Writer Seminar

by Brad Nelson10/18/15

I’ll grant that there is a bit of presumption in the following. I’m no great writer (certainly not notorious). But just as a great marriage counselor need not necessarily be married, one can make general observations on good writing without being Shakespeare. And quite often, those who do something at a high level make lousy teachers.

That said (with the entire purpose to open your mind an not have anyone dig in defensively), here are my suggestions (not requirements) for writing a sterling article. This is in the spirit of Rush’s “Caller Seminars” that he occasionally has in order to (in his case) improve his audience.

And I’ll put this (or try to put this) more in terms of what you should do rather than a bunch of “thou shalt nots.” I think that is more helpful, although by doing it in this form and soft-peddling, many in our home audience are likely to nod their head and think “Oh, yeah…I do that too…I’m good at that.”

Tips for Writing a Good Article

+ Unless you’re writing a mystery novel, tell people what your point or premise is in the first paragraph, then elaborate from there. Do not (oops…broke my commandment) wait until you are four or five paragraphs in before getting to the point.

+ Have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is general guide in reporting to “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said.”

+ Throwing spaghetti at a wall to see if something sticks is not the way to engage your reader. If your article bounces from topic to topic, this is what you are most likely doing. Pick a subject and stick with it. If there are related sub-topics, fine, but beware of throwing spaghetti.

+ Personal anecdotes are far better than remote analysis and intellectualizing. You may change the names to protect the ignorant, but it is very useful to cite real-world examples when making a point.

+ Split your paragraphs into digestible chunks.

+ Get out of your head and re-read your words as if you were another person reading them for the first time. This is a very difficult skill to develop but a necessary one. Very often two-fifths of what you think you are saying you are simply hearing inside your own head and are not contained in the actual words that you have written. It’s easy to fill in the blanks wordlessly because you already know (or should know) what you’re trying to say. Re-read your material and see if it makes complete sense to an outsider. I can’t stress this point enough.

+ Do not be Charles Krauthammer and adopt a super-serious and erudite persona. Let Charles me Charles and let you be you. Let some personality show through. And adopt a more conversational style as if you were actually talking to someone. Don’t go into “formal” mode. It’s too easy to sound like a robot or to intellectualize from afar. And that makes for boring reading. You want to be read, right?

+ Use humor. Don’t be so serious all the time.

+ Read good writers and then emulate them. Think about why they are good writers. In the same token, stay the hell away from Facebook and other intellectual and linguistic quagmires.

+ Take chances. Don’t play safe all the time. Dare to make a bad simile or metaphor. Strive to artfully use the English language to better and better effect. (Affect?…I never can keep these two straight.) But easy does it. By all means, use a two-dollar word instead of trying to cram a ten-dollar word down our throats. It’s a judgment call. Stretch your abilities without traveling too far from your home turf.

+ Clarity over length. They say that size matters, but not over clarity. No one here is under pressure to provide a weekly word count, so you don’t have that problem. But sometimes the desire to stretch things out tends to muddle things up when what we have to say is very simple and direct. If you must add length then use part of that length to cite examples. Making one solid point is better than a half dozen soft-baked ones.

+ If you do have a long article, or necessarily must engage related subtopics, then consider breaking your article into sections with a subhead in bold when you start a new section. This makes it easier for the reader to follow your argument. And adopting this device can help you make sure that you are organized and clear to begin with.

+ I write because I like to write. But at the end of the day, if you don’t escape your own head and have the reader in mind to some extent, then this can lead to mental masturbation. We must ask ourselves, “Who would want to read this?” And if the answer is “Only me” then fine. I’ve certainly written my share of that. Even so, it is a good exercise to have an audience in mind. But not in order to play to them, per se. It is so that you keep foremost in your mind that your job is to communicate. And that, ultimately, is the purpose of good writing.

Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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4 Responses to Writer Seminar

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I hope I do well in those respects; there are certainly many points I try to follow (such as breaking up paragraphs into reasonable sizes, including humor when feasible — though I’m not as creative as I wish I were — and the use of a certain artfulness (I have a weakness for alliteration). Re-reading my stuff in FOSFAX for proofreading purposes is quite regular (partly because I keep finding little errors), though I don’t do it so much in blogging. My political articles there tend to be very long and deal with a variety of points, but they’re also often broken up into separate sub-pieces (especially in my editorials).

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Practice. Practice. Practice. I think you generally do well. Your articles tend to be focused. Your use of humor is good.

      Yes, your creativity could be improved. But we’re not all Mark Steyn or Mark Twain, for that matter. The whole shtick about Charles Krauthammer is not to diss Krauthammer but to stress something vital to good writing: authenticity. And if you don’t commonly wear a lampshade at the party, then don’t try to do it in your writing.

      But if you speak from the heart, per se (and I don’t simply mean jotting down every emotion as it comes to you), you will be on your way to doing your best. And the first thing to get out of the way is that dreaded fear of being boring. I’m sure we’ll all haunted to some extent by “Does anyone really care to read what I think?”

      And yet we’re here and doing what we do. If we face that fear plainly I think we are less likely to try to doll-up our writing in stilted ways. Our writing doesn’t need cheap massacre. We’re trying to hook the reader — yes — but not be hookers. “Be yourself” is probably bad advice for 90% of the situations we find ourselves in. If I’m at a job interview, for God’s sake the last thing I’m going to be is authentic. I’m going to try to give a good interview.

      The same with dating. Or a good many things. But with writing, we must put that cover away and dare to be boring, if that’s who we are. But most people are not boring. You’re not boring. And don’t try to force it if you’re not typically the one who wears lampshades. Authenticity shines through. It infuses prose with a pixie dust even if the words themselves are rather plain.

      And style is over-rated anyway. Yes, by all means, read Hawthorne and all the best. It really does help one to develop a good ear for writing. But it’s clarity that is so underused. If I can follow (and care to follow) what someone is saying, then the last thing that comes to mind is “Well, he certainly doesn’t write as well as Hemingway.”

      Clear writing that is focused, has a point, is organized, and is not muddled by various briers is inherently compelling…at least to those interested in the general subject matter in the first place.

  2. Pst4usa says:

    Thanks for the post Brad, I think I am most guilty of staying in my head the whole time, but as you say practice, practice, practice. I have a long way to go, but thanks for your patience. And just maybe, we will see, you can teach a dumb dog new trick. Or is that old dog? either way fits for me.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Pat, your wrathful contribution has just been added. The Editor, take note, was wrathful, as usual, regarding some of your native punctuation. But you pay your money and you get the first-class treatment. 😀

      You have a wonderful writing style that is honest, humble, but still has kahunas. The “get out of your head” advice is, in part, about being self-critical. It’s about reading your stuff dispassionately as if someone else had written it. And, yes, it’s about getting outside your head and having at least a parcel of respect for the reader by trying to gauge how the reader (having nothing before him but the words on the page) would understand your writing.

      And that re-reading is not in terms of agreement or being namby-pamby. It’s about being clear and readable. Be as namby-pamby or in-your face as you want to be. But are you clear? This is where we should put our nickels and dimes of linguistic labor. All the other tricks of language (other than just artistic value…which also, rightly done, serves to paint a clear picture) are in the service of clarity.

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