How to Be a Clever Writer

Has anyone ever told you how clever you are? No? Or maybe they said that to you but didn’t mean it in the way you’d wished. Sometimes being told we are clever is an insult, as if we’re being sneaky and deceptive.

However, I think clever is good. I like clever people. One definition of the word in Merriam-Webster is “marked by wit or ingenuity.” And what does ingenuity mean? Aside from “being clever” (don’t you love it when dictionaries give you circular definitions like this?), it means skillful in devising. Inventiveness. Cleverness is a good thing!

So it stands to reason that writers should be clever. We invent stories. We want to be skillful at our craft. Maybe you haven’t thought all that much about being clever, but I hope you’ll consider it. Consider using words, phrases, and ideas in a clever way so you can rivet your readers with fresh writing. Writers should be masterful wordsmiths.

We can’t always be clever, but I’ve noted that many writers don’t even try. I edit and critique something like 200 manuscripts (partial or full) each year, and I don’t often see clever. In fact, sometimes I long so much for clever that even one great line will keep me going for chapters.

I would really like to see a lot more clever. And I don’t mean “wise-acre” clever (as the expression used to go fifty years ago). I mean, I wish more writers would spend much more time on every line, every word. Clever words, phrases, and ideas turn ordinary writing into a fascinating read.

Being Clever Takes Work

I understand how difficult a task writing a novel is. Just getting all the big components of plot and story structure down is challenging work. Learning the writing craft takes thousands of hours, and much of writing is straightforward technique.

But I wonder if many writers stop short of going the extra little bit it takes to infuse a story with cleverness. Again, I don’t mean every word, every line, should be so full of wit, the hyperbole saturates the page like too many saccharine tablets in a small cup of coffee. Wit can be overdone and can get tedious. We might never tire of a witty character like Sherlock Holmes, and we expect it in his banter. But if every line in every Holmes story was dripping with it—including the narrative and exposition—I think readers will gag.

We can’t wait and hope some witty inspiration strikes. It usually won’t. Being clever is a deliberate effort, not something that magically happens. Well, maybe for a few, they just can’t help but be clever. Robin Williams’s comedy sketches are a case in point. I don’t think that man could not be clever. It could possibly be as much of a curse and a bother as a gift.

The Rest of Us Have to Work At It

Clever writing sticks with us. I can remember unique lines and phrases from books I read years ago—lines that stand out due to their cleverness. I’ve been reading numerous NY Times best sellers and have noticed a shift or trend that seems to lean heavily on the cleverness of writing. Many of these books are weak on plot, some almost without much plot at all. But they are selling in the millions. Why? I believe it mostly has to do with the line-by-line cleverness. Here are some examples from one book I love: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.

“If you can’t imagine it, think clumsy silence. Think bits and pieces of floating despair. And drowning in a train.”

“Hans Hubermann wore a face with the shades pulled down.”

“She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.”

Zusak stretches his verbs, speaking of how the snow slurps at their feet, how someone clenches his face. You could say the microtension is in the voice and style of the narrative. It’s true—Zusak’s catchy structure is fresh, but what really stands out is this line-by-line cleverness that infuses the writing with microtension.

Take the Time to Add Themes and Motifs

Cleverness can be extended to phrases and ideas. When a writer uses a metaphor or concept in a unique way, we take note.  And to me, the most impacting use of clever writing comes in when a writer takes a phrase, motif, thought, thematic element, and weaves it into a scene, and sometimes even an entire novel. I’ve written a number of posts on motif and theme in the last few years. I’m a huge fan of motifs, and my favorite novels are ones with strong motifs.

It takes time to develop themes and motifs. Yes, it takes time to be clever. Consider printing out your manuscript and throwing the pages in the air and letting them fall to the floor. Then pick up a random page and read a random paragraph.

What if you spent ten minutes just focusing on that one paragraph, trying to come up with a better, more clever way of saying what you may have said in a simple (boring) manner? Sure, maybe you just intended to write as concisely and simply as possible for a clean read. That’s all well and good. But if you could tweak one line, or even just a few words, to give it a fresh slant, wouldn’t that elevate your story just a tiny bit?

What if you did that on every page? Just one sentence?

One of the things I like to do in my final draft of a novel before I send it to an agent or publish it is to read through and find the flat, boring, nothing paragraphs. Yes, there are a lot! They might be sufficient, but I don’t want sufficient. I really want every word to be deliberate, to be exactly the word I need in that moment in the story.

We will rush to put that first draft down on the page, but it’s in the finishing stages when we need to take time to infuse some cleverness into our writing. Sadly, way too many authors write way too many nothing sentences. Which turn into nothing scenes. Maybe they have a good idea, and the potential is there for a riveting scene. But without any clever writing, it’s just more of the same old, same old.

So, I hope you will spend some time working on your clever. Your writing will be improved, and your readers will notice. Hopefully they won’t call you a wise-acre but will be so riveted by your writing they will read every book you write.

Featured Photo by Ashley Anthony on Unsplash

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One Comment

  1. You make some very good points here. Not least that it takes a lot of work to be clever.
    I’m off to try to improve my WIP with clever.
    Thank you for this.

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