Monday, April 12, 2010

And Now It's Time For ... A Bit About Writing!

If you've read my book, you saw that coming, since two early chapters were "A Bit About NASCAR" and "A Bit About Buddhism." Anyway, doing book publicity seems to have revealed a nation full of aspiring writers. Even though this is my one and only book, on a weird topic, and not selling well, I still get asked for writing and publishing tips every time.

I don't have any publishing tips, I tell people, because the publishers came to me and asked me to write a book. That's certainly not going to be a common occurrence for most people. However, if your writing is (or could be) in the form of an essay, you definitely should take a tip from me.

As it happens, I knew a staffer at my local NPR station, but local radio people are not hard to meet. On the contrary, they're friendly, bright, and dying to find something new, wonderful, and compelling to put on the air. I gave my essay to my friend and asked if she thought it was good enough to record for NPR. She thought it was, and the rest is history. If your writing is good enough, your local station almost certainly has a program where local people talk for a few minutes about something that interests them. Ours is called "Civic Soapbox," but it can be about any topic you like. Make it compelling, and it will air, simple as that. My essay got uploaded to the national NPR chain and aired nationwide, but even if yours airs locally you can still go around saying that you have been a guest commentator on NPR, and that's pretty cool in itself.

I have three good pieces of advice about writing. Not a bit of it is originally mine. I blatantly stole it and now I'm fencing it to you. I have found virtually nothing in the whole industry of writing advice books that was useful, compared to these two essays and one simple quote. Follow these rules and you will probably never need any other advice at all.

The first is from George Orwell. My history professor, mentor, and friend Justus Doenecke handed this essay out the first day of class to all his students. It taught us not only how we were expected to write, but how we were expected to think -- with rigor and clarity.

Orwell lists only six succinct rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign word or jargon phrase where you can use an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules short of saying something outright barbarous.

This is great writing advice, but the real beauty of Orwell's essay is in his philosophy of language. I believe with him that as much as our thoughts shape our language, our language also shapes our thoughts. I agree with this unreservedly. If our language is habitually filled with "I can't," we come to think of ourselves as helpless. If it's filled with "I hate," then our thoughts turn to hate habitually even in new situations, and we think of the world as full of enemies and hateful things.

But for Orwell this extended most importantly to politics. If we use sloppy, lazy speech, our thoughts become sloppy and lazy. We become less able to cut through rhetoric to smell the bullshit underneath. And if our political thinking becomes sloppy and lazy, then our freedom is vulnerable. We risk becoming confused and seeking a way out of the confusion of jargon, rhetoric, and convoluted speech by flocking to a strongman with simple, violent slogans and simple, violent actions.

Here's the full Orwell essay, a magnificent piece of writing in itself and some of the best writing advice you will ever get: If there is nothing else you take away from the essay, at least take the idea that there is nothing so important as precision in language and thought. Language and thought are how we define the world, so precision matters.

The second piece of writing advice comes from my former employer (and another mentor and friend) Ralph Cohen, an English professor of over thirty years. Much of his advice follows Orwell, but as a guide to writing college papers especially, Ralph's advice can't be beat. He adds:

  1. Care about the paper you write. Imagine it in a book entitled The Works of [Your Name].
  2. Make the transitions between your sentences and your paragraphs clear and logical. This task is the most difficult in writing, but out of difficulty we find invention.
  3. Do not hedge. Words like "maybe," "perhaps," and "might" do not keep you from being wrong; they merely alert the reader to the fact that you are worried about it.
  4. Write about works of art in the present tense, since Hamlet will be stabbing Polonius and the asp will be nibbling on Cleopatra's breast long after your grandchildren have forgotten your name.
  5. Lose the word "very" from your written vocabulary, do not use "transition" or "impact" as verbs, and only use an exclamation mark after the happy face you scrawl on the bill you give diners.
  6. Never write more than required. Remember what Donne can say in a 14-line sonnet.

The full collection of Ralph's Rules is here. If you know him personally, the examples he gives about arrogant professors are all the funnier:

And the last, best piece of writing advice I've ever seen comes from W.H. Auden: have something to say. Perhaps this is ultimately the underlying idea of my comments on "small" fiction. The best technique in the world doesn't matter if you really don't have much to say, if you're writing just to be a writer, just to be famous or rich. The "large" fiction I like came from writers who had ideas burning their way out of the writers' pens. Keats wrote knowing that he was dying of tuberculosis. What he said had to matter, or he would have wasted his very limited time in saying it. NASCAR and Buddhism may not matter to many people, but they matter to me. So Auden's advice, which came as a comment to the students who packed his famous lectures on Shakespeare, is this:

People say, for example, "I want to write," though nothing ever gets
written. Why? First, they're mistaken about writing. They
aren't specific: they say they want to "be a writer," not that they want to
"write such and such." The eye is on the result, not on the process, and
behind that is a lack of passion and of the willingness to go through the hard
stages of training and study. You must be in love with your work, not your

1 comment:

  1. Homage to Catalonia was one of Orwell's more passed-by books but it's one of my favorites since it's a true account of his experiences.

    Just looking at the local bloggers. I'm an author myself but I made the mistake of going through Lulu. I regret making that move.