• On writing

    I just finished my second book.  I mean literally – minutes ago.  There’s something satisfying about a 190 page document.

    If you asked me when I was younger what the worst thing about school was, I would have immediately replied, “writing”.  English was always one of my least favorite subjects (sorry, Dr. Erskine!).  When I was picking classes in college I would always choose ones with tests over papers.  My writing was boring, formulaic, and dry.

    It’s ironic, because the biggest part of my job now is writing.  And I’m not just talking about this blog.  I spend the vast majority of my day working on grants or papers, or filling out forms or applications for research.  And then one day, I convinced someone to write a book with me.  And now I write all the time on the Internet.

    I sometimes wonder how that happened.  I think, unfortunately, most people think writing is a skill you’re born with; it is absolutely not.  I am never going to write the great American novel.  But I can say, with some confidence, that I have become much, much better at it over time.  It takes practice.  It takes work.  It’s like any other skill in that the harder you work at it, the better you become.

    I’ve also been impressed at how much you can learn by reading books about writing.  Here are some of the best I’ve encountered:

    Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark.  No single book has helped my writing as much as this one.  It’s like the world’s greatest magician is taking you backstage and showing you how all the tricks work.  Here’s one of my favorite examples from “Tool 18: Set the pace with sentence length”:

    This sentence has five words.  Here are five more words.  Five-word sentences are fine.  But several together become monotonous.  Listen to what is happening.  The writing is getting boring.  The sound of it drones.  It’s like a stuck record.  The ear demands some variety.  Now listen.  I vary the sentence length, and I create music.  Music.  I use short sentences.  And I use sentences of medium length.  And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of drums, the crash of cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, this is important.’

    That, plus “Tool 20: Choose the number of elements with a purpose of mind” probably have done more for my writing than any class I’ve ever taken.  I can’t say enough good things about this book.

    On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King.  You may or may not like his fiction, but the man knows how to tell a story.  When I was a resident, one of my friends was a journalist and writer and when he told me that King was widely recognized for his craft as well as his stories, I was stunned.  It never occurred to me that the two could be so intertwined.  But he was right, and this book is a chance to learn at the feet of a master as he carefully explains why other authors succeed, and sometimes fail.

    The Lost Art of the Great Speech: How to Write One–How to Deliver It, by Richard Dowis.  Yes, it’s a book about writing speeches, but I’ve found that blogging is a lot like giving a little speech.  And this book is great not only for its lessons, but also for its collection and transcription of famous speeches.  Reading some of them – Churchill’s “Their Finest Hour”, Roosevelt’s “Date Which Will Live In Infamy”, and Heston’s “The Awesome Power of Disobedience” – alone makes the book worth owning.  But again, when the techniques used are pointed out, you see how they can be applied to your benefit; you’d be amazed how much of a difference it makes.

    And, finally, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published, by Sheree Bykofsky and Jennifer Bayse Sander.  When I was finally ready to take the plunge and try and sell our book, this was the instruction manual I used to learn how publishing works.  And I can tell you this book is good because I used the lessons to pitch Sheree, whose agency now represents us.

    I’m taking a small break tonight.  Tomorrow, I’ll start editing the book.  It’s been a really long summer; but soon it will be better.  We’ll send in the completed manuscript.  I’ll smile.  Finishing a book is an amazing accomplishment, and now something I’ve done twice.  I never thought I’d write one book let alone two.  And yet I did.  And not only that, I’ve started my own blog, written for others, and now have the privilege of contributing to this one, where the words I write are read by people I admire and respect, whose voices have inspired me to find my own, and to try – in my own way – to add something unique to the world.

    Do you see what I did there?

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    • No, actually I didn’t see what you did there. Or if I did, I didn’t understand the significance of it. No matter.

      As someone who took a similar course from repeatedly failing high school english course because of a lack of writing ability (or perhaps just the profound dislike of writing), to actually enjoying writing, I can say that having something to write about which you care about makes a huge difference.