Sunday, December 25, 2016

Things Writers Do, Part 8: Play

Writers need to play with words, phrases, and clauses to create their best sentences. I remember needing to write a sentence that went something like this:
Actually, the state of a contaminated substance extending into infinity is the problem that is important regardless of what critics think.
The sentence was clunky and wordy, so I edited it to read:
Although critics challenge the assumption, the infinite presence of a contaminated substance can cause problems for generations. 
But before editing the final draft, I had some fun with the idea that the multiple meanings of the word matter could have replaced several words in the original sentence:

As a matter of fact, the matter of contaminated matter as a matter of infinity is the matter that matters no matter what critics think.

What's the point? Writers sometimes make play of their work to lessen its gravity and increase its pleasure.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Things Writers Do, Part 7: Concede

Good writers test their assumptions with verifiable evidence and quickly concede alternative viewpoints. Examples of such evenhanded reporting appear in Robert Greene's The 48 Laws of Power (1998) and Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2000). 

In The 48 Laws of Power, Greene lays down with historical evidence the key principles that underlie his laws, and he concludes each chapter with reversals that show when those principles do not apply or can be abused at their most extreme.

In Blink, Gladwell asserts his major thesis about the usefulness of intuitive split-second thinking in solving problems and then cites occasions when deciding in the blink of an eye can be fatal.

In both books, the authors strengthen their argument, giving readers a deeper understanding of their claims. All strong writers will be quick to make concessions at the service of advancing their key ideas.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Things Writers Do, Part 6: Ask Questions

For successful writers, Habit 5 of Stephen R. Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a given: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Writers report on what they witness. They listen. They ask questions. They seek the essence of  a subject, the heart of a character. 

The proverb "He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever" is a foregone conclusion for writers. They do not fear asking the tough question of their subjects and, more important, of themselves. Edward T. Hall dedicated his life to asking what makes one culture different from another, and he comes up with remarkable answers in the books Beyond Culture, The Hidden Dimension, and The Silent Language. Rebecca D. Costa's The Watchman's Rattle identifies trends driving our global culture by asking the difficult questions concerning our mores.  Barack H. Obama's Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope also ask challenging personal and political questions, respectively, and Obama tries to answer them cogently.

Starting out with the toughest question and striving to answer it through interviews, research, and free-writing may not resolve the matter at hand, but it will make for interesting reading.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Things Writers Do, Part 5: Work 24-7

Writers never take off from work. They seek ideas when researching, but they also look for new experiences to write about when vacationing. They spend their waking hours turning a phrase or spinning a yarn, but they record their dreams, which may become part of their next narrative. They dine out just like other people, but they listen to dialogues in restaurants that become a part of their next script. True, they hike, jog, bike, sunbathe, and sail like the rest of us. But they are constantly jotting down their observations: the creatures they see on their hikes, the city sounds they hear on their runs, the engine exhaust they smell during their bike trips, the sand they feel stuck between their fingers on the beach, and the spray of the ocean they taste from their sailboat.

Writing is a reflection of experience, and experience never ends until we do. So writers work 24-7 until they are no longer writers.