Ten Lessons of the Workshop from The Elements of Authorship by Arthur Plotnik


Last week I finished reading Arthur Plotnik’s The Elements of Authorship, a thought-provoking, humorous, encouraging, but realistic look at the writing life. In it he shares lessons he learned from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Are these lessons standard for creative writing workshops?

  1. Understate. Excessiveness kills. Show, don’t tell. The best writing is completed in the reader’s mind. Don’t stretch metaphors into conceits. Zap modifiers. Let context do its work. “She said,” not “she enthused.”
  2. Surprise. Predictability is death. Declare war on the generic and the cliché. Pop in the unexpected word. Take characters out of character — but within their character. Fake in

    Arthur Plotnik

    one direction and go the other.

  3. Reward. Delight. Writing must divert. Keenness of eye, melodious cadence, freshness of phrase, and wit lightly applied. Let style establish itself. Mix it up: long, short; upbeat, downbeat; comic, microscopic. Give the gifts of enlightenment, substance, catharsis. Challenge, do not punish the reader. Say goodbye to self-indulgent, inaccessible, and anal-retentive writing.
  4. Focus. Kim’s question must be answered — what is the meaning of all this? Meaning trickles from every element into a mighty flow.
  5. Believe. Get inside the subject. Insincerity begets boredom. Irreverence from the chronically irreverent is tiresome.
  6. Be accurate. Cows can’t fly, at least not in a rigid zeppelin after 1937. Readers care about truth in detail; slipups hurt credibility.
  7. Particularize. Not “bird,” but “red-breasted nuthatch.” Exploit the delights of nomenclature, the power of association, and clarity of the senses. Use all the senses, but not all at once in every description.
  8. Justify. People act, things happen, for good reason, even if that reason is perverse antireason. Logic rules the reader. The quirkiest turns of plot and character must add up in the end.
  9. Dramatize. Set the stage and get out of the way; keep the author’s hand out of the action. Let motivation arise from characterization, and action from motivation. Intensify: Create conflict and tension — someone fights someone or something; someone strives against the odds; something awful is awful is happening and must be stopped.
  10. Get attention. Leap above the ordinary. Somehow, shake the audience from its television-induced torpor. Close in, seize the most immediate, most intimate yearnings; probe the least touched, most sensitive territories of heart, soul, and flesh — or, put another way: You gotta grab those readers by the short hairs.
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