I learn something new in every article or book I write, but perhaps never as much as I learned while composing my book The Bard and the Bible: A Shakespeare Devotional, a book of daily reflections drawn from a quote from Shakespeare and a verse from the King James Bible. Even after more than forty books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of blog posts, I learned from the Bard of Avon at least eight crucial and valuable lessons:
- Study thy craft.
No one knows when Shakespeare started writing poems and plays, but he probably learned stagecraft and playwriting from the likes of John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, and Christopher “Kit” Marlowe—the best of his day—while trodding the boards as a young apprentice.
So how are you studying your craft? If you don’t read voraciously in your genre, pick another genre. If your grammar needs work, take a class or read a book. Subscribe to Writer’s Digest. Absorb The Elements of Style, On Writing Well, Stephen King’s On Writing, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, and everything else you can find about the craft of writing. Read blogs like this one. Make writers conferences a part of your growth strategy. Enlist a good critique partner.
- Know thy audience.
Shakespeare knew exactly who would be in the audience, from the “groundlings” to the nobility, and injected specific elements into his writing for each part of his audience. He may even have revised his plays when they were presented at court (as opposed to in the countryside or theaters).
What is true of his plays is also true of his poetry. Many of his sonnets, for example, were clearly written for a specific person in a specific situation. So be that specific in identifying and writing for your audience. You can’t and you shouldn’t write for everyone. You need a target to shoot at, an audience to play off, a clear picture of who your reader is for any given project.
- Take the time to find the best word.
Do not dip your pen in an inkwell of ordinary language. Take the time and trouble to find the best words, as Shakespeare did in one of his most justifiably famous scenes, as the dying nobleman John of Gaunt describes his homeland:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England
(Richard II, II, 1).
You have tools Shakespeare lacked: a thesaurus and Google and probably a larger library than the Bard, who never owned more than a hundred books in his life. So take the time to find the word that best expresses what you want to say.
- Find thy funny bone.
Shakespeare’s reputation was made on his early histories, the tales of kings and wars and death and succession. But he would not have done so well if he had neglected the funny bone and never created Falstaff, the fat knight, or Mistress Quickly, the innkeeper.
In fact, you could say that Shakespeare invented both the stage musical and the romantic comedy. He used humor everywhere in his plays. He wrote scenes for specific company “clowns,” writing to their particular talents. He even inserted comic relief into his darkest tragedies, like Macbeth and Hamlet.
“But I’m no comedian,” you might say. You don’t have to be. Start with what makes you smile or chuckle. Use surprise, exaggeration, and unlikely combinations. You don’t have to get readers to laugh out loud, but lighten things up occasionally. And remember that humor always works best when it has an element of truth.
(to be continued)