Why does some writing work, and some doesn’t? #2

keats mssIf the piece you wrote doesn’t work, whom do you trust? While enrolled in school from the primary grades up through college and beyond, you expected to trust the people instructing you. Whether that involved parsing sentences in our early years, to writing book reports on Idylls of the King in high school and then explicating poems in 17th Century English literature classes. The point is that we were guided by people trained in those (teaching) processes, often with a distinct professorial language. See the accompanying image.

Then you graduate. Then you decide to attempt writing. But now when it comes to writing, and editing and revising, the question is as Dylan sang, “How does it feel, To be on your own?”

Here’s our hint.

We propose any writing needs to have a thesis if the piece is to provide the piece with direction. It does not have to be, “My summer vacation in Old Orchard Beach helped me identify three parts of my personality.”

It could be the opening to Clay by James Joyce.

“The matron had given her leave to go out as soon as the women’s tea was over and Maria looked forward to her evening out. The kitchen was spick and span: the cook said you could see yourself in the big copper boilers. The fire was nice and bright and on one of the side-tables were four very big barmbracks. These barmbracks seemed uncut; but if you went closer you would see that they had been cut into long thick even slices and were ready to be handed round at tea. Maria had cut them herself.

Maria was a very, very small person indeed but she had a very long nose and a very long chin. She talked a little through her nose, always soothingly: “Yes, my dear,” and “No, my dear.” She was always sent for when the women quarrelled Over their tubs and always succeeded in making peace. One day the matron had said to her: ‘Maria, you are a veritable peace-maker!'”

Then there is this from a short story we wrote:

“I first saw a harder edge to my Dad that four-barrel summer.”

Both pieces are dealing with epiphanies, a term Joyce first used as a literary device. The New Testament coined it when the Three Kings visited the Christ child.

The thesis sets the stage. Once the epiphany occurs, the action has ended for all intents and purpose and the story heads towards a conclusion.

But the thesis sets the stage. If your work is about your time in a very regimented religious school and how it transformed you — that’s great. But if the first 2,000 words of the work are about your pre-teen years and the school never appears — you need to revisit that piece.

To label a piece of writing “coming of age” implies a narrative, the protagonist’s removal from a familiar if not safe setting, followed by a series of conflicts, internal or external or both, a climax and a denouement. If these elements are missing, then the work is not in that genre. So consider The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter novels.

That’s where a clear thesis can help. The opening sentence of That Four Barrel Summer state that the narrator will learn something and that is a change, a coming of age. In Clay, Maria will go through a change in how she perceives the people she views as her real family versus the former prostitutes she cares for in the facility. It’s a change she doesn’t readily admit as the story concludes but her actions confirm that change.

 In our opinion, some writing works better that others because the writer has a more clear vision of where he or she wants to the piece to go and how to get there. It may not come with the first draft or the second or third. But having a clear thesis stated early in the piece will give the writer and the reader a sense of direction.

Next post will be about the editing process versus the revising process.

Comments welcomed!

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About Bob McCarthy

Originally from the Northeast, I now call Southwest Florida home. I have been a professional copywriter and editor since 1979, both freelance and in house. I have had article published in regional, national and international magazines. Plus, a video for which I wrote the script won an industry award as Best Training Video.
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