From ‘Letters to a Young Writer’

Don’t worry so much about your word count. Your word cut is more important. You have to sit there sharpening that red pencil or hitting the delete button or flinging the pages into the fire. Often, the more words you cut, the better. A good day might actually be a hundred words less than you had yesterday. Even no words on the page is better than no time at the page at all.

Insist on your own persistence. The words will come. They might not arrive as burning bushes or pillars of light, but no matter. Fight again, then again and again. If you fight long enough, the right word will arrive, and if it doesn’t, at least you tried.

Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair.

Stare the blank page down. (Column McCann, Letters to a Young Writer, p. 16)

Colum McCann’s letters are to a young creative writer, so they’re not quite for me, but certain passages are broad enough to inspire and remind me of a writer’s challenges. And even once I realized he’s not writing to me, I couldn’t help reading on because his rhythm is captivating. Take his last sentence. For some not-quite-articulable reason, it has the rhythm I associate with McCann’s fiction (e.g., Let the Great World Spin, which I recommend). It’s paradigmatic McCann. (And there’s a whole potential blog post here about how a writer’s product should be indicative of that writer’s style—unique—and yet submissive to the rules of writing to which we’re all subject. See, for example, how William Zinsser fixes this seeming paradox early on in On Writing Well—in chapter 4 on style: “‘But,’ you may say, ‘if I eliminate everything you think is clutter and if I strip every sentence to its barest bones, will there be anything left of me?’” His answer is yes, of course.)

This McCann passage is something I’d like to share the next time I’m prepping a batch of undergrads to write their very own, very first philosophy papers. Writing 1,000-1,250 words seems torturous to most of them, and they mistake their biggest worry for coughing up 1,000 words, when it should be the opposite: if their understanding of a topic—and their own thesis—is precise enough, they should worry about coming in under the 1,250 word limit. In any case, the next time I make my spiel—if I include McCann—I will need to qualify the point McCann makes in the second paragraph—I’m less concerned with the words the students use than the ideas those words convey. Precision of language is no less important, but it’s the precision of thought I want them to demonstrate for me, even if their language isn’t pristine in their first essays I grade.

–Beth

Selected Advice from ‘On Writing Well’

William Zinsser’s On Writing Well should be any writer’s well-worn companion. I’m sure you’ve already read it—it’s been indispensable to writers since it was published in 1976*—but I only finished parsing its advice last week, and I found it surprisingly captivating (for a how-to guide). I’ll try not to tell you everything you already know about Zinsser’s witty advice and clever mocking of writers’ worst practices, but I do want to extract and revisit some notable points. I’ll apply these to my own writing—the thesis-defense type—though Zinsser writes for all nonfiction writers. Here’s what I noted:

–“Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints” (p. 53*). Though I try to tell students (and myself) that any clear writing comes from a clear outline, an outline shouldn’t restrict an essay’s development.

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Roland Barthes

I always try to sketch a preliminary direction for my essays, but I also always end up diverting and re-sketching not only my route but also my destination (i.e., the very thesis I try to defend). So I think outlines are important—Zinsser would agree—but if in the middle of some piece I see some alternative argument for some subtly different and better thesis, I don’t hesitate to discard everything irrelevant to the old thesis in exchange for the new. I think I’ve learned—at least in this past year—not to be imprisoned by a preconceived plan, even if this means discarding something I already spent several hours developing. (And, usually, the revised thesis and argument come more easily than the one that I belabored.)

–Zinsser twice mentions the writer should know more than she tells the reader. In his words, “Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best (p. 58). Later, “Always start with too much material. Then give your reader just enough” (p. 156). I’m sure discerning the “just enough” is an art, but essential nonetheless. This is a weakness of mine—I feel I never acquire the requisite surplus before I must give the reader what little I have acquired. Never mind limiting the details. But this is how I let irrelevant and distracting details slip into my writing.

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Hemingway (of course)

–The first draft of any writing is (to the attuned writer) painful to re-read, and Zinsser extols the revision process—tidying the loose ends from one sentence to the next: “Learn to enjoy this tidying process. I don’t like to write; I like to have written. But I love to rewrite… to press the DELETE key and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity” (p. 87).

