A Visionary View of Writing

Often quoted on art, visionary British poet and painter, William Blake, had very definite views on what makes art great. “The great and golden rule of art is this: that the more distinct, sharp and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art: and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imagination, plagiarism and bungling.”

William Blake by Thomas Phillips

William Blake’s insightful thoughts on writing and creativity have long inspired famous creators. (Image: public domain.)

This is sound advice every writer should absorb. Blake means you must avoid the general and go for the particular, the specific, the unique, the distinctive. These days we might use the word “generic” to describe what he stands so vehemently against.

Blake elaborated this notion with another often quoted line, “Singular and particular detail is the foundation of the sublime.”

As a writer, you must look for imaginative details you can apply to your characters, your setting, even aspects of your story line or plot. You want particulars that will make what you are writing about unique. Your goal is to raise your work above the crowd, make it stand out. In writing, visibility is everything. Do not rehash or recycle too much that is already familiar to your prospective readers. If your work looks like the same old same old, those readers will lose interest in a hurry.

Blake also had something to say about form. In writing, form can refer to the kind of writing you do: poetry, essays, novels, short stories, that sort of thing. However, Blake is speaking of the overall shape and size of a work when he writes, “Minuteness is their whole beauty.” Blake preferred dainty and exquisite to ungainly and coarse (or just plain ordinary).

Here is a reminder to consider the scope and size of what you are doing. Does that fantasy novel really have to be 1000 pages long? Would it read more powerfully if you trimmed away some fat? To make an admittedly crude analogy, a gazelle is more elegant than a hippopotamus. (Somehow, I do not think Blake would like this!) Traditional publishers like large works. Printed books are expensive and big books look more like good value for money spent. If you are considering self-publishing, remember that the indie market is quite different. Prices are lower and there is a much wider acceptance of shorter fiction.

Blake was a man with many strong views and these extended to method. “Improvement makes straight, straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.” For writers, this is a warning not to overwrite. That is, do not rewrite to the point where your work seems mechanical, a mere exercise in, or demonstration of, technique. There is such a thing as over polishing your prose. Moreover, avoid reorganizing your work too often. If the structure of your novel or story is noticeable, then the structure is excessive. Remember: you are writing fiction, not a well-organized textbook.

Inexperienced writers are more likely to err in the direction of insufficient rewriting and reorganizing. However, as you develop your talents, it is wise to keep in mind that you can go too far the other way.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

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