A New (very old) Topic
This article launches a new topic on the writing craft. It’s not written by or for professional writers. I hope that some readers will be able to extract some small, useful viewpoints here. In any event, I tried to design this article to be entertaining reading. With good fortune, perhaps we can accomplish one or two of these goals, anyway.
Sometimes I can produce a post on this site which draws frequent, favorable comment. Less often, someone else asks questions: “How do I acquire a style of writing I can enjoy, which also will be enjoyable to other readers?”
I often ask these questions myself, so why has Summitlake.com never posted any “Writing Notes” about the writing process itself? It’s natural caution, perhaps: how many monday morning quarterbacks actually play football?
What I have tried to collect here are my own personal observations about writing, often learned through trial and error. If you’re looking for serious reading on how to become a better writer, you’d be better off picking up a copy of Strunk and White, reading really authoritative references first-hand. Merriam-Webster also used to put out a competing collegiate edition on style, which had expanded examples I find more useful.
Whether we fancy the implications or not, I find much of the root cause of reader response is “topic, topic, topic”. This isn’t necessarily what it first sounds like. To be honest, few of us write entirely to please others, even on assignment. If our heart and passion aren’t in it, even the most motivated reader will bail out. Here’s my personal takes on those of my own stories and essays that proved to be most popular over time:
- Steam Locomotive – 1995, illustrated autobiographical story of a young child’s first encounter with the last thundering gasps of the Age of Steam.
- Wild Plum! – 1993, poem about my all-time favorite camping spot, and the memories it evokes in us.
- Ford Ignitions – 2002, expository essay on Ford Motor’s infamous 1984 Thin Film Ignition problem.
Ford Ignitions drew almost overwhelming comment and questions for many years, more than any other single post on this site. I personally was never proud of my writing style or organization, but it was straightforward, from the heart, and it had facts and a story to tell. I also had the technical background for an automotive topic. I was not prepared for the response, but the explanation is simple: a lot of Americans owned 1984-1990 Ford light trucks and Broncos. I offered information about the inexplicable. Most readers were already searching for information on that topic.
Steam Locomotive drew heavy favorable response from both the general public, and from train enthusiasts. Readers enjoyed it because it captured that excitement of the five-year-old when something fun and really BIG happens.
Wild Plum! is my favorite of my own poems. It’s also my favorite personal work of all time. Unlike everything else we discuss here, it happened to be the easiest to write. The poem itself suggests the theme and imagery came from a “just-so, just-perfect, Sunday afternoon nap”. That’s a fact. I have also made or renewed several friendships because of that poem. Writing that draft took about an hour after my nap, and it was polished and finished by a few hours after normal bedtime.
How do we account for this?
Consider this passage:
… you hear the growing, incessant roar,
the thundering, crashing roar one cannot out-shout:
the boiling, spuming granddaddy pool of them all
where it all plunges twenty feet just like that!
In a maelstrom of chromium bubbles and misty noise
the crashing watery din propels the current ever so swiftly,
down, away, into the deep blue waters of the lower pool,
dive-able, high from this very rock,
but the fear says ‘no’:
not the unmistakable dread fear of certain danger,
but the cautious fascination as of the very young
for things like locomotives, raw power in panting iron,
and thrashing, thudding, thrumming bronze propellers
of towering ships, larger than life,
upheaving the very atmosphere or ocean
with evidence of excitement and danger everywhere
just beyond reach
if very careful.
When I revisit this favorite, I still get the goose-bumps. The temptation is still there to say, this must be very powerful writing. If you also read Steam Locomotive, you’ll note I used similar devices there too. Life is about the sound, the fury, the feeling of being alive. Part of the writer’s job is to communicate the very human sense of fully celebrating and enjoying life.
This poem has resonated with many others. There has to have been some certain amount of writing skill, in order to have evoked those images — as if we were all still telling stories around the camp fire.
I don’t think the power particularly comes from the skill.
What startles me is not some arguable level of writing skill, but the images. As clever as I can sometimes be, I could not possibly have invented them. I didn’t need to. I was there. From the rolls of Charmin draping the brush in their Ziploc baggies, to the overhanging branch slapping the water as I fly-fished, to the sleeping kids nestled in our chairs as we grown-ups sat around the glowing evening firepit coals, all those irreplaceable images burned into my memory banks forever.
I was not usually such a keen observer. That 1993 evening, after that Sunday afternoon nap, it seemed as if all I had to do is to turn on the recorders and let them play. In truth, it was a poem 20 years in the making.
Writing What You Know
I used to resent the old, experienced sages, those writers who, when pressed for an accounting of what’s required to write about a subject, would say “you have to have lived it.”