Like any good writer writing about writing, Zinsser praises clarity and simplicity—the DELETE key is especially good for discarding clichés, jargon, and phrases the length of which could be considerably and mercifully shorter than when they were first written.

–On word choice and syntax: imitate writers with taste; read their words aloud to get a sense of their rhythm… (p. 235). I have a short list of writers I’ll be re-reading this summer hoping I can mimic their taste and thereby develop my own.

–“After verbs, plain nouns are your strongest tools; they resonate with emotion” (p. 238). The simplest words, used accurately, are often the best. Resist any urge to search a thesaurus for the intelligent-sounding three-syllable synonym to the one-syllable word you know already (as I often did in my early days as an undergraduate student…).

–If you’re working with these concepts of simplicity, the next step to ease into good writing is enjoying your subject. I like how Zinsser puts it:

Zinsser-paper

Zinsser

Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic. (p. 245)

–Finally, as perhaps the most American writers do—whether academic or how-to gurus—Zinsser drives his point home with a baseball metaphor:

My favorite definition of a careful writer comes from Joe DiMaggio, though he didn’t know that’s what he was defining. DiMaggio was the greatest player I ever saw, and nobody looked more relaxed. He covered vast distances in the outfield, moving in graceful strides, always arriving ahead of the ball, making the hardest catch look routine, and even when he was at bat, hitting the ball with tremendous power, he didn’t appear to be exerting himself. I marveled at how effortless he looked because what he did could only be achieved by great daily effort. A reporter once asked him how he managed to play so well so consistently, and he said: “I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.”

The keys here are (1) the great daily effort that (2) makes your written work appear effortless (which it’s not; see (1)). Your best writing should be worth the effort required to produce it (which effort should often be enjoyable; see penultimate point) and worth the reader’s commitment (which should also be enjoyable, of course).

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Zinsser & Massive Typewriter

Since you’ve read to the end, I thank you for your commitment. Thanks! I also welcome your comments (e.g., the advice you gleaned from On Writing Well) and criticisms. Next I hope to read and distill Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, but please forgive me if the summer lethargy settles into my bones and prevents me from updating you soon enough.

*All page numbers correspond with the seventh edition.

**I don’t have hard facts corroborating this statement. I’ve merely inferred its indispensability because it’s in its seventh edition, and that’s usually a good indication.

 

Editors Who Read

 

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B: I recently heard a good copyeditor reads constantly (source: the Society for Editing). The same is probably true about writers, but I won’t delve into the virtues of an always-reading-writer here, only those of the always-reading-copyeditor.

J: As part advertisement and part self-improvement, we will be posting brief notes about the books we’re reading. More reflection than review, these posts—these are our intentions, at least—will praise turns-of-phrase and structural beauties, extol the virtues of well-placed paragraphs, and maybe occasionally proffer critiques. 

B: Allow me to justify our motives.

I take reading to contribute to copyediting in three ways:

(1) reading broadens the background of knowledge by which a copyeditor corroborates facts or calls out unsubstantiated claims;

(2) it allows the attentive reader to internalize a style guide’s rules by observing them in context (for example, whether a guide prescribes the Oxford comma and when it specifies numbers should be written out, not given as numerals);

(3) it serves as practice for the copyeditor to refine their* “eagle eye”—a metaphor turned nauseating cliché—for mistakes.

For the sake of (1) and (2), presumably, the best copyeditor constantly reads works related to their specialization, whether fiction, journalism, or academics, (one doesn’t learn more about journalists’ Associated Press style by reading academic articles, usually written in APA, for example). Academic articles in the humanities and social sciences are my own copyediting specialty. Because I constantly read philosophical articles for my degree, I’m continually (1) broadening the background by which I identify unsubstantiated claims and even subtle fallacies, and (2) internalizing writers’ best practices. For example, when I read an exceptionally clear argument, I reflect on what contributes to its clarity and how I might implement the same practices in my own writing (and, as relevant, recommend those practices to the authors whose works I edit).

