Why do people write more than they should, when most people find writing difficult? This may be because during their education, young writers are given a kind of assignment that may do lasting harm: they are told to write papers to minimum lengths. Most rookie writers do not have enough to say to fill the space easily, so they reach into a bag of terrible tricks: needless information, repetition, using long words where a short ones will do, three words where one will do, and so on. These habits persist.
I’m a human being before I am a writer; and a writer before I am a blogger, and although it’s been a joy and a privilege to have helped pioneer a genuinely new form of writing, I yearn for other, older forms. I want to read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while. I want to have an idea and let it slowly take shape, rather than be instantly blogged. I want to write long essays that can answer more deeply and subtly the many questions that the Dish years have presented to me. I want to write a book.
Andrew Sullivan, A Note To My Readers « The Dish.
There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue.
I can’t remember receiving any advice that triggered my writing career. I wrote as soon as I could write, relishing the conveyance of ideas and information to others at an improbably early age I think that I was probably a monstrous child to live with. I do remember, at the age of nine, creating a comic strip in friendly competition with a classmate: although I enjoyed drawing the pictures, they struck me as not nearly so entertaining or funny as the things that I could say in the conversation bubbles, or in the intervening commentary, which soon grew to dwarf the illustrations. So the die was cast. I realized that mine was a restricted gift: the historian’s, not the novelist’s. A day’s attempt to start a novel proved to be an embarrassing failure, and I have never been foolish enough to try again. I admire novelists in the way that I admire architects: I understand much of the process involved in their work, but know that this is not something to try at home. Likewise, the allied word-forms of poetry are not for me. I do what I do, not knowing much about how I do it. I enjoy explaining to others how registers in prose differ, particularly between the written and the spoken word. I know what I don’t like, which is especially the lame, broken-backed, pompous prose that I encounter in TV scripts before I get to work on them. Good prose should have the givenness, the completeness, of good sculpture.
Diarmaid MacCulloch in The American Scholar: Know What You Like—And What You Don’t – Diarmaid MacCulloch.
“The reader wants to travel beside you, looking over your shoulder.” It was such matter-of-fact, practical advice, but my wise first book-editor, Charles Elliott at Knopf, had the rare gift of writing with such directness and concreteness that it was hard not to listen to what he said.
I’d begun to learn how to become a writer by moving from grad school (where I had only one reader I was keen to impress, myself) to Time magazine, where I tried to absorb certain basic lessons about clarity and communication (the reader wants to learn about what happened last week in Beirut, not Pico Iyer’s prose style). Friends and elders offered me plenty of sage counsel about following one’s bliss and working with the subconscious and the hazards of the freelance writer’s life. It was all sound advice, but something I needed to learn for myself, the hard way, by doing everything wrong.
Chuck’s advice, by contrast, was as precise, as portable as a doctor’s crisp diagnosis and prescription. I sent him the first two chapters of my first book, and he wrote back, “You write, ‘Every morning, I would wake up in Tibet and walk to a temple …’ If you just changed it to a specific instance, ‘One morning I woke up and went to such-and-such a place,’ it would come into much sharper focus.”
Twenty-seven years on, his six-sentence typed letter informs every other sentence I write, and reminds me not to drift into poetic vagueness when immediacy and specificity would be so much more welcome to a reader. Becoming a writer, I suspect, involves not even thinking of being a “writer,” but simply confiding one’s most intimate experiences to the page, in a way that, through training, makes sense to an unmet stranger.
Honesty is not just the best but the only policy for a writer. As Thoreau counseled, “Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.”
The internet has a much higher write-to-read ratio than traditional methods of mass content distribution. In television, radio, newspapers, books, film and theatre there is a hard division between a small number of content producers and a large number of content consumers. Not so the internet. Many of us go online with the intention of reading, but before we’re done, we’ve written a bunch of tweets, sent off a comment, or engaged in an all out flame war, almost always in the public domain.
Writing online is so nearly effortless that reading (not to mention reflection, deliberation and thought) has become a chore in comparison. It’s easier to jot off a patronizing, indignant or self-aggrandizing missive than it is to take the trouble to read the whole article or give fair consideration to the author’s perspective. Thus the vicious circle sets in…
unable to write —
claimed by the cat
Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts. — Friedrich Nietzsche
Gleaned from a review in yesterday’s Times of the new Library of America edition of poems by Ezra Pound, some advice on writing:
- ”Use no superfluous word.”
”Go in fear of abstractions.”
”Don’t be descriptive.”
”Every literaryism, every book word, fritters away a scrap of the reader’s patience.”
”Only emotion endures.”