If you’re in your teens or the first early decades of life, doesn’t this seem terribly cynical and unfair? Easy for you to say, old gaffer!
There are still plenty of topics to write about. True, if you’ve never been to Kenya, My Life In Kenya might be unwise. I know nothing of sewing or needlepoint, so I couldn’t write credibly on that topic even if I had a lot of money riding on it – but I do know wonderful people who could happily bend my ear for hours on that subject. If you can’t go there, don’t just read about it – talk to people who can help make the topic come alive.
What we know depends on what we’ve learned to look for.
An excellent analog comes to mind in an often-similar creative direction: photography. Certainly, if we can afford the time and expense of travel, we can let nature do all the work while we shoot jaw-dropping photos of Sedona, the Sierras, or Hawaii. How could we forget Penobscot Bay, Maine? Aren’t there great photographic possibilities in the Sahara?
So we must ask ourselves: what photographer has not ever spent an hour in the back yard waiting for the perfect photograph?
With a little luck, you can even compose an image of a weed, transforming the commonplace invader into a little treasure.
The creative writing process has so much in common with photography. Instead of producing images in the medium of film emulsion or digital storage, we may be creating tonal word images (poetry), or, by using the writer’s palette, to capture a unique prose view of a complete concept.
Whether in our writing, or in capturing a photo image, the material is there. It’s up to us to see the possibilities.
In photography, we control content with lighting, focus, subject matter, color and tones, and cropping (to name a few variables). Think how many of these analogs carry over to the writing process. The photographer’s finished images are presented to the viewer in single, finished frames. We never have to wade through all the culls, because that’s an expected part of the photographer’s editing process. Without the camera as automatic recorder, the writer must selectively recreate each element of the overall image.
Creating writing content is very much like the photography process, except that we substitute conceptual painting for visual imagery, and we lay it out serially, rather than all at once – one element at a time.
The writer, unlike the still photographer, must choose that sequence. Did you ever lay out all the gear for inspection before a camping trip?
Here, the “load-master” is able to inventory all of the items before committing to the trip. This is our last chance to inspect each item and ask, “Do we really need this?” and “What might we have forgotten?”
Did we ever tote salmon eggs up to the lake at 10,000 feet elevation, when the rest of the gear was strictly for fly-fishing — because the eggs were already in the kit? Did we still bring the Coleman white gas that first year when we converted the lantern and stove to propane? The load-master asks: we always used this before, but does it work for this trip?
Once comfortable with the inventory, the back-packer or camper isn’t done. The thoughtful outdoors person won’t cram everything into the back-pack or the rear of the station wagon and drive off. For example, the mosquito repellent would go in a side-pocket where we can reach it right away, not at the bottom of the pile under the sleeping bag.
Writers, too, need to supply a lot of planning to the conceptual pack-list, and to the order in which items need to be accessed and taken back out.
Think of our writing as a back-pack cached as survival gear for a stranger we don’t know, whom likely we never shall meet. Is the first item out of the cache going to be beef jerky and trail-mix bars, or dirty socks and a nine-pound cast-iron kettle?
Delivery techniques that can sometimes be executed so dramatically in live narrative, often don’t work at all in prose. Here again, the order of presentation is as important as the contents.
The writing process isn’t some mysterious talent a few chosen ones must be born with. Perhaps our avocation is golf, surfing, gardening, sewing, cooking, motorcycle racing, backpacking, photography or writing. We may not think of such pastimes, which we enjoy so thoroughly, as “discipline and self-training” — but that’s what they are. If we apply the same attention to detail, pre-planning and follow-through in our writing, we’re all the more likely to produce an effort we’re pleased with!
When we buy a book from Amazon, or magazine off the rack, at least we have the assurance the writing has been through the wringing-out process, shooting the gamut of publisher-and-editor. Self-publishing is not like this. In the early days of the World Wide Web, some of us saw it as a possible vehicle for aspiring writers. In most cases, what usually happened should have been predictable enough, since it followed what had already happened in television: FaceBook is the web equivalent of Days of Our Lives. True, each also serves a need, and, no doubt, a purpose.
I actually have a FaceBook presence. It has helped renew old and new ties stretched by distance and time. But that doesn’t make FaceBook a great medium for good literature.
We may remember the first time we heard the expression “Close counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades. ” It doesn’t count on the web just because all we have to do, to self-publish, is to click a button.
There are stylistic and formatting differences for web content. For example, I break up my pages with frequent sub-headings (e.g., “The Web”, above).
