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GP 20 July 2005: On Writing Well

Writing Teacher.  We first visited with Bill Zinsser in the 1970s.  This was long after his days on New York’s Herald Tribune, the spritely paper that once entertained and informed Gothamites—an example today’s New York Times would do well to emulate (http://en.wiki
pedia.org/wiki/New_York_Herald_Tribune).  He had come back to town from a teaching stint in New Haven, where he was also Master of Branford College, re-launching himself as an editor for Book of the Month Club.  We lured him to the Algonquin for lunch, knowing it might please him, since that hotel dining room had been the setting for many a liquid lunch of the writing greats (a.k.a. The Round Table) from The New Yorker when that magazine was at the top of its form. We ate modestly, had one aperitif, but talked long. 

Since then we have been through a score of his books, including Mitchell and Ruff, his account of jazz musicians re-opening up China, American Places (good for the summertime vacation traveler), and On Writing Well, his simple and comfortable essay on how to get one’s writing in shape.  A fine writer, he’s probably a better teacher.  Certainly his is the only text on writing that we could ever endure, since most are didactic, complex, and put together like manuals from the Department of Motor Vehicles.  He’s got other writing books you should pay attention to, instructing us on how to frame a memoir, do a biography, or write on the computer (see How to Write a Memoir, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, Extraordinary Lives, Writing with a Word Processor, etc.).  For some Zinsser aphorisms on writing see the very eclectic Dey Alexander at http://deyalexander.com/resources/quotes/william-zinsser.html. (Oddly enough, Dey Alexander’s a “usability specialist” at Australia’s Monash University whose main job is complexly lecturing the rest of us on how to write simply for the Internet). We are so fond of Zinsser’s writing that we even had him compose an essay for us on the beauty of a finely wrought book (see www.globalprovince.com/zindart-zinsser.htm).   

When we wrote about his On Writing Well in Best of Class, we remembered a key lesson he taught us.  If you want to teach yourself or anybody else to write, one good trick is to try to write clear directions: on how something works, on how to get somewhere, on the many cautions involved in a good recipe.  It’s hard to put things in the right order, and it’s a miracle if you don’t leave out a key detail.  So a well-constructed how-to perfects one’s writing. 

Now in his eighties, he’s still at it, teaching at the New School in New York and authoring his own autobiography, Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past, which, true to form, is laden with more advice on doing memoirs.  Mr. Zinsser tells us it is now out in paperback. (See www.thevillager.com/villager_99/howawritringteacher.html.)  From Yale to Columbia to the New School, a very little college that speaks better than the other two leviathans to urban concerns and street-smarts creativity.   

After you have read and discussed Zinsser, there is really nothing more to say about writing. There you have it.  Why it’s important?  How to do it beautifully?  Need we say more? Unfortunately we lack his gift for spareness, so we will ramble on. 

National Commission on Writing.  As it turns out, the mandarins of our society have created a commission (its complete title is longer and obstinately boring) that has determined that good writing is more than a pleasure and an art.  It’s headed by former Senator Bob Kerrey, now president of The New School, where Bill Zinsser holds forth.  They suggest it is a fundamental building block of our New Economy: we now have an Information or Services Economy where writing is the medium of exchange.  Bad writing causes blood stoppages in our networked marketplace.  The Commission has put out 3 badly written bureaucratic reports—not crafted by Zinsser—that say all this and a little bit more (www.writingcommission.org/report.html).  The thought is that those who cannot wield a pen of some sort will be out of luck in our Brave New World.  The Commission, incidentally, is a creation of the College Board, people who have inserted essay writing into the college application process. 

We would go on to argue that writing is more than grease for our economic system.  About the only competitive advantage the United States enjoys now in the world is the breadth of its intellectual capital and the power of its innovation.  But if you read blogs, or look at corporate knowledge transfer mechanisms, or take stock of your daily ration of business emails, you will see gibberish in action.  Good writing is the only way we can put our disparate notions into action.  It abets clear, brief, pointed, and purposeful interchange. 

