Writing With Constraints

Anu Garg, who runs the wonderful site Wordsmith.org, sends a weekly e-mail describing the theme of the words that will be featured in his word-a-day e-mails. This week’s theme is interesting for writers of every sort. (I would particularly like to see professional economists impose a few constraints.)

Negativeland is the title of a slim novel I came across recently that’s written with a constraint. Here’s how it begins:

“None of the stations played anything good, but I kept at the buttons, pushing off songs from a childhood we were all supposed to have had. Commercials bothered me more than ever, news was propaganda, and traffic reports were no more useful than the weather. It wasn’t yet 1988, and I was driving home from Tacoma.”

Notice anything interesting in this paragraph? Anything in common in the three sentences? Well, the title of the book gives a hint. Each sentence in this book has something negative going on. All 186 pages of it. And it’s a tribute to the author that his self-imposed constraint doesn’t constrain the storytelling. There’s a long tradition of writing with self-imposed constraints. There’s a group called Oulipo that has tried many things, often with admirable results (also see lipogram and univocalic).

As someone in the process of wrestling a book manuscript to its end, I have a single constraint: every sentence must have a period at the end.

Mike M

So you're not a fan of the explanation point, or the question mark?

Eric M. Jones

"It wasn't yet 1988, and I was driving home from Tacoma."

Now why is that negative?


yeah, what #2 said


wasn't is a negative guys...not too hard to understand


#2, ..."wasn't" = was not...not is negative.

Also, 'apretiation = apreciation' in addition to several other missed to's or and's.


"wasn't" = "was not" = not = negative.

Kevin MN

Because "it wasn't 1998 yet"


The word "Wasn't".


#2--"n't" is a contraction of the word "not," which, by definition, is a negative word.


@2 and 3:
the word "wasn't" is a negative, as in the opposite of "was"

Steve Schwartz - LSAT Blog

It says "wasn't" = "was not"

That's negative.

We know "[i]t wasn't yet 1988," but we don't know what year it actually was.


Positive: It was almost 1988.
Negative: It was not yet 1988.

Although they're mathematically equivalent ( Now < 1988 ), the choice of words carries a different tone.


"wasn't" is the negative.


Maybe the best example of writings with constraints is George Perec, particularly "La disparition" (1969).

He wrote a complete novel without using the most common letter in French, the "e". The novel is worth reading, not only for the exercise, is also a great story.

Bobby G

@ 14,

Yeah, in French. Because like they say in Italian, "Traditore, tradutore."


@15 - It has been translated (maintaining the constraint) into several languages, including English (as _A Void_).


Also see Christian Bok's book Eunoia, where each chapter is written using words that contain only one vowel.

Bobby G

Ah, you must have missed the second sentence in my previous comment :)


My favorite example of constrained writing is Cadaeic Cadenza


It weaves some famous poems (The Raven, Jabberwocky, ..) altered to fit the constraint with a mystery story about discovering the constraint. The first hint is in the title.



Not a fan of capitalization?