Intellectual Masturbation on Writing Well

So, You Think You’re a Writer, Eh?


Writin’ is fightin’. – Muhammad Ali

The artist is not a reporter, but a Great Teacher. It is not his business to depict the world as it is, but as it ought to be. – H. L. Mencken, Prejudices, from the essay “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism”

Most school writing is bad because student and teacher play at writing instead of taking it seriously. And first, what motive for writing well can the student be made to feel? There is only one valid motive: the desire to be read. – Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America, from the chapter “How to Write and Be Read”

Clutter is the disease of American writing. Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who wakes us to announce that he is presently experiencing considerable weather wouldn’t dream of saying that there’s a storm ahead and it may get bumpy. The sentence is too simple – there must be something wrong with it. But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Can such principles be taught? Maybe not. But most of them can be learned. – William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Part the First: Follow Your Bliss

Back when I was a young college English prof, I had the pleasure of teaching an introductory journalism class – and a pleasure, it was. When I wasn’t chuckling to myself about my female students’ sometimes blatant, sometimes coy attempts to sexually tease and/or seduce me, I was often sweating out lesson plans and activities that would impress on them the seriousness of their chosen field and the importance of their dedicating themselves to it fully. I tried to press those lessons home from the Day One.

“I want you to take out a sheet of paper,” I’d announce, without fanfare, upon walking into the first day of class. I don’t even take roll or introduce myself – it was all done for effect. “This is a test, folks.”

A couple of students, predictably, let out a low groan. I smile inwardly and continue: “This test is only two-questions long. Be open and honest with your answers, and write down the first things that come to mind.”

I’d pause for a few seconds, looking at each of those sitting on the first row. A couple of students shyly break eye contact with me. One kid matches my gaze and tries to stare me down. I like that in him. I let him think he’s “won” the stare-down by breaking eye contact first.

“Question number one: Use three words to describe yourself. They can be adjectives, nouns, whatever.”

I pause, and watch them as they write out a response. I watch their body language, their facial expressions, how long it takes before they start writing. I wait a while, making sure most have had a chance to write something.

“Question number two: Write down three words that other people would use to describe you.”

I wait a while longer.

“Okay, pens down. Time’s up. Now, you,” I say, nodding to a young man in the back of the room, “tell me what you wrote for answers one and two.” He reads them. I repeat this with a few other students. Then I solve the mystery for them.

“This is a journalism class,” I say. “I’m assuming that each of you is an aspiring journalist. Do you consider yourself a reporter or a writer? Don’t answer. It’s a rhetorical question. We’ll return to this question throughout the quarter. But, I want you to think about it from this point on. As for the questions you just answered. I just wanted to see who would give the following answers: writer, writing, bookworm, reading…”

I’m sure that they see where I’m going with this.

“My point is that if you aspire to be a professional writer, you must always think of yourself as a writer. It should be in your blood. People that know you should think of you as a writer. You should become a student of good writing if you want to become a good writer.”

I think they got the point.

The rest of the quarter was centered around the construction and usage of the four basic sentences (simple, compound, complex and compound-complex*). I tried to convince them that if they learned the basics, they’d be able to create some pretty decent writing. I made them write paragraphs day in and day out for the first half of the quarter, before we even began to write full-length pieces.

We did a great deal of reading during the first half, also: I had them bring to class articles from USA Today, to learn to dissect and recognize the “inverted pyramid” style (who, what, when, where and why in the first paragraph; decreasingly less-relevant info in successive paragraphs). I had them read the Wall Street Journal, to learn to dissect and recognize their intro-news story-closing approach. We also read articles from the news magazines. I’m sure I surprised them when I brought them photo copies of excerpts from my favorite comic books, sci-fi novels and theological writings.

In short, we studied the whole gamut of professional writing.

When I got my mitts off of them, I’d like to think that they had a better idea of what it meant to be a writer.

Sometimes, I think that approach to writing is what’s missing from today’s crop of journalists and scribes, the pros and the wannabe.

Part the Second: Good Writing Can Be Taught or It Can Be “Caught”

Somewhere else on this site, Michael Munger and Dave Schultz co-penned a piece in which they argued for more professionalism in web journalism – particularly, they made a call for more pedigreed writers, instead of the part-time hacks like Yours Truly. I don’t take issue with what they said, since there is validity in what they argued.

I want to take a different tack on that argument, though: I believe that many writers do not make themselves students of writing. Now, before you send me that flame, hear me out.

