How to Become a Good Writer

by Marvin Olasky

Evocative images, provocative thoughts, tension without pretension -- that's what makes for good writing. I've seen so much poor writing lately that, as a public service, I'll offer some advice from great authors who also became fed up with pretentious prose.

Let's start with Mark Twain: "When you catch adjectives, kill most of them -- then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together; they give strength when they are wide apart."

Novelist John Gardner: "The abstract is seldom as effective as the concrete. ‘She was distressed' is not as good as, even, ‘She looked away.'"

And Jacques Barzun: "Look for all fancy wordings, and get rid of them."

William Strunk Jr. (co-author of a great little book, "The Elements of Style") writes: "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences."

Specific detail is vital, as the other co-author, E.B. White, once advised: "Don't write about Man, write about a man."

Note this from writing teacher William Zinsser: "Look for the clutter in your writing, and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Re-examine each sentence that you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? ... Simplify. Simplify."

Here's good advice from George Orwell: "Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short word will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Never use the passive where you can use the active."

Essayist Sheridan Baker noted similarly, "Never use a long word when you can find a short one. ... Pick up every sentence in turn, asking ourselves if we can possibly make it shorter."

Overall, it's important to emphasize quality rather than quantity: Better to have one telling bit of specific detail than 12 nothings. (Cervantes' worst nightmare: "Let every man ... not set down at random, higgle-de-piggledy, whatever comes into his noddle.") Content and style need to go together. Look what happens to this romantic image when we couch it in math book prose: "The long -separated lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 7 p.m. traveling at 50 mph, the other from Topeka at 4 p.m. at a speed of 40 mph."

If you're thinking about becoming a professional writer, assess your temperament as well as your talent. Novelist Isaac Asimov, commenting on a classic editor's statement -- "We don't reject writers; we reject pieces of paper with typing on them" -- added: "Don't stay mad and decide you are the victim of incompetence and stupidity. If you do, you'll learn nothing and you'll never become a writer. ... Don't make the opposite mistake and decide the story is worthless. Editors differ, and so do tastes, and so do magazines' needs. Try the story somewhere else."

The way not to learn is to assume that friends who say "you're great" have good judgment. Young writers need true friends, teachers and editors who are willing to make them cry. All are hard to find in this age of emphasizing self-esteem rather than offering tough honesty.

So maybe Mark Twain's way of discerning a calling is best: "Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon his circumstances with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for."

Finally, for those who persevere, what Ptahotep wrote in ancient Egypt can be true: "Be a scribe! You sit grandly in your house, beer is poured copiously. All who see you rejoice in good cheer." Yes, but you must be prepared to give it up.

Ptahotep noted, "Happy is the heart of him who writes; he is young each day." Yes, but only if he writes from the heart, and not just for copious beer.


Marvin Olasky is the editor-in-chief of World and a professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin. Learm more about World at: www.Worldmagblog.

Reprinted with Permission

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