One could also argue that only a person capable of connected, substantive, clear, brief discourse can create a lucid strategy.  Such thinker-writers are rare commodities around businesses and other organizations.  Most senior-level executives feel they can write pretty well.  In fact, few can.  Having read annual reports, strategy documents, and all sorts of other lengthy business treatises for 30 years, we can testify that, often as not, they are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Macbeth observed for Shakespeare.  If sharp thinking and top-notch writing are handmaidens, then good writing will increasingly become the hallmark of the successful leader in a world of ever scarcer resources that requires nimble imagination.  Strategy in these United States will revive when our people can put one word in front of another in a way that goes somewhere. 

The Writing Business.  Not a day crops up that we don’t see a new institution decrying the writing talents of young and old and offering a new cure for our stumblebum prose.  On July 11, 2005 (pp. A1 and A8), the Wall Street Journal talked about the cram courses that have now been created to help high-school seniors beef up their college application essays in “Students Get Extra Help on College Essays.”  Boston’s Cambridge Essay Service, which has a terribly messy website that apparently sucks in students who need to show some sort of writing finesse, does demonstrate a sense of humor about the writing industry, offering us a litany of the worst opening sentences for stilted writers (http://world.std.com/~edit/ouch.htm). 

For those not in search of trendy, flavor-of-the-day writing fixes, there are plenty of old-fashioned special “schools” around that really teach you about the art of writing (places to learn writing outside of formal educational institutions).  We would recommend, for instance, the Concord Review, near Boston, which is a serious history journal for high-school students that enjoys a broad following (www.tcr.org/tcr/).  It has a writing program as well.  It’s the sort of thing which should receive a little funding from the Writing Commission. 

We suspect that it won’t be a Commission that puts us on the road to lucid expression.  It will be people like Zinsser who simply have a love of good writing.  Better writing, we think, will come about because of a passion for the art, not because we can use our word skills to get a job or secure a place at some college.  In like manner, a more educated people will probably arise because we restore our love of learning, not because we are afraid we are falling behind in the world’s competitive educational sweepstakes. 

Royal Bank Letter.  The most distinguished thing the Royal Bank of Canada has ever done has been to serve as home for the Royal Bank Letter (a.k.a., the RBC Letter), a literate and informed essay that once went out frequently to millions of friends of the Bank in Canada and elsewhere. Certainly it’s the best corporate advertisement we have ever seen.  In fact, it is testament to the fact that several Canadians are particularly skilled essay writers, something Canada should treasure and nurture.  The once elegant Letter, however, no longer appears in print.  Intermittently, an online letter of one-quarter the quality, riddled with clichés, is available to the patient scavenger who darts around the patchwork RBC website.  See www.rbc.com/comm

If you have the time, however, you should look back for issues on discourse put out by the Bank in its heyday.  You can learn about writing an article (www.rbc.com/community/letter/august
1953.html); about writing briefly (www.rbc.com/community/letter/july1956.html); about writing clearly (www.rbc.com/community/letter/july1957.html); about writing a letter (www.rbc.com/
community/letter/june1950.html); and about saying what you mean (www.rbc.com/community/
letter/march1954.html).  That’s just a sampling of the Letter’s obsession with self expression.  You can consult it as well for many other suggestions on the virtues and thoughts that make for the whole citizen.    

Writing and Health.  As consultants to major enterprises and institutions, we have long maintained that writing not only has an intimate connection with business excellence but that it is a very inexpensive way of promoting health and welfare.  For forward-looking companies that realize they must insinuate wellness throughout their legions of employees around the world, we suggest the use of “personal health journals,” where employees are urged to write about their efforts to lead a healthy and much fuller life, a life with theme and purpose, rather than just an existence full of transactions.  Self expression is a cure in itself. 

