5 Lessons Professional Writers Can Learn from Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick is a timeless classic published way back in 1851. It’s perhaps the most enduring work of American literature.

One thing’s for sure: writing was a lot different back then. Perhaps an attempt at ‘life imitating art’, the book itself is a beast of white whale stature.

The camera catches Mr. Dick off-guard. Picture circa 1851.

Moby-Dick is still read for a reason. And there’s plenty that writers can learn from the masterpiece. Assuming the right interpretation, of course. Having just finished it, I will now debase its literary prowess by relating it in terms of the lowlier professional craft of writing. Check out 5 lessons that professional writers can learn from Moby-Dick.

1. Easy on the adverbs. If there’s one thing Melville isn’t bashful about it’s his use of adverbs. Today’s writer should use adverbs sparingly. When overused, they tend to slow down the reading process. This is especially true for ‘-ly’ adverbs. Flowery language found a niche in the writings of Melville’s era. But there are better, more succinct ways for today’s writer to create a clear depiction.

2. Vivid description sets you apart. When Melville isn’t using his adverbs, he’s launching into long bouts of vivid description. In fact, he sets aside entire chapters for description. The length won’t appeal to the contemporary reader. But the sheer vividness and enthusiasm of them compels. You can learn a lot about painting a lifelike picture from Melville.

3. Obsession can be bad. Actually, this one is kind of the moral of the entire story. Ahab’s obsession with the white whale brings about his doom. What’s your white whale? If you obsess over perfect writing, you’ll never finish a piece. Revision is necessary up until a point. But obsessing over that revision can lead to hours of useless changes and edits.

4. Submerge the ‘I’. I’ve written a bit about this before. Taking the ‘I’ out of your writing helps establish more credibility. Of course, Moby-Dick starts out with the famous line “Call me Ishmael.” But as the story rolls along, you get more and more detail about the events occurring around Ishmael, rather than those happening to him.

5. Have no fear. Seriously, you’re afraid to say, write or publish something? These guys manned tiny little boats and watched agitated whales swim from the depths to attack them! And sharks! Christ. What I’m saying is the only way to make a splash is to jump right in. Don’t be afraid to try something new in your writing.

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