Wednesday, October 2

Teaching People To Write Requires A Contradictory Approach.

"I have known writers who paid no damned attention whatever to the rules of grammar and rhetoric and somehow made the language behave for them." — Red Smith 

Red Smith was one of the finest sportswriters in history. Not only did he receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award from the Baseball Writers Association Of America, but he was also the first sportswriter to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Even more notable, he is the Red Smith for whom the Red Smith Award from the Associated Press is named. Ernest Hemingway even immortalized him in a novel.

"And he noticed how the wind was blowing, looked at the portrait, poured another glass of Valpolicela and then started to read the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune. 

I ought to take the pills, he thought. But the hell with the pills.

Then he took him just the same and went on reading the New York Herald. He was reading Red Smith, and he liked him very much." — Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and Into the Trees 

But that's not why I quote him in every writing, editing and proofreading class I teach. I quote him because he is right. And I quote him as a reminder to myself to never become a pompous ass about the trade and craft. There are too many writers who do, claiming they know this and that about writing.

Editing And Proofreading Your Work at the University Of Nevada, Las Vegas. 

It's always a challenging prospect — standing in front of varied students who range in age, interest and experience — for a three hours on some random morning or afternoon when the subject of the day is editing and proofreading. (It will be a morning session this Saturday.)

What makes this class especially daunting is that I have one chance to help people become better writers, editors or proofreaders. It's not like Writing For Public Relations at all, with writing assignments (and the rewrites of those assignments) being passed back and forth for ten weeks.

No, this class is a one-time shot, taught only once in the spring and once in the fall (occasionally once in the summer). And while I always present myself in a suit out of respect to those who attend, the class itself remains informal. I invite students to stop me cold, ask me questions on the fly, and otherwise test my respectable but finite knowledge about the written language.

Sometimes it takes awhile to visualize their hypotheticals and every now and again I have to research their questions after class because they stump me on the spot, but otherwise I manage well enough. Even the few times that I didn't think I managed well enough worked out for the best. I love to learn too.

Some of my lessons from previous classes even become part of my future classes. One of my favorite stories includes how I used to use "website" as an example of English being a living language until one student pointed out the Associated Press insisted it be spelled "Web site." So, I changed my class (providing the Associated Press explanation) only to be schooled by a different student when the Associated Press changed its ruling a week prior to my class (and without my knowledge). Figures.

The day someone thinks they've mastered writing is the day they aren't worth reading.

When I was younger, I used to sweat the outlandishly difficult questions or insistent but mostly wrong students. Nowadays, I'm more inclined to laugh about it, regardless of who is proven ignorant.

I attribute that to Smith. He knew better than most: telling someone how to write is futile. You can only show them how to write better. He was not alone in believing it.

Beyond the more obvious industry hacks like David Ogilvy, William Bernbach, Leo Burnett, Shirley Polykoff, I've learned a few things from authors like Ernest Hemingway, Allen Ginsberg, Ray Bradbury, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Wambaugh (to name a few). Except for Vonnegut (sort of), none of them believed a formula could make anyone a great writer.

Instead, you have to see writers as people in various stages of aptitude, ranging from the novice who doesn't realize there are "rules" to the experienced "blow hard" who lives for the rules (or is delusional enough to think he/she is better than any rules). Once you do, you guide them from one layer of aptitude to the next until they understand that being a better writer isn't very complicated even if it is contradictory.

You want to write straight, honest prose that can touch a human being. Nothing more or less. 

That's the easy part. The hard part is that there are a thousand different ways to do it. There are a million different things that can get in the way of doing it well, which is why every word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, plot and story needs to be tested against whatever the writer already knows.

You dust off those "rules," filters, and suggestions and then ask an honest question: Would this concept make it better, worse, or about the same? Oversimplified, you might ask: Does starting this sentence with something unconventional like "And" make it better, worse, or about the same.

As long as you have a good reason to do or not do something (and not as a defensive justification or cop out), you can break with standard, style, format or the so-called rules any time you want. Of course, this also assumes you know the rules you want to break and understand what's behind them.

This is probably why people who teach writing sometimes seem like they burn the candle at both ends. We want, or at least I want, to lay out some rules for people to try on and then encourage them to wear those that fit and dismiss those that don't fit. It's how you become a better writer, and you will never stop doing it (ever). Anyone who tells you differently is either too busy trying to imitate or perhaps too busy trying to justify why they can't imitate.

What about you? Do you have any rules, techniques, or tips that you've found useful? I'd love to read them or check them out. Just drop them in the comments Or, if you would rather talk about something else all together, please do. The comment section is an open forum around here.
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