I’ve always wanted to write a book on how to write. I think I might be quite good at it. I’m sure many writers could have done a better job if only they’d had a copy of my writing rules. Let’s look at this promising poem by Will Shakespeare, for example. What a mess he makes of things!
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
1. Show don’t tell. Oh my goodness, Will, this rule could have been made for you! Where is the showing in this poem? It is all abstract concepts and sweeping generalisations. Who has done what to whom? We are dying to know and yet the poem leaves us completely in the dark. How can we trust what you say when you don’t show us the interaction between the characters? This could be true love for all we know. Such unresolved tension is unbearable.
2. Avoid the passive voice. Tsk! Tsk! Tsk! A very basic error here, I’m afraid Will. Passive, passive, passive all the way through. It’s as if you’re a slave to your desires. It’s not until the final couplet that we get some active verbs, which surely add too much vigour to a lamentable conclusion.
3. Restrain those adjectives! You were having a bit of fun with us here, weren’t you Will? Leaving aside the two consecutive lines stuffed with adjectives, this whole poem is just one long adjectival phrase. What a mockery of style!
4. Vary your vocabulary! You’ve allowed some really clumsy repetitions to slip in here, Will. It’s as if you’re suffering from a monomania. Look at all these blunders — “lust in action, and till action, lust”; “Past reason hunted”/”Past reason hated”; “mad/Mad”; “well knows…knows well.” But don’t feel too bad about it, Will. It’s nothing that a careful line edit by a decent proof reader couldn’t solve.
5. Avoid vulgarity. All right, I admit, you’ve not resorted to the depraved vocabulary of some of your contemporaries but it’s not a pretty topic for a poem, is it? You’ll be writing about venereal disease and unweeded gardens next. You have to remember that some of your readers say their prayers and go to church. Not everyone likes to read about this kind of thing, you know. Some might even call it sacrilegious.
6. This is not a rule but … “Had, having and in quest to have…” What were you thinking? You’re not in your Latin class. You’re writing a poem!
That’s probably all you need to know for now. Just remember, even though it sounds good to you, an experienced editor will have seen it all before and won’t be impressed, so murder your darlings!