Whereas works related to one’s chosen field contribute to (1) and (2), all reading contributes to (3), so I’ll use this to justify my reading novels (and even menus and notoriously unclear advertisements) as contributions to my copyediting. Reclining with a novel is refreshing—an indulgence I probably can’t afford time-wise but must afford sanity-wise—after parsing the intricacies of philosophical articles. But it is nonetheless leisurely practicing what I can’t help but do while reading anything—visually “trip” over typos, misuse of the subjunctive mood, or an extra—or worse: missing!—space between words, for example. Admittedly, this tripping hinders my reading at times—it distracts me from the author’s meaning. After all, who should be worried about an extra space in the grand scheme of things? It’s certainly irrelevant to an enjoyable narrative or strong argument. But doesn’t this just exemplify the need for a good copyeditor? If such errors hinder my reading, will similar errors (and, heaven forbid, larger errors like structural inconsistencies) not hinder others’? Clearly they will, and this is unfortunate for the author who’s spent countless hours perfecting their manuscript. Because it’s a copyeditor’s job to facilitate—to act as a liaison for—the author’s meaning, to ensure its transfer from author to reader, a copyeditor will catch and correct these obstacles.

Jeremiah, on the other hand, doesn’t need (3) to justify his reading quality literature. His BA in English and interdisciplinary bent make diversity central to his reading. Academic texts are relevant to his field, of course, but he can also read the latest Pulitzer-prize-winning publications and politically relevant New York Times articles for the sake of reasons (1) and (2). Because of this, the expanding breadth of his political, environmental, and theoretical background, quite frankly, exhausts me, though he regularly uses it to be conscious of claims and unspoken narratives underlying grander claims about humanistic themes. I’m waxing poetic here because this is how his expertise strikes me—poetic and too interdisciplinarily** involved for my reader VIunderstanding, which is routinely restricted to the concrete, analytical realm.

J: Why should an editor read well and often? Whether circular or banal, the answer seems so obvious as to be meaningless—reading constitutes the job, after all. But unfortunately, though all editors read, not all read avidly, and in my opinion, an experienced editor is necessarily an experienced reader. I could talk more about what makes an “experienced” or “good” or “avid” reader, but I’ll save that discussion for another time. 

To read is to collect information. For some, the words in print or on screen move through the mind like water through a net: little, if anything, is caught, maybe the loose seaweed of afterthought. (I’m a vegetarian and thus uncomfortable with the direction of this analogy, so let’s not linger.)

We cannot fault a net for having holes, but we could blame the editor, writer, or reader if the words do not catch. We could blame them all separately or collectively, depending. Roland Barthes, famously, said the author must die for the reader to emerge, but then, I ask, why do readers spend so much time getting at authorial intent? And an editor should ease the reader’s retention on the writer’s behalf, but the editor is not the writer—editorial dependence is usually a sign of a writer’s negligence.

I could call these three members the textual triumvirate, each creating meaning through a delightful, albeit frustrating, interplay. Similar to a democracy, failure of any part causes the others to falter.

B: My next post will be on Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, but if I don’t post it until the middle of May, you’ll know I’ve been caught in the end-of-semester current.

J: I’ve finally gotten around to reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, for which she won a 2015 Pulitzer Prize, so I’ll reflect on this next time.

 

*The Associated Press now allows singular ‘their’ —a breakthrough for those of us otherwise exhausted by constantly revising singular ‘their’ to ‘his or her’ for the sake of gender neutrality—so I’m using that here with a clear conscience.

**As a philosopher (and admirer of David Foster Wallace’s coinages), I reserve the right to coin words and phrases to more precisely suit my meaning, because precision is everything in philosophy. Jeremiah will no doubt censure my usage here and elsewhere, so rest assured there’s a balance between our tastes. Moreover, I don’t recommend coinages in others’ writings (read: I’m trying to assuage any worries you might have that that’s how I copyedit).

reader III

An Editing Philosophy

The primary task of an editor is to remain unseen, to edit the text without distorting the writer’s voice. Here at Barker Editing, this is our short manifesto:

  1. We advocate for the reader. We come to the writer’s text with fresh eyes–after the writer herself has done everything to make her text effectual–and see from the reader’s perspective. We act as liaisons, adjusting the text only as needed to facilitate the writer’s intentions to the reader’s understanding.
  2. We enhance precision. We find ways to make words fewer while preserving meaning–verbose constructions tend to obstruct point (1).
  3. We recommend enhancements. We do not force any changes on the writer’s work, though our recommendations are in the writer’s interest.

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