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Pungent Thoughts on the Act of Writing

When I sit down in front of a new piece of writing I always ask myself, "am I a wild child or am I a professor who doesn't want to make a mistake in front of his colleagues?"

Usually the wild child wins out because I've learned a beautiful secret about writing. It's the perfect secret. The best writing you will do is never seen by anyone.

One of the hidden treasures of "how to write" is the brief, "The Golden Book on Writing" by David Lambuth and others. Lambuth was an eccentric professor at Dartmouth and after his death some of his papers were collected and published.

If you don't have time to plow through the writing advice books pick this one up and cherish it. He says that writing well is not about memorizing parts of speech but writing as closely aligned to the natural speaking voice as one can get. And then, after the deluge, comes revision and the rules of grammar; rules, by the way, that came into being to simply make the effort of reading clearer. For instance, there was a time when there were no punctuation marks in copy. The reader went along making it up as she went. It finally dawned on some to represent the natural flow and stopping of the natural mind/voice with oddities like periods, commas, question marks and so on.

Lambuth instructs writers to read their writing out loud. "If you find it hard to read your sentences aloud, you may be quite sure your reader will find them unpleasant to read even to himself."

Be direct. Tell the reader as quickly as possible what the piece of writing is about.

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"No matter how good a phrase or a simile he may have, if he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable he is spoiling his work for egotism," Hemingway once remarked.

Tearing down your first draft is the doorway to mastery. And it's curious that many stop there. To complete mastery you need to build up. There's an art to it that is hard to negotiate since our egos are involved in the act of writing.

A writer's ego is always in the work. To rub away just enough ego is also the writer's task.

Let the first draft of a piece sit for awhile and then look at it after a few days, even a week. One writer suggested letting a short piece of fiction lay around for a month or more.

Always figure that something is not right about it. Make it better each time you view it. I write columns on the net. I write them, revise them, and then load them up to my server. Each time I go and read those columns, I find I could write them better.

Some tips:

  • Develop check-lists for improving the piece of writing.
  • Get rid of cliches.
  • Sprinkle the narrative with anecdotes.
  • Take out unnecessary words.
  • Read for your readers.

The graphic use of "concept maps" will help the writer fully explore the diverse nature of any piece of writing.

These techniques for "raising your writing an extra notch," are useful. One of the better things the author says is always be aware when you have to clarify a point. The writer needs to objectify his own work to critique it. Most writing that conveys information is "scanned" by readers who are trying to pick out the salient aspects of the piece. It may seem selfish that the reader is reading for himself and doesn't take into consideration the work that went into it, but that is the sad truth.

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Your writing may be read by millions, thousands, or one. Write for the one and give the one a face, a voice, and a visual background that is not your own.

Make it fun.

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Narrative journalism is being called on to save the beleaguered newspaper, if not journalism itself. It's a topic always welcome to the literary type. It means ample use of literary devices such as dialogue, scenes, and a focus on characters. It was popular in the 60's and 70's because novelists and journalists were entwined with each other. No one could quite believe in fiction but they couldn't quite believe the facts either.

Of course, story is implicated in every sentence. "A dramatic necessity goes deep into the nature of the sentence," Robert Frost wrote. If you keep this in mind you'll revise toward a rich interplay in your writing.

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Every writer has an obnoxious family member who asks at get- togethers, "what good is writing?" Since the obnoxious one will not read classic literature or essays in Atlantic Monthly I suggest for them to read The Report of The National Commission on Writing.

Since the member of the family won't go through the 44-page report you can offer this summary.

"Writing can be a ticket to professional jobs..." Emphasize "professional jobs," not simply run-of-the-mill jobs! That should get the obnoxious member to buy books for his or her kids.

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The beauty of clear communication is that it is rare. So, those who can do it will always be employed. If you combine that with a wild imagination and playful use of words, with a desire to use old words in new, meaningful ways, so much the better.

Even in an age of "scanning," the clearer the text the easier it is for people to pick out what they want from a piece of writing.

"Readers" exist in abundance and for them reading is a pleasure and the writer must strive to produce a good and stimulating feeling in the reader. He or she owes it to those who keep the art of writing and reading alive.

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David Eide
Copyright 2000-2016


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David Eide
copyright 2000-2016