In the Writer’s Digest book Guide to Good Writing (1994) , author Gary Provost’s 1984 article provides what he calls the “seven beacons of good writing.” They are as follows: Brevity, Clarity, Precision, Harmony, Humanity, Honesty, and Poetry.
(Unless indicated otherwise, every quote in this blog is from Gary Provost’s article as featured in the book. See reference below.)
“When you write and rewrite, don’t think about what you can put in. Think about what you can leave out. Editors want tight writing. They want every word to be doing some work.” Provost, page 266
“Don’t write, ‘Daniel proceeded to open his letters.’ Write, ‘Daniel opened his letters.’ Write ‘I think’ instead of ‘it is my opinion that.’ Also avoid ‘I would like to say (just say it) and ‘it has come to my attention.’ (Obviously it has come to your attention, or you couldn’t bring it to our attention.).”-Provost, page 268
“Writing shorter doesn’t mean saying less.”-Provost, page 267
The principle here is if you can do more with less, do so. Clogging your story up with lots of words and unnecessary jargon can slow it down and make your readers lose interest. Now, this isn’t to say that if your story requires a lot of detail so your readers don’t get lost, you shouldn’t put it in there. But as a general rule of thumb, it is better to use fewer choice words that can get the point across just as well or better than long descriptions.
“The good writer makes his meaning as clear as possible. He leaves no room for doubt about what is being read and he is not vague except when he has a good reason.”-Provost, page 268
“I have read hundreds of unpublished stories that begin something like this: ‘The package arrived at 2 A.M. Sammy opened it in a frenzy. He stared at its contents and smiled.’ The story goes on and we hear a lot about ‘it’ or ‘the contents of the package’ and so forth. If we stick around long enough we discover in the last paragraph that the package contained an adorable little beagle puppy. This is the way children write, not professionals.”-Provost, page 268
“To be clear usually means to be direct. Get right to the point in simple, unambiguous language.”-Provost, page 269
To best decide whether your story needs more clarity, it is best to go through it several times (reading it aloud, if you can) and determine which elements need to be described better. For example, if you are reading an excerpt in which you are providing foreshadowing for a future event important to the climax of your story, then it may be better to remain vague. However, if it is something that could potentially confuse your readers, either through what Provost calls “mysterious pronouns” (i.e. using the words “he” and “she” instead of “Mary” and “Dan” in a dialogue or first introduction of the characters, page 268), or subtraction of details in a sequence of events to explain what’s happening. One more tip Provost gives for providing clarity is to “keep related words together.” If you have an event happening in a certain place after your character has changed locations, make sure the reader knows exactly which place the event is happening in.
“Precision and clarity are closely related. To be clear is to say what you mean. To be precise is to say exactly what you mean…A precise word etches a sharper picture on the reader’s brain and eliminates the possibility of misunderstanding.”-Provost, page 270
“Change ‘They won by a large margin’ to ‘They won by forty-two points.’ If you’ve written ‘Various ethnic groups have settled in Newark,’ change it to ‘Greeks, Italians and Puerto Ricans have settled in Newark.'”-Provost, page 270
“You’ll find that precision in writing increases believability. If I tell you that some people are out to get me, you’re skeptical. If I tell you that three Turks have threatened to garotte me, you begin to think maybe there’s something to it.”-Provost, page 270
This is a window for you to become more creative and engaging with your work. Within reason, use colorful, descriptive words to make your writing more exciting to read and easier to understand. What exactly is happening to your character(s) in every scene of your story? Again, a good way to tell if you’re being precise (or not) is by going through your story line by line, paragraph by paragraph. Is there anything that seems vague that doesn’t need to be?
“When you write, you create music, and when you write well, you create music that is pleasant to the ear.”-Provost, page 271
“A sour note in writing can be an obscure and pretentious word set down in a paragraph that is otherwise simply written…a humorous phrase in a somber story, or a grave comment in a story which is written in a frivolous style…an unintended change in tense or person, or a sudden switch in viewpoint…a change in the way you punctuate certain phrases.”-Provost, page 271
“Generally, you create harmony in your writing by maintaining consistency in mood, reading level, style, paragraph size and punctuation.”-Provost, page 271
Harmony in writing is much like harmony in music; you need to strike a balance. Having short sentences or sentence fragments is fine in the right context and if used sparingly, especially if you’re trying to bring something to the forefront of your reader’s mind. Longer, more descriptive words are fine if they don’t stand out in the sentence or paragraph and sharpen the details of your story. Find that balance within your story.
