12 keys to stronger writing from Annie Dillard via Alexander Chee

DSC00099On Friday, I read the essay “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life,” by novelist Alexander Chee who took a class from Annie Dillard in 1989. He writes, “By the time I was done studying with Annie, I wanted to be her.”

Over the weekend I kept thinking about that essay. Then on Sunday I saw that Moonrat had written a post to let her readers know about the essay. I wanted to let you know about it too.

With detail after detail, Chee conjures Dillard during class as she drinks coffee from the thermos cup and eats caramel after caramel, letting the plastic wrappers pile up on the desk. But the heart of the essay comes from Chee’s description of Dillard’s rigorous take-no-prisoners approach to the craft of writing. “Very quickly, she identified what she called ‘bizarre grammatical structures’ inside my writing.” She also identified his overuse of the passive voice and his “museum of cliches.”

Chee shares some of the key points he learned from Dillard:

  1. Put all your deaths, accidents and diseases up front, at the beginning.
  2. Don’t ever use the word ‘soul,’ if possible.
  3. Never quote dialogue you can summarize.
  4. Avoid describing crowd scenes but especially party scenes.
  5. You want vivid writing, and vivid writing comes from precise verbs. Bad verb choices mean adverbs.
  6. All of the action on the page happens in the verbs.  Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time.
  7. Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader. If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt.DSC00096
  8. Avoid emotional language.
  9. The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat. If the beginning is not found around page four, it’s often found at the end. Sometimes if you switch your first and last page, you get a better result.
  10. Take a draft and delete all but the best sentences. Fill in what’s missing, making the rest reach for those best sentences.
  11. Count the verbs on a page; circle them, tally the count for each page and average them. Now see if you can increase the number of verbs per page. In each case, have you used the right verb? When did this happen in relation to this? And is that how you’ve described it?
  12. Go to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, and put your finger there.

My favorite line in the essay is in Chee’s voice and about voice:

“You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you’d be wrong. What I saw on the page was that the voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case, most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free.”

Read the words from the guy who was there: “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life.” And let me know what you think.

This essay will appear in the anthology, Mentors, Muses, & Monsters, forthcoming October 27 from Free Press.