This is the 50th anniversary year of my debut as a writer -- that is someone who got paid for writing. I made a measly 15 bucks for my first bylined article on a Marine who had drowned while on training maneuvers on Okinawa as compared to the sweet 100 grand and six weeks of paid vacation while covering the O.J. Simpson murders and criminal trial in 1995-96.
I get asked a couple, three times a year what the key to successful writing is. My invariable reply is that you first have to find your voice. I have no idea when I found mine, although it was somewhere between that dead Marine and the Trial of the Century. I just woke up one day and realized that I had one.
That voice is familiar to readers of this blog: Edgy and fairly simple language and sentence and paragraph structure with an occasional 10 dollar word thrown in because, doncha know, sometimes a big or obscure word can make a sentence more interesting and sometimes even lyrical as it rolls through the reader's mind.
As far as an ethic, I try to get out ahead of a story by explaining what might come next, not what already has happened. And when expressing my own view, doing so provocatively.
The hardest thing I ever did was write the obituary of a newspaper columnist friend who was stabbed to death by a punk while waiting in line at a Seven-11. It was harder than climbing a 13,000 foot mountain in Colorado or hiking out onto the South Rim of the Grand Canyon with blister-covered feet. It was hard because I not only adored the guy and was heartbroken, but I was told to write the obituary in the voice of the paper's obituary writer, who was not up to the task although the obit would carry his famous byline.
Oh, and by the way, every story can be told in a very few words. Don't believe me? Check out this 25-word gem from the New York Times on post 9/11 America:
Or this even shorter one from the New York Post about a custody battle over a dachshund:In the years since 2001, neither our worst fear nor our highest hopes have been realized. But what passes for normal has exacted a price.
The only thing that I have not been able to write is comedy, and God knows I tried when a wealthy benefactress who planned to market a line of stuffed elephants called Repiglicans and donkeys called Demoquacks to sell at political conventions paid me a nice advance to come up with witticisms to package with the critters. I bombed. Badly.Next time, put the pup in the pre-nup.
Have I, you might ask, ever written something that could not be improved upon? Absolutely not, and that covers somewhere over 12,000 articles, magazine pieces and two books. (To my mind, this article comes closest and this article almost as close. It's a coincidence that both are about war; albeit different ones.)
With an exquisite sense of timing, I retired from the newspaper business six weeks before the 9/11 attacks, but found I still needed to scratch my writerly itch. I also was being bugged by people to write about my life experiences. These people notably included my children, who as youngsters never tired of my telling them stories of my mischievous youth and teenaged years, and later my world travels.
And so I became a blogger.
My advice about gud . . . er, good writing is as follows:§
Okay, you can have off on weekends.The most important thing is KEEPING YOUR READER IN MIND.
Who is your audience? Is the level of information in the piece that you are writing suitable for this audience? Is the language simple enough if you are writing for a general audience? Is it challenging enough if you are writing for a more sophisticated audience?
You must DETERMINE YOUR PURPOSE.
Why are you writing a particular article or story? What message do you want to impart? Do you want to merely entertain or amuse? Do you merely want to share a simple tale? Or do you want to educate your audience about a particular subject? If you are able to figure this out first, then writing the article or story will be easier.
You must FOCUS YOUR CONCEPT.
Try not to write too broadly and narrow down your topic to a specific aspect or angle. People are far less interested in being, say, a passenger in a story on bus trips in general than specific kinds of bus trips.
You should try to BEGIN YOUR PIECE IN AN INTERESTING WAY.
In my true-crime mystery book, I kill off the protagonist in the very first sentence of the very first paragraph:
The smell of snow was in the air as Eddie Joubert opened the back door to the Bottom of the Fox and walked down the steps for the last time.
I then keep the reader hanging for most of the book about whether his murder is solved.
Try to GET TO THE POINT QUICKLY.
This is less important in a book than in an article or story, but the reader should know fairly quickly why you are writing what you are writing.
If it is a non-fiction article, KNOW YOUR FACTS.
If you are writing about a bus trip from East London to Durban in South Africa, make sure you know what the distance is, as well as the sights, sounds and smells and the types of people you are likely to encounter as fellow passengers. This is not just because accuracy is important, but because you can't fool the readers who will always know more than you.
Try to INVOLVE YOUR READERS.
Are you able to present experiences to which others can relate? Can you tap into their emotions? I, for instance, sought to get readers of my book to relate to Eddie Joubert and his circle of friends.
ADD COLOR to what you write.
"Color" means words and descriptions that help your readers to see, hear, smell and even feel what you are writing about. Getting back to the first sentence and paragraph of my book, note that I write:
The smell of snow was in the air and except for a thin ribbon of light in the western sky it already was dark.
While some people may have never experienced the smell of snow, people in colder climes know exactly what an approaching snow storm smells like, while anyone can relate to that thin ribbon of light in the moments before the sun sets.
You must WRITE WITH CONVICTION.
Just as better informed readers will know if you have written haphazardly about a bus trip from East London to Durban, readers have a sixth sense about knowing whether a writer has conviction or is merely going through the motions.
Endeavor to GET RID OF EXCESS WORDS.
This not only avoids bogging down the reader, but it can sometimes add an edge to your writing.
AVOID USING CLICHES at all costs.
I always avoid overused expressions such as "light as a feather" or "sly as a fox" because they are products of lazy writing. Try to find a less trite way to say something.
Understand that GOOD WRITING MEANS HAVING TO DO MORE RESEARCHING AND DOING REWRITING.
If I had the luxury of not having a deadline breathing down my neck, I interviewed some people two or three times for newspaper articles. I interviewed some people four or five times for my true-crime book, which went through many drafts. When it was finally done, parts of it bore little resemblance to the first draft.
Finally, GET INTO THE HABIT OF WRITING REGULARLY.
That may be the last thing you want to do at the end of a hard day, so make it the first thing you do in the morning. My friend Pete Dexter, who won the National Book Award for Paris Trout, writes every morning without exception.
If I still have your attention, I refer you to "Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," an essay by Mark Twain, the second funniest American evah behind Groucho Marx, that will give you a good laugh while improving your writing.§