In my role as a public relations director for a nonprofit, I write and edit a panoply of materials – long-form feature pieces on some aspect of health care or another; shorter news briefs reminiscent of the 20-second reporter and anchor voiceovers that marked my years as a television producer; advertisements; interviews. I’m still young (at least, that’s what my mother tells me, despite my growing collection of scars and wrinkles), and I’m fortunate to be the beneficiary of creating such a wide range of content.
Everyone needs to write – and write well. (I have more words on that subject, but that can come later.) I’ve worked with some incredible graphic designers over the course of my career, and all were proficient writers. My news anchor colleagues who read the text on the 6 p.m. newscast – they weren’t just adept at narrating the teleprompter, they were excellent writers.
Never would I suggest that I’m an expert in … well, much of anything, really. But I’ve found a few things that have worked for me over the last seven years in my professional career. And, in the great tradition of Rob Gordon, we’re going to hold it to five items.
May you remain in that healthy tension between the agony and blankness of writer’s block and the butcher’s block of embarrassment from writing something truly horrid. You can feel free to discard one, a few, or all of my ideas. Just don’t tell me about it.
1. Get a writing guide. It doesn’t matter if you’re Mark Rothko, Ernest Hemingway, or Cantinflas – the secret to any good craft is consistency. And how can one be consistent without knowing the rules? Feel free to develop your own personal scorecard – eventually. But, pardon the analogy, you need to know what the umpire sees on the field before you turn baseball into Calvinball.
My recommendations are worth as much as you’ve paid for them (although buying the actual books might set you back a tenner or two). Nothing has been more indispensable to me than The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (the latter, of course, is the guy who made you cry over a pregnant arachnid and her best friend, bacon). It reads more like a kind advice column than a didactic textbook – the effect is that you’ll remember not only how to write well, but why.
For journalists, The AP Stylebook is the holy word of God. What months should be abbreviated? What states should be written out in full? What cities stand alone in datelines? Is it “driveby shooting” or “drive-by shooting” or “drive by shooting”? These things seem so minute – and they are. Nevertheless, they’re important to memorize. If you use “canceled” in one paragraph and “cancelled” in the next – and both are correct spellings, by the way – you chip away at your credibility, letter by meaningful letter.
2. Perfect is the enemy of good. Consequently, the only perfectionists who make great art are mad geniuses. Van Gogh infamously offed himself with an anonymous revolver; Brian Wilson plunged into the desperation of severe mental illness; Steve Jobs was so invested in a holistic miracle that he merely withered away; saying “oh wow” thrice before expiring into a rattling mess of skin, bone, sinew, and little else.
What to aim for, if not perfection? That’s simple: the best you can do. Every time you sit at your typewriter, your iPad, at your kitchen table with a stenographer’s notebook and a Uni-Ball Vision Elite (we all have our favorite tools), set out to achieve your realistic potential. You’re a person with limitations – that’s a positive trait that you share with 7 billion others.
You’ll find that perfectionism is far less of a specter than is laziness. It’s easy to start something; sometimes, completion can be nearly impossible. Don’t make the Morrissey mistake (typical you, typical you, typical you!).
A final point: If your perfectionism begins to poke through, make it simple for yourself. Get an editor. Full stop.
3. Don’t write what you know – write what you don’t know. “Write what you know” is what passionate middle-aged high school English teachers tell their students who figured out the central conceit of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery a few sentences before the stoning began. (Spoilers.) Relish in writing about things you know utterly nothing of. It makes sense: You pay more attention to the quality of your prose when you’re being careful to synthesize and convey the facts to an audience.
Any kind of creative output is difficult, an “out-of-comfort-zone experience” – as a close friend and mentor often puts it, “like giving birth without an epidural.” (Something I’ll likely never experience.) Nevertheless, intellect and understanding doesn’t need to serve as a plumb line for quality. In a recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), Noel Gallagher (best known as Oasis’ songwriter, singer, and guitarist) blasted musical theory for exactly that reason: knowledge is knowledge. Art is art. Separate the two, and don’t hesitate to dive into unfamiliar subject matter.
4. Writing to your audience doesn’t mean writing like your audience. The best way I can illustrate this point is through a little thought experiment: What if Dr. Seuss wrote like his audience, instead of to and for it? Close your eyes and think about for a second, and I’ll be over here, rooting through your purse.
Finished? Here’s how I’d imagine the end result:
Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss
I do not like them
in a house.
I do not like them
with a mouse.
I do not like them
here or there.
I do not like them
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
Green Eggs and Ham, by a 3-year-old
I don’t want eggs or ham for breakfast! I WANT CANDYYYYY!
One of the most frustrating experiences of my professional career centered around this exact issue. To be brief, I was contracted to edit a document by a certain type of expert that was completely rife with spelling and grammar mistakes, lapses in rhetoric and narration and logical judgment, and … to cap it all off, the thing just wasn’t very good. I spent three hours honing the thing – not changing it, just helping it to make sense to a reasonable person – and all of my corrections were rejected.
“This isn’t how [this kind of expert] would talk,” I was told.
“But this is how [this kind of expert] would read,” I said.
The end result notwithstanding, a writer shouldn’t assume to know or understand her audience’s expertise or education. A writer’s responsibility is to connect a truth to the audience – and sometimes, the writer knows how best to do just that. None of this is to suggest that a writer need be egotistical and selfish; on the other hand, she shouldn’t defer to the lowest common denominator just to maintain the status quo.
Every time you put pen to paper, or finger to key, you’re signing off on a part of your identity. The worst thing a writer can do is to be satisfied with a bad job because the forces that be required it. Don’t sully your own reputation. Say “no thanks” and walk away – or get fired because your reputation is worth more than the job. (I’ve been in both situations, and I’m better for it.)
5. Don’t be an idiot. This is my simplest suggestion: break a rule before sounding like a dunce. A quote often misattributed to Sir Winston Churchill discusses that rule we’re all familiar with (I just broke it): ending a sentence with a preposition.
This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put!
I’ve borrowed a bit from Strunk and White on this point, but I’ll be a bit more blunt. If something sounds stupid to you, it’ll sound stupid to everyone. Don’t be stupid. Discard whatever guideline is making your words sound stupid, and sound less stupid. And if you’re concerned that you still sound stupid, refer to the end of my second suggestion: get an editor. For goodness’ sake.
Hey, that’s all I’ve got. Enjoy life! Feel free to disagree or criticize! Feel free to bring me a pizza, actually … I’m kind of hungry. A white pizza, with mozzarella and ricotta, a drizzle of olive oil, oregano and fresh basil, eggplant and tomato on top…
Next blog post: pizza.