I like to think this will help the Internet reader to orient within the content, and provides a return-to reference and navigation point, since simple web content doesn’t have page numbers. But perhaps this only satisfies my personal irritation, which increases as the years go by, when I jump around to re-check a point, and then can’t find my way back.
We won’t go further into web style issues or schools of thought for now.
Editing and Re-writes
I don’t necessarily enjoy time spent re-writing something I’ve already written. I do spend increasing amounts of time re-writing: 50% surely; probably closer to 75% on more ambitious efforts. The more I care about the project, the more I actually enjoy the re-writes.
I have convinced myself of this: if I don’t enjoy re-reading an old piece of mine, why should anyone else?
If we aren’t lucky enough to get that short piece “right” the first time, we know it, don’t we? Simply substituting or rearranging a few words here and there isn’t a solution.
A professional furniture finisher works the project through successively finer grits of sandpaper, starting with 60 or 80 grit (“that’s like throwing rocks at it”), then 100, 120, 180, and so on down to perhaps 400, 600, or triple-zero steel wool. The result, after varnish or lacquer, is a mirror-like finish.
The amateur in a hurry starts out with 80 grit and jumps right to 120 grit and a couple of coats of varnish. Who has not seen home-refinishing efforts with deep sanding or saw marks that print right through the varnish or paint?
Don’t start your final “polishing” until you’ve removed all the pits and gouges. Sit down and re-write weak paragraphs or chapters from scratch. I’ve often had to do this several times before getting the project I originally envisioned.
Give it a rest before you start burning out. The best advice on editing I can give from personal experience is the same they give for letters written in haste or anger: sleep on it, and look at it anew in the morning.
Don’t feel it’s mimicry to study what others have done. We might do this with photography: open up any National Geographic or Arizona Highways. How did the photographers achieve that effect? We can be reasonably certain the best writers are good students; why not cultivate the habit of examining those passages we enjoy in writing?
Did we perhaps coin the great, perfect turn of phrase, that powerful insight, but it doesn’t really fit into its present slot in the writing effort, and. worse, we don’t have a clue where it belongs? Move that content into some offline “snippets” file for storage and reference, and delete it from the main body of the project. The same reasoning follows for entire chapters.
There are many stories and puzzles about monkeys and coconuts. I may have first read this one in Robert Pirzig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The wording below is only my own recollection of an oft-told parable:
To catch a monkey, get yourself a coconut, and in it, cut a hole about the size of a monkey’s fist. The hole needs to be just large enough so the monkey can just get his paw in, but, if he makes a first around the sweetmeats found inside the coconut, he can’t get his fist out. Finally, of course, attach the coconut to a staked rope.
We all see the catch-line to this story, even if we hadn’t heard it before. The monkey simply won’t let go of that sweetmeat, it’s said, even though failing to release it will result in captivity or death.
We writers can be like that monkey. We just can’t bear to let go of the prized passage. This has been my downfall so many times: I have ruined whole projects in an effort to figure out how to save one prized passage. That’s the reason for the earlier advice: delete it.
Hint: the fact that a project can be ruined or lost dovetails neatly with the old PC axiom: back up early and often. Save under a new name: draft-1, draft-2, and so on to draft-final.
When we keep over-typing the old draft, have you ever noticed it’s really become some other essay? Be able to revert to an earlier version if necessary.
Follow that Vision
In 1950, noted philosopher and reformer Bertrand Russell published a book named Unpopular Essays. I always admired his title, though it works so much more effectively when you’re named Bertrand Russell.
I enjoy writing on a variety of topics, from astronomy and computers to civil liberties and “creative writing”. No one style fits all topics. One thing is usually certain: I am writing to a pre-selected interest group. Awareness of the potential “popularity” of a topic may influence my writing style, but not whether I write it.
“Unpopularity” is sometimes the expected reward and choice. If we must get the message out, don’t desert the vision. Those whom the message reaches may perhaps not have the experience or drive to write back. If something we write saves one life, launches one career, furthers a lifelong avocation, or just brings honest pleasure, wasn’t that the point all along? Let it never be said one simply doesn’t write “unpopular” stories and articles. When the passion to do so is there, follow it. If it’s clear where we’re going, so might our readers follow along the trail too.
The catch-phrase in the previous sentence was “if it’s clear where we’re going …”
Some of our best writing often originates in first draft, while at this point we may still have utterly no clue where the drift of ideas is going to lead us.
I’ve recently come around to the view that it’s usually a fatal error to drag the reader through our own internal development and discovery processes. Mindful that I still can fall victim to the first-draft-is-sacred mindset, I would like to discuss some of my views on writing style and clarity — the next time we return to our writer’s version of This Old House.
[continued on Part II, Writing Style and Clarity]
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