Samuel R. Delany on Writing


I made it to June 17 before having to skip a week of blogging. I won’t leave you with nothing, though. I recommend finding a copy of Delany’s great essay “After Almost No Time at All the String on Which He Had Been Pulling and Pulling Came Apart into Two Separate Pieces So Quickly He Hardly Realized It Had Snapped, or: Reflections on ‘The Beach Fire.'”

It covers some advanced and subtle mistakes that even great writers occasionally make. If you’ve never seen this type of thing before, it will be an eye-opening experience. If you have, it is never bad to remind yourself of these ideas.

To get a feel for the type of writing advice it goes into, here is an example. The structure of a sentence must reflect the content of the sentence, or it will create a confusing tension in the reader. This wrecks the flow and clarity of what the author is trying to do.

He gives this as an example. “Bill jumped at the closeness of her voice.” There is a fundamental problem with this sentence. This type of thing appears all the time, and my guess is that many people who consider themselves competent enough to be publishing for money might struggle to figure out the problem. Take a second and try to figure it out. I’ve already given a hint earlier.

If you said that attributive nouns like “closeness” tend to be weak and hence avoided, well, you’re thinking way too small. The mistake is much more fundamental than generic rules like that. The sentence describes “Bill” and “her voice” as being close, yet in the sentence, they are as far apart as a single sentence will allow. This is what is meant by the structure not being in agreement with the content.

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