Listen first to what I am not saying. I am not saying that the people out there writing should not be writing. Far from it. I think everyone should be out there writing. The web has done what Gutenberg only dreamed: Literacy is now available to everyone – for the people, by the people, of the people. If you have an opinion, you should write it and publish it.

But here is where I have a problem (I’ll be accused of being vain, but I will risk it): many people who have been writing on the web (and elsewhere) for some time now aren’t getting any better. Their writing is no better than what it was when they wrote their first piece.

Good writing evolves over time; ditto for good writers. If you are stuck on the same topics and emotional/psychological levels that you were when you started your writing career/avocation, shame on you. No writer worth her salt should be stagnant in her craft. Study your favorite writer and notice the progression in the quality of his or her creative output

So, to help you get out of your rut and push your writing up a notch to higher levels, I wanted to pass on some principles that I use. These are not the principles, but some principles, my principles. Your mileage may vary.


#1: I read voraciously. Good writers do a lot of good reading. I have a list of favorite writers, whose works I am always reading or seeking out to be read. For example, my bookshelves are full of the writings of Mike Royko, Octavia Butler, Timothy Zahn, John Byrne, Hemingway, Mencken, Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Shaw, Woolf. Reading good writing exposes you not only to good ideas, but also to good modes and forms of expression. I l love to examine how someone else has turned a phrase to express an idea or thought that I’ve often felt or thought. You will NEVER grow as a writer if you don’t read.

#2. I try to use sentence variety like an artist wields various paint brushes or different paints. I try to use short sentences to move the reader along at a fast pace. I try to use long sentences when I want to explain and slow the reader down. I love the use of dialogue. So did Plato. I’m in good company.

#3. I make it a practice to reread William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

#4. I’ve developed eclectic reading tastes. When I was in college, there was this journalism major who wanted to be a sports writer. All he read was sports writing. As a result, his writing was full of clichés, listless and often a bore to read. What I’ve tried to do is develop a wide variety of interests and try to read widely on all of them. A good writer should be able to intelligently discuss virtually any topic, or at least be able to give an intelligent opinion on nearly everything. A good writer should not limit the imagination with scanty fodder for future works.

#5. I bought a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Oh, yeah, and I read it, too. This is the Bible of good writing. One of them, anyway.

#6 I always try to reply to every email, even the flames. First of all, it will really make the person hate you if they call you a black sonofabitch – and you write them back, agreeing with them! Among my numerous critics, there’s a kid over at some site called Mac Monkey who loves to cuss me out, publicly and in personal email. I just smile and send him one of those “have a nice day!” notes – and mean it. That kind of person will never like you, so it’s good to get under their skin. The purpose of replying to email, though, is to stay in touch with the main reason why you write: the reader. After all, our desire is to be read. Can’t do that without readers. And the readers appreciate it when you write back. I know many “famous” web and print writers who don’t give me the time of day – and I’m their ultimate quintessential fan. I’ll be damned if I become that pompous. Well, maybe a little pomposity won’t hurt :-)

Email also keeps you humble. Readers are quick to point out your flaws in spelling, grammar and logic. And we deserve it (we must be able to take it like we dish it out). If we can’t take the criticism, we shouldn’t be writing. This is the hardest lesson to learn; I’m always in “remedial classes” on this.

#7 I fill my personal library with writer’s references, like the Reverse Dictionary and, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, and How to Write and Publish Your First Novel. The Reverse Dictionary is my favorite. That is a book that has alphabetized definitions, with a series of corresponding words for each, the opposite of the regular dictionary. I populate my shelves with other books like the World Almanac, Books on English grammar, literary criticism, biographies of favorite writers (Mencken, Wright, Ellison, et al). I have numerous books of quotations.

#8 I often go and reread my older writings – and cringe. The sign of a growing writer is that he or she will go and read their older works and immediately see typos, poor word choice, poor grammar, stilted sentence constructions in short, just bad writing. In other words, the good writer is never happy with his last works. I have written nothing that I’m proud of after the fact.

“You’re only as good as your last column.”
– a post to a mailing list.

“Lord, I thank thee for today’s column; and I ask forgiveness for yesterday’s.”
– Lewis Grizzard, deceased syndicated columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and a Great American

Sure, I often finish writing something and feel proud. But weeks, days, even minutes later, I’m rushing to do a rewrite. I often post an article (for example, this is an updated article, as of 12:47 a.m. CST, 8/25/01), and I often revise and rewrite them after they’ve been published. Throughout today, if you refresh your browser and read this essay more than once, you will see where I’ve corrected typos, reworded sentences or even deleted some (for example, the section labeled “Part, the third: In Conclusion…” wasn’t in the first version that was published on Friday morning). The good writer is never satisfied.

