We finally seem to be waking up to the fact that our writing skills are going the way of empiricism, common sense, and critical thinking. As a result, there seems to be a spate of how-to missives purporting to impart some magic formula or other, guaranteed to make our writing more [fill in whatever you want your writing to be more of here].
In that regard, all these missives remind me of bodybuilding magazines. Bodybuilding magazines will tell you every exercise, every technique, and every routine of every competitive bodybuilder in every article. But they’ll never tell you three things:
- Competitive bodybuilders take steroids.
- Competitive bodybuilders spend more hours working out than you spend working.
- Competitive bodybuilders consume more calories per day than a pregnant elephant.
Likewise, all the advice on writing will give you every magic formula you can imagine, including how to begin your sentences (with a subject or a verb), how to punctuate sentences that have coordinating conjunctions preceding dependent or independent clauses (don’t ask), and what to do with your participles (don’t leave them dangling). But they’ll never tell you three things:
- There is no magic formula.
- You should write the way you talk.
- In writing, style is a discernible personality.
I learned those three truths from a freelance job I had more than 30 years ago. The gentleman who hired me for the job had a Ph.D. in Theoretical Linguistics from Georgetown University. He knew more about language — more about grammar, mechanics, structure, syntax, punctuation, et al. — than any human being I’ve ever met or could imagine. Yet he wouldn’t have known style if it bit him. Reading his writing was like eating sawdust. It was excruciatingly dry and unrelentingly bland.
In its semantic precision, his writing was flawless. In its sterility, it was absolute.
Because reading the gentleman’s writing always wanted to make me kill myself (the probability that the finality of killing myself might be irreversible precludes the possibility), it always put me in mind of this line from Sandy Bates, Woody Allen’s character in Stardust Memories:
My mother was too busy running the boiled chicken through the deflavorizing machine to think about shooting herself or anything.
Metaphorically speaking, that’s what how-to writing missives do: They teach you to run your writing through the deflavorizing machine. By not allowing for style and by extracting all of the elements of voice and personality from your writing, they leave your writing as flavorless as boiled chicken.
If now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that wound and sear, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defenses left are his words and his words are always stronger than the lying, crushing weight of the world, stronger than all the racks and wheels which the cowardly invent to crush out the miracle of personality. (Henry Miller)
If you want to write with style, just write. Writers aren’t supposed to be perfect. That’s why God invented editors.
Photo by oadtz, courtesy of pixabay.com.