Writers read, and, writers write.

I finally got my hands on Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I haven't started reading it yet (need to finish The Restaurant at the End of The Universe first), but I'm really looking forward to picking up a few tips.

Here's something that probably obvious already, I'm not a very good writer. I'm also not a very talented editor. There are many days when writing is just down right painful. I don't think my sentences flow, and I don't think I have good "voice." To make matters worse, I don't think I understand the rules of grammar enough to be a really talented writer.

I was thinking about why it's so hard to be a good writer (a really good writer), and trying to figure out why so many people struggle with writing. I read good writers all the time. I read several newspapers (online) every day, most every night I read at least a couple pages of a well written book before I fall asleep. I read at least 30 or 40 articles written by professional journalists every day. I am exposed to thousands of well formed sentences with perfect punctuation, spelling and grammar a week in some form or another. But for some reason all that talent and all those good examples just don't stick. Writing, it seems, is just a tricky business, good writing takes real effort (at least for me) and, unfortunately reading good writing doesn't seem to automatically lead to being a talented writer.

I always wonder how often good writers have to rewrite something. I know if I don't reread things I've written at least twice I end up with a jumble of incomplete thoughts connected by random punctuation. For something to be marginally well put together I need to spend some real time with my writing. I've reread and rewritten this piece at least a dozen times and I bet I still missed at least 2 mistakes. Writing can't be this hard for everyone, can it? I have a feeling those at the top of the writing bell curve don't need to do quite as much editing, they let the words fall out of their talented heads and on to the page as if by magic. The sentences flow into each other and a complete story is told with less effort than it takes me to write a paragraph. Me, I often struggle with every sentence. But when they do come together, when things make sense, when I don't write a single sentence with 4 or even 5 commas (or add a parenthetical thought for no reason), it's worth it, it just feels good. To be able to put something together that involved more than a few sentences is a major accomplishment, to be able to put together an entire book is just an amazing accomplishment.

Me right pretty, won day. (Thanks two spell check, the won thing eye don't need too worry about is spelling.)

Comments

A good editor...

is worth her weight in gold. My mom still edits my writing. The professional stuff anyway. Primarily for grammar, but as a grammar retard, I need it.


What the hell are dangling participles and split infinitives anyway?

My persepctive

I think that having exceptional writing skills is akin to mimicry, at least given what I know from my family, and it has nothing to do with knowing about the formal rules of grammar. I learned alongside everyone else in grade school, and it was apparent early on that I had an exceptional ability to combine words in a more pleasing and orderly fashion than the other kids. I never took a grammar course beyond high school, and couldn't diagram a sentence to save my life. Beyond noun, verb, adverb and adjective, it's all a bit sketchy for me.

I spoke my first words when I was about 6 months old, as did my oldest daughter, who is also what I call an intuitive writer. I think that we just absorb language rules without understanding the mechanics. Just don't ask to see our math grades.

I work with someone who often gives me stuff to proofread. If I were a teacher, I'd give him a C-. He wants to be a better writer, and I can see that he's improved with practice over the past several years, but it still doesn't flow for him, and there's always plenty for me to correct and tweak.

I really enjoyed Eats, Shoots & Leaves, as did my 13 y.o. My use of the semi-colon and colon have increased tremendously since reading it!

Good writing?

Blake--I don't think you're a bad writer. But then, maybe I don't count, since I'm basically a fluent hack. I see that you're generally able to express your opinions clearly, that you don't automatically take an extreme black:white view, and that your grammar and punctuation are at least average or better than average for the blogosphere (gah: I hate that term).

Personally, as I said in First Have Something to Say, I do two-draft writing for my "professional" pieces (those that will be improved by someone else's editing--and yes, they almost always are modified and improved during the editing process: I love hard-nosed editors!), and believe that once you've written a few things, two drafts is a reasonable balance between submitting unpublishable stuff and editing the life out of your writing. Maybe the first few articles need three drafts...but if it doesn't feel good enough to submit to someone else's editing at that point, you may be better off starting over.

