Friday, January 20, 2012

On Writing, Part Two of Two

When I was a kid, there was a candy bar (I forget the name) whose ad campaign was a jingle that went "________: It's too good for kids! _______ is made for grownups!" That (besides the "too good" part) is what I determined to be the case about a recent presentation I was giving. In the moment I looked at my notes on why we write and how we write better, and then looked at my audience of third-graders. I decided that they would pelt me with crayons if I shared what I had prepared, so I ditched the notes and just made conversation.

Their gain is your loss; instead of subjecting them to my random thoughts, I'm posting them here. This is the second and final post. I should note that the teacher's primary goal was to get the kids to "capitalize the first word in a sentence." So, this might sound a bit basic at points. But basic isn't bad; it is, in fact, foundational.


How we become good writers
First off, notice what you like when you read. If you read a story or a book that you just love, tell people you love it, and tell them why you love it. And then read it again, but this time pay attention to why you love it. You really like a particular character: Why? What did the writer do to help you connect so strongly to that character? You have a clear mental picture of a place: Why? How did the language and structure of what’s written help you imagine the place so effectively? You have a crystal-clear understanding of a thing or an idea—how a car works, for example, or why RBIs are important in baseball. Find examples in what you read that really connected the dots for you.

The first step in becoming a good writer is figuring out what good writing is, which involves paying close attention to the tricks and habits of the writers you really like. Every writer is different; sports writers write differently and use different tricks than novelists or poets. But every writer has access to the same toolkit. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a very different kind of fantasy story than J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone; both of them are good because the authors do what they do uniquely well, but also because they mastered the mechanics of good writing that are common to all writers.

So, as boring as it might seem, it’s worth really practicing the basics in your toolkit. Take spelling seriously; when you’re texting, take the time to make sure you spelled everything correctly. It’ll slow you down, but good writing is generally slow. While you’re taking spelling seriously, you’ll unconsciously write more seriously, more compellingly, both because the things you’ve written seem worth the time it took to spell right but also because you’ve slowed yourself down and thought through each word. E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and a variety of other classic stories, told his writing students, “Let every word tell.” By that he meant that, when you write (or more to the point, when you revise), make sure that every word on the page is there for a reason. Paying attention to spelling is one way of training your mind to do that.

So is playing by the rules of grammar. Capitalize the first word of every sentence because it’s a new sentence, and that’s what you do. Check in every once in a while on blogs like The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks or Apostrophe to see why bad punctuation makes writers look silly. Look for errors in stuff you read; show people—your teachers, your parents, your writer-friends—when you find errors, and reflect on why it’s so hard to find errors. The main reason is that good writers make the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation instinctive so they can focus on making their writing style more unique, more compelling.

Last thing: If something is important enough for you to write about, it should also be enough for you to talk about and act on. If you’re passionate about an issue—say, famine in Africa or homelessness in Lombard—write about it, sure, but also do something about it: raise money, volunteer, write your senators and the president, that sort of thing. The most important thing for writers is to not get lost in their writing, not to make their writing something they do simply to amuse or otherwise indulge themselves, but to actually have an impact on their world. Commit yourself to that, and your writing will get better because you’ll care more about what you’re writing, and so will your reader, because you’ve shown them how to care.


David Zimmerman said...

I figured out the candy! I thought it was European. It had three syllables and rhymed with "spay," but all I could think of was "Danke schein," which is a horrible name for a candy bar. Here's a link to what it was and, apparently, still is:,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.,cf.osb&biw=1413&bih=695&ion=1&wrapid=tljp132717088669702&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=shop&cid=3782957486323642595&sa=X&ei=QQUbT9zgOcWvsQKB_OHnCw&sqi=2&ved=0CCgQ8wIwAA#

Anonymous said...

Translated, Danke Schoen simply means Thank You. GZ