Generalities are the enemy of good writing

That was quite a general statement, so let me explain. Good writing involves seeing something in a fresh way, and that means seeing it for itself, not for its category. I was sitting here writing this morning, and saw a fly land on my desk. I was about to swat it away, but then I stopped seeing it as a fly, and started to see it as an individual creature. I watched it closely. I watched it reach up and clean its wings with its back legs. I watched it wander round in the sticky remains of my spilt tea, reaching down with its mandibles to mop up the minuscule portions of tea and milk and sugar. I wondered if, like me, it felt the caffeine making its heart beat a little faster.

FlyNow, I don’t plan to write a story about a fly, so you could say that the ten minutes I spent looking at the fly were wasted. But I view it as vital practice in the skill of observation.

Human beings, like flies, can easily be slotted into general categories and judged/swatted accordingly. This is fine for angry newspaper columns, but disastrous for fiction. Good writing requires us to get behind the categories and assumptions and find the individuals inside.

This is tricky because often the very reason we write is that we have general things to say. For me, there’s no point in spending 100,000 words narrating specific details about specific people if the story doesn’t say something more general as well. I realise that there are books that exist purely for the ‘what happened next’ thrill, but I don’t want to write them. The best plot-driven stories have strong themes as well.

And that’s the trick: to get the general theme across through specific, believable characters. In A Virtual Love, I had clear things I wanted to say about identity and the effects that social media immersion can have on us. But I also wanted my characters to be real individuals, not general categories. It’s up to readers to decide whether I succeeded or failed, but that was my intention.

I think that’s why writers are often suspicious of labels for their own work. I remember going to a talk by Ismail Kadare years ago at the Southbank Centre in London, and he was asked about writing historical fiction. For him, he said, the label made no sense. He writes stories, some of which happen to be set in the past.

Labels are useful in life – we have to generalise in order to understand something as huge as the universe we live in. But we also need to recognise that in a sense they don’t exist. There’s really no such thing as “foreigner”, “terrorist”, “fly”, “genre fiction”, “asylum seeker”, “woman”, “Arab”, “old man”, etc. These are general categories that encompass a sprawling, complex, diverse mess of humanity. Let the columnists and the critics categorise us and put us in glass cases with labels. Writers need to focus on the individual, and they fail when they forget that every woman, terrorist, book or fly is entirely and inescapably unique.

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There are 5 comments

  1. Great post Andrew.

    I agree with your point that sometimes generalities are necessary in life. But I would extend your contention and say that when we take them too far, which we often do generalities are the enemy of good thinking.

    1. Yes, that’s the trouble. When people are talking in generalities, you hope they realise that there are many, many exceptions. But that’s not always the case, and I agree that when taken too far, they are the enemies of good thinking. Writing, after all, is just thinking on a page! When the thinking isn’t clear, it shows. Business writing is often composed entirely of generalities, deliberately designed to obscure meaning. Have you ever read Orwell’s essay on Politics and the English Language? It covers a lot of this ground, and should be required reading for anyone planning on setting pen to paper.

  2. It’s a delicate balance in fiction writing to let the specifics lead to the generalities. I try not to impose a theme on my characters (or readers), preferring to let it emerge organically from the story. Sometimes when I force a theme on my characters, it feels, well, forced.

    I write what is often categorized as “historical fiction” but I feel, as Ismail Kadare does, that my stories are just stories that happen to be set in the past.

    1. Hi Jackie

      You’re right, it is a very delicate balance. I often start out with a theme in mind, because that informs which characters I choose. But after creating them, I try to let them act autonomously. Either way, I agree that it’s important not to force things, and to be open to the unexpected.

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