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Make things new: What you can learn from Viktor Shklovsky

Advanced tips for writers

This post is all about what you can learn from Viktor Shklovsky’s advice to ‘make things new’, so let’s start by hearing from the man himself:

“And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” – Viktor Shklovsky in ’Art as Technique’

Use specific detail

In an article called ‘A Few Don’ts‘, Ezra Pound talked about using as few words as necessary to describe something, and being as simple and straightforward as possible. He’d seen the flowery descriptions in some nineteenth century literature and was reacting against it. Specific detail is extremely valuable, especially if it makes the reader see things differently – this is what Viktor Shklovsky called ‘making things new’ in his essay (depending on the translation you read) – but remember that detail doesn’t have to be long-winded, and can be stated simply.

Use sensory detail

Use of sensory detail, and employing all of the senses, especially based on direct observation from life, lends freshness to our writing. Put another way, if you want to write simply and to be specific, START with your own observations of life and use ALL your senses.

This is the place to go if you’re stuck or you can’t think how to describe a person, place, object or event. Get as specific as possible. And close to the detail, especially the seemingly mundane. Don’t describe the lawn, tell us about the mud on the blade of grass and how the tip has turned yellow.

In other words, we get flowery and indirect and non-specific – and go against Pound’s advice – when we haven’t considered the senses, and when we haven’t used direct observation from life. By the way, if you want some quick exercises on description, you could try Margret Geraghty’s Five-Minute Writer. (There’s a sequel too!)

See world with ‘writer’s eyes’

Where does all this lead? Well, you’ll start to see world with ‘writer’s eyes’ (sorry about the visual bias – ‘seeing’ correlates to ‘experiencing the world’ here) and to apply what Shklovsky called ‘defamiliarisation’. You ‘make the world new’ for your readers by allowing them to see familiar things as if they were new. But you don’t set out to make things unfamiliar or strange. Set out to observe the world around you and to get as specific as possible.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,



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