A familiar frizzy-haired woman walks into the auditorium. I stare at her, trying to get her to look my way. But she hurries to the other side of the room, pretending not to see me. We have a few minutes before the readings start, so I walk across to where she is.
She looks up, guilt in her eyes. “Hello.” Then she blurts out her sin. “I haven’t written anything since I took that workshop with you.”
It’s happening again. Whenever I get within speaking distance of my former students, they start confessing. “Bless me, teacher, for I have sinned. It has been 43 days since I last wrote a complete sentence.”
The class is over. It’s their business whether or not they write anything, but they seem to expect a lecture, so I oblige. “Shame on you,” I exclaim, preaching the gospel of the good writer one more time. “Thou canst not be a writer if thou dost not write. Just one page a day will give thee a whole book in less than a year.”
Edith nods. “I know, I know. I’ll try to do better.”
“Good.” I attempt to change the subject. I tell her about my latest writing project, talk about the authors who are reading tonight, invite her to sit with me. “No, that’s okay,” she says, “I want to sit in the back.”
I know she secretly wishes I would go away. I am the walking, talking, writing embodiment of guilt. I told her to go forth and write–and she didn’t.
Just as the lights dim, another former student slides into the empty seat beside me. I feel a big envelope land on my lap. “I wonder if you could take a look at this for me,” Jerry whispers, staring at me with the same intentness I see in my dog’s eyes as she watches me eat meat loaf.
“What is it?” I whisper back.
“Something I’ve been working on. I just want your opinion.”
“Shh,” hisses the old lady sitting in front of us.
“I’m sorry,” I say, focusing on the author at the podium as if he were Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount. At intermission, I’ll skim the pages, gush over how prolific Jerry is, and encourage him to keep at it–whether it’s any good or not.
Wanna-be writers, like children, won’t write unless you prod them, won’t keep at it unless you laud them. Real writers will keep at it, no matter what.
Ironically, my students think I, published author and teacher of writing, write faithfully every day, sell everything I write, and know all the answers to their questions. If only. We all face the same blank page or computer screen with the same fear that the words won’t come to us.
Sometimes what the teacher really needs is for her students to accost her at the mall and ask, “Well, did you write anything? And if you didn’t, what are you doing here?”
But they never ask. Thank God. They’re too busy running away.
Now, let’s turn off the Internet and go write.
Good morning, writers.
While I was eating breakfast this morning, I started to read an essay in a respected literary journal. The subject seemed interesting enough. The writer has published several books and teaches in an MFA program at a prestigious university. But I couldn’t get through more than two pages of that essay because every paragraph was littered with parentheses and dashes. She couldn’t seem to get through a single sentence without interrupting herself for an aside. Most of these side trips were so long I had to go back and reread the beginning of the sentence to connect it with the long-delayed end. It was like trying to drive over a road that was nothing but speed bumps.
I suspect the writer was trying to create a casual voice, perhaps to mimic the haphazardness of speech, but it’s impossible to read. I gave up on that essay and decided to share my frustration with you.
Parentheses have their place, but use them sparingly. I had an English teacher who would flunk anyone who used even a single parenthesis. To this day, I stop and think before I use one. Most of the time, they’re unnecessary, but if you feel that you must use parentheses, use only one set, and don’t forget to close the other side when you’re finished.
As for dashes, they signal an interruption in the idea being expressed. “It’s getting–my God, the house is on fire!–hot in here.” That might be appropriate. But don’t overdo it. Sometimes it’s just laziness. In fact, I had to stop myself from using too many dashes in this post. If you find yourself using dashes in every paragraph, knock it off!
We’ll have to talk soon about using too many exclamation points, too, won’t we? That’s becoming an epidemic, too.
Now go write some clean sentences without interruption.
>Jack Hart, former managing editor and writing coach at the Oregonian, was the guest speaker at our Nye Beach Writers Series Saturday night. He’s the author of A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work, which came out in hardback in 2006 and paperback in 2007.
The book and his talk were full of commonsense advice on how to make one’s writing clear, correct, and communicative. Done right, the words don’t get in the way of the story. It’s a book most of us can use, whether we’re professional writers or normal people trying to communicate.
A few things Hart said caught my attention. One was that newspapers like the Oregonian actually hire writing coaches to help their reporters improve their writing. That was never offered at the papers where I worked, but what a wonderful thing. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Hart’s reporters won two Pulitzer Prizes and many other impressive awards while he was there.
Hart described two kinds of writing: reports and stories. A report, organized by topics, is meant to convey information. A story, built with scenes, reproduces an experience. Each one has its place in the newspaper, but it’s something to think about when you’re writing. Take a look at the newspapers you read to see the difference.
When I asked Hart how reporters are supposed to dig in and reproduce an experience when papers keep cutting the length of their stories, his answer surprised me. I expected some practical advice on how to write short, but he agrees with me that you really can’t get any depth in a 500-word story and that newspapers are wrong to copy other media with short hits. In order to compete, they need to do something the Internet and broadcasting can’t do. They need to dive into the heart of a story and tell it all.
I asked him how the Oregonian is doing in this era when lots of newspapers are cutting their editorial staffs. He said the paper is down 40 writers, which still leaves 300. That seems like a huge number, but they fill a lot of pages. Do the layoffs make more room for freelancers? Definitely, said Hart, who himself took advantage of an early-retirement option and has two more books underway.
Overall, it was an upbeat, inspiring talk, and Hart sold a lot of books to writers who came from all over Western Oregon to hear him. An open mic followed, and believe me, it was a little nerve-wracking to read my prose in front of such an expert on writing, just as I’m extremely self-conscious writing this report.
Bottom line, no matter how well we write, we can always do it better.
Click here For a good interview of Hart by the Public Relations Society of America.