“I hate writing. I love having written.” This adage is variously attributed to such well-known authors as Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, Neil Simon, Gloria Steinem, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway and William Zinsser, but it applies to less-accomplished writers as well. Anytime an average person has to write a letter to an insurance company, a cover letter for an important application, or a complicated legal disposition, for example, putting his or her thoughts down on paper or into a word-processing file can be daunting. If you’re not confident in your own way with words, an experienced editor can provide a map and a push in the right direction. “Being a good writer mostly means being a good observer and a good thinker,” editor and author Gene Weingarten notes in his introduction to his essay collection The Fiddler on the Subway. “With work, it’s possible to triumph over a lack of innate writing skill.”
That’s good to know, because Weingarten’s introduction also acknowledges that writing can be hard work and full of frustration. “A real writer is someone for whom writing is a terrible ordeal,” the Washington Post columnist writes. “That is because he knows, deep down, with an awful clarity, that there are limitless ways to fill a page with words, and that he will never, ever, do it perfectly. On some level, that knowledge haunts him all the time. He will always be juggling words in his head, trying to get them closer to a tantalizing, unreachable ideal.”
Aggravated by your own attempts to reach that ideal? Here’s a prescription for quick relief: Take two ibuprofen and call an editor in the morning.
One of the writers I follow and greatly admire is Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten, who was previously a reporter, editor and feature writer at the Post and other newspapers. In his current weekly column, always under 750 words, Weingarten epitomizes the value of economy in writing. And that’s just one of many valuable lessons that writers can get from his work.
In the introduction to a 2010 compilation of longer articles, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes for feature writing (The Fiddler on the Subway), Weingarten writes that as a young reporter in Detroit he learned two truths about writing in one night while struggling with a story. “The first is that without passion, you have nothing,” he writes. “The second is that the most important words in your story are the ones you don’t write. They’re the ones you imply—the ones that cause you to pop into the reader’s mind and get her to think ‘Aha!’ That’s how you transform her from a passive observer into an ally. And that’s when you win.”
Later in that introduction, Weingarten discusses the importance of rhythm as part of that winning formula. “For a long narrative to have power, it can’t just be delivering information—it needs to create a textured experience, the way a movie does,” he explains. “A writer hasn’t the advantage of a mood-setting soundtrack, or actors who can communicate emotion with an expression or a gesture, but he has something of potentially greater impact: the descriptive power of words. Use them with care: arrange them shrewdly. Remember that sentences have cadence and meter and melody—don’t let them become a one-note lullaby. Interrupt the long with the short, the simple with the complex, and use them all to build a vivid narrative, a theater of the mind that each reader then edits and personalizes for himself. It’s a collaboration, this process. Don’t take your new ally for granted. Don’t bore her, even for an instant.”
Winning with words isn’t easy, but a skilled editor can help develop and fine-tune your game plan. Contact me for a free assessment of your own writing project.
American crime novelist Elmore Leonard, who died Aug. 20, was known for hard-boiled characters and lean prose. In a Detroit News obit, editor and close friend Otto Penzler said Leonard wrote every day in longhand on unlined legal pads, ordering a thousand a year.
“I’ve seen his manuscripts,” Penzler said. “I can see the amount of rewriting he did. He didn’t change words so much as sentence structure … to maintain the cadence. There was a cadence to his writing, frequently compared to jazz.”
Good writing flows. Bad writing stumbles. When your own words are not in rhythm, you may need an editor to make them sing.