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Anton Chekhov: Eliminate the commonplace for lyrical writing

As writers, one of our tasks is to create mental pictures by combining just the right combination of words on the page. This is exactly what makes writing challenging, rewarding – and maddening.

Those times when I’ve hit a wall and need to step away from the keyboard, I find inspiration from the advice of Anton Chekhov, often called, “the father of the modern short story.” In a letter to his brother Alexander, Chekhov wrote:

“I think descriptions of nature should be very short and always be à propos. Commonplaces like “The setting sun, sinking into the waves of the darkening sea, cast its purple gold rays, etc,” or, “Swallows, flitting over the surface of the water, twittered gaily” — eliminate such commonplaces. You have to choose small details in describing nature, grouping them in such a way that if you close your eyes after reading it you can picture the whole thing. For example, you’ll get a picture of a moonlit night if you write that, “on the dam of the mill, a piece of broken bottle flashed like a bright star and the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled by like a ball, etc.”

Chekhov’s correspondence with his family and writing contemporaries reveals a trove of advice and insight.

For more Chekhov advice, read his six principles of good writing and an example of how he offered writing feedback.

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