The Best Writing Tip I Ever Got

Forged by all the years I’ve been putting words to the page, and tempered by a series of excellent and demanding teachers, the process of writing is pretty intuitive to me by now. I was once in correspondence with a number of old-school Manosphere bloggers, and one of us asked the group what motivated us to write and blog. Almost everyone deployed a variation of “the muse wills it” – the drive to express ourselves in prose was by that point hardwired, in the same way that a musician is driven to play his instrument.

Many guidelines, rules and structures have touched my prosaic oeuvre. Most of them went through a practice period and have since been subsumed, becoming deeply ingrained habits. The basics – the five-paragraph paper, topic and concluding sentences, transitions, assembling an assertive-supportive argument pattern, parallel structure, metaphor – went in early and easily, as I was eager both to please my instructors and to wield the pen effectively.

A few years ago I occasioned upon a brilliant quote by English writer Samuel Johnson:

“I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils:’Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.‘”

(Emphasis mine. One of many attributions can be seen here, a site that claims Johnson is the second most-quoted person in the history of the English language after William Shakespeare.)

This advice is brilliant in its simplicity – your writing isn’t as impressive as you think. Writers have a tendency towards vanity and self-amusement (I have laughed out loud many times while writing blog posts), a habit that doesn’t always lend itself to effective writing. If you fall in love with some brilliant line or quip you’ve spun, you might be doing your piece a disservice. Maybe it was a really good line and you had to stuff it in there somewhere without congruence. Maybe it was a clever conjecture that didn’t fit into your overall argument. Maybe you’re just caught up in showing off how smart and crafty you are, a conceit that serves a much smaller rhetorical purpose than one thinks.

To paraphrase a maxim of teaching, it’s not about what you say – it’s about what the audience hears.

Writers like Roosh who are known for their clarity excel at avoiding the baroque ornamentations that form one-man inside jokes at the quizzical or bored expense of the readership. Pascal’s joke “I had not the time to make this letter shorter” resonates deeply with writers, who understand the deep challenge of discipline in detasseling the chaff of one draft after another.

I recall the piece I was originally reading attributed the quip to Benjamin Franklin, whose mastery of ideas and their practical implications made him an iconic American hero to this day. However, when discussing this quote with a friend, I took to the Googles to verify its source and learned the truth of Dr. Johnson’s claim.

In any case, since discovering it, this tip alone has saved me literally scores of compositional and rhetorical faux pas. I tend to write in a nonlinear manner, collecting patchwork paragraphs across a general topic and then weaving them together into a whole as the ideas coalesce into a point. Thus, almost every piece I’ve written for this blog has had large or small portions completely cut out. It’s not unusual to see whole paragraphs written and then eliminated – at times providing the seed for other posts, but often simply vanishing.

Sometimes even the first or second paragraph I write winds up not fitting with the piece that has come to life around it. Out it goes.

It’s no secret that good editing is the secret sauce to consistent quality in a blogging space. If you check out this link, you’ll see that Mike from Danger&Play dedicated himself to a 10-revision minimum before he’d put a post up for public view. The result, since the start of this year, has been some of the best male-interest material you’ll ever read.

I suppose “the best tip ever” is a bit hyperbolic; it might be more appropriate to say the best tip that I still consciously think about. This is fitting, as I see it, because the paradoxical process of suppressing your own ego in the midst of an act of self-expression requires a fundamentally conscious deployment of will. I doubt this skill can ever be habituated, at least not without feeling that tiny twinge of loss when you strike out a particular bright brainchild.

FURTHER READING

For those of you who are seriously interested in studying the rudiments of good writing – and especially for the young guys, I highly recommend you do so – I can’t recommend a single text more than “Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense” by Arp and Johnson. (Here’s one of a few cheapo links.) A longtime English/Lit textbook, it masterfully combines a practical explanation of the basics (figurative language, literary devices, poetic and rhetorical structures) with a collection of excellent and enjoyable literary pieces that illustrate the academic points without sounding cherry-picked. If you want to be good at anything you need to understand the fundamentals, and this is as good a source as I’ve seen in the fundamentals of written language.

About these ads

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One response to “The Best Writing Tip I Ever Got

  1. BuenaVista

    I’m fond of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing.

    Number 10: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip …

    “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

    Also, he advises, go easy on the exclamation points.

    http://www.freep.com/article/20101106/FEATURES05/130820014/Elmore-Leonard-s-ten-rules-of-writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s