The Art of Writing
Being a writer can sometimes weigh heavily. As a representative of and advocate for the written word, I recognize the opportunity to demonstrate good writing. That means accurate, clear, truthful, compelling, and correct writing. Doing all that successfully, time after time, is an aspiration, and the quality of my efforts is for others to judge. That said, as for any craftsperson, I am proud of what I do, and want to make my writing as polished as I can in the time I have.
Sometimes, there is little time for making words truly shine. Sometimes, it really doesn’t matter. For example, all those emails that zoom off into the ethers every day are usually intended as quick bursts of communication. Yet I cannot let them go without a re-read to check for typos and errors. Admission: I never learned how to type (properly). It’s hunt-and-peck at the level of real mastery (I can type fast, but you would get dizzy watching my hands...). The result is that there are often many corrections to be made. I find this a bit burdensome (but important) because fixing these little missives can chew up considerable time.
It’s a happier day when I get to play with my tools—words—and find in them the music and cadence that they have to offer. It doesn’t matter what I’m writing: I do enjoy the process. First: get the basic thought down in a “sloppy copy.” That’s my lump of clay. Then comes the editing. This is a phase of softening, shaping, and smoothing the clay, continually refining it until it emerges as the vessel that contains the concepts and ideas I want to convey. It could more accurately be called “self-editing” since much of what I write goes on to outside editors, whose specific skills are entirely different from mine. Some of my essays are re-drafted dozens of times before I deem them ready to launch.
Self-editing relies on fresh eyes, the ability to read something as if you (who have already slaved over it) have never seen it in your life. Self-editing demands, as a writer once said, that you “murder your darlings”—kill off verbage that is Not Needed. What’s not needed? Recognition of the excess that is another vital writerly skill. What’s needed depends on what’s being said, how it needs to be said, and to whom it’s being said. Complicated. Complex. Fun!
When I am writing about verifiable facts, research enters the picture. Ferreting out the details of a story that is based in truth is an honor, actually, and something to respect. This is why I like writing non-fiction. Putting the various facts together is an immense jigsaw puzzle that requires dedication to truth along with patience and other skills.
Doing research can be very hard work. It involves gaining access to hidden information stored, perhaps, on the internet (most easy...and least reliable in many cases), or in paper-based archives (with physical access issues, particularly when they are far away), or, most dicey of all, in the memories and recollections of people. The interviewing skill of knowing how to ask a good question comes into play, as does building trust that you will do your best to use a person’s information honorably. Research uses up a lot of time, which can be a burden when deadlines threaten to clothesline you in the headlong rush to get the job done. Ask anyone who has ever gone down the rabbit-holes of the internet for hours on end, only to wonder upon emerging what it was they were seeking in the first place!
I heard a TV commentary today how unusual it has become for people to take the high road in their communications. This trend of devolving into immature name-calling and cyber-bullying of those we see as “other” seems depressingly present these days. Whether written or spoken, this communication pattern is crude, unbecoming, and (sadly) increasingly modeled by people who should know better (and who have seemingly-unlimited access to media outlets). With yet another wearying year of political campaigning about to hit its stride, I worry. Words can, indeed, shatter lives.
The idea of a high road implies the act of climbing up, out of the dark. It requires effort and stamina—traits sadly lacking in many of the users of social media. I hope those who call themselves “writers” will consider the cultural relevance of staying on the high road and maintaining high standards for the language we use. In this way, maybe we can help promote the beauty and intelligence of our world.