“Don’t write about crop failures. Write about farmers in crisis. Don’t write about romance. Write about people in love.”-Provost, page 272
“Don’t write: ‘The glow from the fire could be seen against the night sky and the sound of sirens could be heard for miles. Smoke could be smelled from across the river, and a tremor in the Earth was felt every time another building toppled.’ Who saw? Who heard? Who smelled? Who felt? Human beings, that’s who! Get them in there.”-Provost, page 273
We tend to relate to aspects that appeal to something inherently human about us. That’s why we can feel our heartstrings being pulled when reading a drama or romance, because the emotions and crises the character(s) experience becomes real to us. People can’t relate to objects or animals (unless they’re anthropomorphic in your story). People relate to people. Make your characters and your story something audiences will love because of its humanity.
“The easiest way to achieve honesty in your writing is just to be yourself. Don’t glut your prose with literary references that are new to you, so that you’ll appear learned when you are not. Don’t try to write as if you are hip, when you are square. Don’t try to bulldoze your way into a writing style that simply is not you.”-Provost, page 273
“…honesty in writing cannot be measured by some outside yardstick. Ultimately the only measuring tool of honesty in writing is your own conscience. Read each sentence and ask of it, ‘Is this me?’ and ‘Is this true?’ and finally, ‘Is this fair?'”-Provost, page 274
“I tell you to be honest in your writing not because I want to improve your morals, but because I want to improve your writing…if you are dishonest it will usually take a good editor about twenty-three seconds to spot it. And if he doesn’t, your readers certainly will.”-Provost, page 274
I personally know how it feels to want to make a certain first impression upon my readers. I want my work to be captivating to a number of audiences, so I constantly think about what kind of writing would do the job. But writing is just about as diverse as people themselves are. Be you when you write and write what you know. When you write something, you are putting yourself into it, whether you realize it or not. So what’s the impression you want to give to someone who is getting to know more about you through your work?
“Good writing entertains, informs, advises, illuminates. It cannot simply be. It must do.” -Provost, page 274
“But in much that you write there is the opportunity to do more than tell the reader what will happen or when or how or even why. There is the chance for you to lift him a few feet off the ground, to slip between him and the earth a layer of wonder and imagination…to pull him beyond the content of your story and lead him with your words into a realm of thought that is alive with energy and inspiration. This is poetry, and it can happen in a sentence or it can happen in a word.”-Provost, 275
“Is there a figure of speech that will enhance your meaning, was well as etch across the reader’s mind a vision that will endure beyond the last page? Write it. Can you choose words with such care and arrange them in such a way that reveals not just your point, but also a point about life? Do it. Can you tell an anecdote that will peel away one more layer of falseness and bring the reader an inch closer to the truth? Tell it. If you can turn an essay into a prayer, do it.”-Provost, page 275
This is the part I think many first-time writers (myself included) strive for before considering the other aspects of good writing. We try so hard to make our writing beautiful that we miss the mark on some or all of the other “beacons.” But I believe that this part will come more naturally when we do try to stay true to everything else that will make our writing memorable. Why should your writing not be sensational if you’re being yourself with it? Why should your writing fall short of amazing if you are inputting elements your readers can relate to as fellow human beings?
“If you imbue your writing with humanity and poetry and love, you will enrich both the reader and yourself.”-Provost, page 275
Embrace your writer side, and let the words of your imagination run free.
Provost, Gary. (1984) The Seven Beacons of Excellent Writing. In Thomas Clark, Bruce Woods, Peter Blocksom and Angela Terez. (Eds.) Guide to Good Writing: The Best Writing Instruction, Advice and Inspiration From the Past 75+ Years of Writer’s Digest Magazine (pp. 266-275). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1994.