#9 I write about topics that get me excited. That spurs you to craft your writing more carefully. When you read a piece of writing, you should be able to tell that the writer was excited/angry/serious about what he wrote. “Keeping it real,” as the young people say. I tr.

#10 I try to write about topics from perspectives that my fellow writers would never consider. From time to time, I write about topics with racial analogies and undertones. But, I’d like to believe that I don’t need to even “go there” and still be able to write essays that the other writers wouldn’t or couldn’t conceive. That’s one reason why I believe that everyone should try his hand at web-published writing. You other writers will address issues that I may never imagine to address.

#11 I keep my eyes and ears open for cool new words, sayings, as well as colorful expressions, bon mots, etc. I often get hate mail about my use of epigraphs and quotes at the beginning of my articles. Go figure. People usually ask me why I use them, but I don’t think that needs to be explained. Anyway, most of the quotes come from things I’ve overheard, said, read, or lifted from movies, books and other forms of popular culture. I think that developing this habit will sharpen and evolve someone’s writing just as much as assiduous reading.

#12 I write in such ways that would attract and hold my attention, if I were a reader; in other words, I write stuff that I would want to read (this often includes the headline). If I can’t make it through reading my own writing, how can I expect others to do it? Hence, I often reread my writing, if for nothing else but to find the flaws in my logic, style and construction. I’m not being self-effacing. This is merely an extension #9.

#13 I spent years learning the rules of journalism writing – now I try to break them. “You’ve gotta know the rules before you can break them, “as the adage goes. I often get hate mail about my allegedly “unorthodox” writing style: I use the first-person “I” in news articles; I use quotes to begin some of my columns; I interject opinion into what some readers consider straight news… They don’t realize that I can write just-the-facts-ma’am, “straight” news stories all day – if I want. But I don’t want. I prefer to experiment with different writing styles, different approaches. For me, this is an attempt to create written works of art as much as it is an exercise in reportage. Give your readers some unexpected treat sometimes. They like that.

Part the Third: In Conclusion…

This is a very scratch-the-surface statement on good writing. In the next few days, based on reader feedback and my reflection, I hope to revise this column to flesh out this extended thought. I think that it would be the height of arrogance to think that I can continually preach on what is or isn’t good writing. I did, however, want to give you some insight on how I view and create my own writings and how I never stop trying to approve.

Some time ago, I was flattered to be approached by two young men who write for another Mac web site. They wanted me to give them tips on writing. At first, I hesitated to do such a thing, since I looked at myself as just another guy who likes to write and had nothing to offer to fellow writers. Then I concluded that if I really believed that, I wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be a writer. Writers want to make a difference; they believe that their writings matter. That isn’t having an ego. That is having a burning desire to express yourself. That is having confidence that what you say can and will affect others.

That is what H. L. Mencken believes the purpose of writing to be: he says good writing must be a continual catalyst for change (often social). Good writing does the reportage, but should include watchdogging and all-around hell raising, when applicable (“comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comforted,” as the reporter’s saying goes). The ability to do it well, though, doesn’t happen by fiat. William Zinsser says that good writing typically comes from hard work. He says it is more than just words on paper. A good writer gives of himself also:

“The product that any writer has to sell is not his subject, but who he is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic that I never thought would interest me. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life? It is not necessary to want to spend a year alone at Walden Pond to become deeply involved with a man who did.

“This is the personal transaction that is at the heart of good writing. Out of it comes two of the most important qualities: humanity and warmth. Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest strength and the least clutter.”

So say we all. So say we all.



*Simple Sentence: Sentence made up of one independent clause (a clause consists of a complete subject and a complete predicate/verb) – “John can ride a bike.”

Compound Sentence: made up of two or more independent clauses – “John can ride a bike, and he can drive a car.”

Complex Sentence: made up of at least one independent clause and one dependent clause – “John can ride a bike, as long as he has training wheels on it.”

Compound-Complex Sentence: two or more independents and at least one dependent – “John can ride a bike, and he can ride a bike very fast, as long as he has training wheels on it.”

This article was published on iBrotha, Rodney’s own website that no longer exists, after Applelust published a heavily edited version of it. It is copyright 2001 by Rodney O. Lain. Links have been retained when possible, but many go to the Internet Wayback Machine.


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