Writers Are a Troubled Lot.  A bevy of writers know themselves to be troubled and understand the role of expression in relieving theirs cares.  Kurt Vonnegut says, “Writers can treat their mental illnesses every day.”  Art Buchwald and William Styron have talked very openly about their considerable periods of depression, humorously encapsulating the relationship between creativity and mental sloughs.  Buchwald says he thought about committing suicide, but was afraid the New York Times would have no room for his obituary.  He was sure General DeGaulle would die the same day and crowd him out of the funereal columns.  (See www.wga.org/health/styron_buchald.html.)   

Laughs aside, this is no small matter, given the epidemic rates of depression in developed societies.  Styron, incidentally, turned his depression to profit, laying out his turmoil in Darkness Visible (see also www.enotes.com/darkness-visible).  There are ample enough studies around about the health benefits of writing, not only for abolishing one’s ghosts but also for capturing one’s Eden, going beyond pain perhaps even to pleasure (www.psych.utoronto.ca/~peter
son/Benefits%20of%20Writing.doc).  The drug companies are, of course, churning out miracle pills that don’t work.  Most likely, the afflicted will have to use creativity to blast themselves out of their hellholes. 

Why Johnny Can’t Write.  We have never been concerned about Why Johnny Can't Read.  (See Rudolph Flesch at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flesch-Kincaid_Readability_Test).  Sooner or later he learns to read—through comic books or Harry Potter or something like that.  But even when he has become a John instead of a Johnny, perhaps as a freshman at college, he often does not master writing.  Johnny has a right to be depressed, because, unlike Art Buchwald, he has gotten a lousy education.  He can’t add and he can’t write.  Even college does not help.  With grade inflation, students often get through freshman writing courses safely insulated from sentence structure and commonsense.

Simple to say, every child should be drilled in grammar in grades 5 to 8.  In seventh and eighth grade, Johnny should be obliged to write a short essay (say 200 words) every week.  Then he could write.  Learning to write, at first, is about doing it again and again, while a teacher pounds the rules of grammar into the head of the reluctant student (www.audiblox2000.com/learning_
disabilities/overcoming_learning_disabilities2.htm).  Apparently, some would contend, drilling is even a nostrum for children with learning disabilities. 

Teacher Resistance.  There’s mule-like resistance to the drive for good writing, incredible as that may seem.  Brent Staples, in an editorial for the New York Times on May 15, 2005 entitled “The Fine Art of Getting It Down on Paper, Fast,” talked about this wayward phenomenon: 

The depth of the resistance to common-sense writing reforms became clear in April, when the National Council of Teachers of English attacked the College Board for adding a writing segment to the SAT, the college entrance exam required by an overwhelming majority of America's four-year colleges and universities.  The test, which consists of a brief, timed essay and a multiple-choice section, has already put schools and parents on notice that writing instruction needs to improve. 

The English teachers, however, have other ideas.  The group questioned the validity of the tests and trotted out the condescending notion that requiring poor and minority students to write in standard English is unfair because of their cultural backgrounds and vernacular languages.  This is sadly reminiscent of the “Ebonics” proposal of the 1990s, in which misguided educators supported the appalling notion that street slang was as good or better than the standard tongue and should be given credence in student work produced for school. 

Deceptively Simple.  At its best, of course, writing is simple to do and should be simple to read.  Stephen Leacock gibed: “Writing is not hard.  Just get paper and pencil, sit down and write as it occurs to you.  The writing is easy—it’s the occurring that’s hard.”  We suspect Leacock would have had no truck with computers and word processing or schlock writing courses, nor would have Horace, the greatest of all Roman satirists, who pushed for moderation and a reasonable lack of commotion in all things and who counseled, “You will have written exceptionally well if, by skilful arrangement of words, you have made an ordinary one seem original.”  Well-crafted, simple writing affords us power to affect the present and the future.  Knowing the reach of writing, Churchill took care of posterity: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”  Writing gives us the power to shape events and ensures that we are not just cogs in the world’s demonic engines.

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