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Writing With Constraints

Anu Garg, who runs the wonderful site, 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.