I suppose the stuff in Cites & Insights is also two-draft, but "one and a quarter" might be more accurate: The second pass is fairly quick, and the third pass (when I assemble the issue) is mostly copyfitting rather than copyediting. (Copyfitting is not a concern in pure online media, but is in print media for people who care, and I do care. Think avoiding very short last lines of paragraphs, for example. Word handles page-to-page widow/orphan control, if you tell it to.)

And, of course, my comments here, my journal entries, and (eventually) my blog stuff is likely to be pure first draft, faults and all.

I'm mediocre at punctuation and probably always will be, but people seem to deal with it. Spelling, on the other hand, has always come fairly naturally.

I did not read Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, at least not yet, mostly because I picked up the American edition in the ALA Exhibits and read a couple of things that startled me. To wit, the author didn't really revise it for American rules--and then goes on to mis-state one American rule (how punctuation is handled around quotation marks) so badly that I wondered whether I could trust the rest of her advice.

(The actual rule for punctuation at the end of quotes is largely typographic, but simple enough: Commas and periods always come before the close quotes; colons and semicolons--which are never sensibly the ending point for quoted material--always come after the close quotes; exclamation points and question marks, which may be part of the quoted material, are placed logically: Before the close quotes if part of the quoted material, after if not. The British rules are quite different, and result in the flyspeck appearance of a period following a close quote.)

Too long for a comment. Sigh. That's one of my chief failings: I write long. (Only one: there are many others.)

There, there...

Even professional writers have trouble with the technical parts of writing. For instance, the Washington Post's Steve Hendrix wrote last month about what a lousy speller he is. "I once spell-checked a 2,000-word article I had written for the Post's Travel section and found I had spelled itinerary four ways, none of them correctly. ... It's a shame, because I love words as much as they seem to hate me. I love learning them and using them and having fun with them. I'm an incurable punster -- wordplays pop into my head so constantly that I have to make an effort not to blurt them out like a Tourette's sufferer. My literary idols are such master wordsmiths as P.G. Wodehouse, William Faulkner, Patrick O'Brian and Richard Ford. I read tons. I have a robust vocabulary. I just can't spell."

Re:A good editor...

Amen.A good editor is the key to it all. I can't edit worth a crap.

Latin

I've heard that's the key.

Re:Good writing?

The British rules are different, but very simple. They're what you call "logical": Things that are part of the quote go inside the quotations, things that aren't go outside.

Interestingly enough, the "British rules" were independently recreated by a certain group of americans: computer programmers. The importance of every single character when working with a computer led to hackers using the "logical" punctuation style, to ensure that somebody didn't type a dot when they weren't supposed to. For more information about this, see Hacker Writing Style from The New Hacker's Dictionary.

Re:Good writing?

I was pretty sure those were the British rules. Unfortunately, while they're great for programming, they're terrible for typography: The comma and period just look like dirt on the page when they follow close quotes [especially proper typographic quotes].

Re:Latin

Maybe. Except that I never took Latin (and stink at human languages other than English) and spell like a champ; my wife, who did take Latin, has trouble with spelling--but she's a better writer than I am. (And a better thinker: There could be a connection.)

I suspect that very early readers pick up spelling simply through seeing so many words so often during formative years, and I was a very early and somewhat voracious reader. (Why not? In my family's house, there were always magazines, newspapers, and books, and reading was regarded as a natural pastime. Not the only one, but natural.)

Most likely, different people spell well or badly for different reasons. None of which has a lot to do with Blake's (in my opinion mistaken) sense that he's not a good writer. The nice thing is, a "good writer" can be good in many different ways, where there's pretty much one standard (per country) for spelling.

Re:E, S, and L had bad grammar -- New Yorker artic

Writers, by nature, tend to be people in whom l’esprit de l’escalier is a recurrent experience: they are always thinking of the perfect riposte after the moment for saying it has passed.

I took this from the article tangognat posted. The article is wonderfully verbose and while it slams "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" (which to my way of thinking should have a serial comma in the title), it really does stand behind the principles proffered in the book.

I copied that quote because it describes me SO WELL I almost fainted. It also tracks with my current journal posting about getting people out of your cube. Sometimes it's really hard to find the right thing to say until after the moment to say it has passed.

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