Coffee, doughnuts and other tools for writers

In his afterword to “The Big Silence,” the first of three detective novels featuring private eye Jack Ross, writer Bernard Schopen says:

“Rereading something I wrote — be it in the distant past, the recent past, yesterday, an hour ago — is usually an occasion of intense embarrassment. Almost always the gap between the remembered intention and the actual execution looms like The Abyss … I reread, and I squirm and flush and sweat. Because writers — or at least the kind of writer I am — can’t really reread; they can only, as they reread, rewrite. And cringe.”

Schopen needn’t worry; he’s a fine writer. I recommend his books (I’ve read all his novels) to anyone interested in detective fiction and stories about Nevada. His work combines simple storytelling with deeper themes such as region and identity. They’re refreshing in an era when most popular fiction is … well, simple storytelling.

Coffee and Writing

But Schopen’s words resonate. I, too, cringe every time I reread my work. I hate finding a tattered school paper or forgotten short story. It’s disheartening to discover your creations are crap. If my old work is a window to the past, then I’d rather draw the blinds.

During my freshman year in college, I wrote a politically charged humor column for the university’s student newspaper. The problem was that, at the time, my politics were not well-formed, and the only humor was my terrible diction.

I stumbled across some of my columns when rummaging through storage. Here’s an excerpt from one I wrote about exercise:

“The notion of achieving adequate physical fitness is appreciated by many, although the more preferred methods of personal maintenance may differ slightly among individual people … A concept of physical atonement may be quite facile to embrace, but rather difficult to regularly and successfully conduct, which of course ultimately leads to consequent hopelessness, broken resolutions, and an eventual submission to a deleterious lifestyle which includes very little bodily activity but numerous ventures to nearby fast food dining establishments.”

Wow. And Bernard Schopen thinks he should be embarrassed?

I quit the column after my first semester. No one seemed interested in it (including me), and I realized I could be spending my study hours on more productive activities — such as drinking and trying to date women (big emphasis on “trying”).

Later, I enrolled in a Journalism writing course, where I learned I had no idea how to write. Before, I’d always written with my heart and soul. Never before had I considered using my brain.

But clear writing, I learned, stems from clear thinking. Clearing the cobwebs from your mind leads to sharper, more fluid prose.

Therefore, I turned to the strongest fluid I could find — Starbucks Sumatra — and added it to my arsenal. Journalists need several tools to perform their jobs, including notebooks, pens and computers. The more important, but seldom mentioned, are coffee, cigarettes and doughnuts.

Journalism is the craft of effective communication. My Journalism 101 professor effectively communicated this idea by giving me Fs on my first few papers, which he said were wordy and overwrought.

“I want streamlined sentences,” he said. “Shun wordiness. Shed the fat from your prose.”

After a lot of hard work, I finally did shed the fat from my prose. Unfortunately, it all moved to my ass. I gave up the doughnuts and stuck to the cigarettes and coffee.

Prose stylists, who focus on form, might call journalistic writing skeletal, or bare-boned. To which I say, so what? That’s the point. It’s concise and accessible. Expressing an idea in the fewest words possible is the noblest of feats. (A concept I wish my Grandma Helen would learn, especially when she’s had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and starts going off on politics.)

If you want to read bad writing (and you don’t happen to have a copy of The Bridges of Madison County nearby), consult a college textbook. Those are truly examples of muddled, murky, incomprehensible academic gibberish. Scholars might be smart, but their writing sucks. You can scour the pages for a lucid sentence, but you’ll have better luck finding Waldo in the Land of Waldos. (Hint: He’s wearing a sock.)

My journalism texts, however, taught by example. Not only did they dictate how to write, but they themselves were well-written. You can’t learn writing from a bad writer any more than you can learn fitness from a chubby instructor … which calls into question a great many high-school gym teachers.

Academics would rather inflate their egos than impart their wisdom. Their writing is verbose and baffling. They bury their knowledge under clumps and clutters of needless phrases. It’s like sifting through sewage to find a nugget of knowledge. And how can you tell the knowledge-bearing nuggets from the ones that are crap?

What’s worse, many college students duplicate this atrocious style. In order to meet arbitrary word-count requirements — and often working under vague, murky assignment guidelines — students assume the discursive diction of the typical scholar. Being wordy, after all, makes it easier to meet word count.

The effect is many college graduates can’t write. Of course, they can’t do a lot of things, such as locate Iraq on a map or describe the economic theories of Adam Smith.

These days, good writing is scarce — especially on this blog. But I do try. I strive to make my writing readable — and my hope is that people will read it. I’d like to reread my posts and not “squirm and flush and sweat,” as Schopen says — though I’m already doing that from all the Starbucks Sumatra and sugary snacks.

Technology has leapfrogged forward, but good writing is still the key to reaching audiences. The best websites dispense nuggets of knowledge, and not the kind that are less savory.

So as your tour this giant, sprawling blogosphere, keep a lookout for all the informative, insightful and entertaining blogs. Visit them and bookmark them. Let the writers know you appreciate their work.

And when you’re done with all that, don’t forget to visit mine!