
If you’re writing anything from an article or blog post to a nonfiction book, I suggest you follow this writing philosophy of Ayn Rand, even if you disagree with all of her other ideas.
Don’t let difficulty with writing lead you to conclude something is wrong with you; believe you can learn it. And above all, well, she says it better than I can:
“The first absolute is: be clear. Drama, jazziness, color — which can be added later — are never as important as clarity.”
As an author, speaker, and writing coach, Ann Kroeker helps writers reach their writing goals by providing resources and inspiration to be more curious, creative, and productive. In her podcast Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach, at her blog, and on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter @annkroeker, she curates and shares resources for startup, emerging, and established writers.
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