How to Write Well

I am joyfully reading a new book about writing: The Destiny Thief, by Richard Russo. Note that word “joyfully.” I can’t remember the last time I read such a wonderful book about writing. The only author I can come up with is Theodore Bernstein. Please, please – surely there have been other good books about writing since I read Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins twenty years ago!

Maybe not. So let’s talk about Richard Russo. I did not – I’m sorry to admit – enjoy his novel Empire Falls. But I loved Straight Man. It’s one of the rare books that left me feeling empty and bereft when I got to the last page. I couldn’t let go of the characters. Please, please – I wanted more! Alas, it was over.

I had low expectations for The Destiny Thief. Most books about writing are…dull. I’ve heard it all before, and often the writing isn’t very good. So I was delighted when I came upon this on page 1, where Russo is describing a conversation with one of his university professors:

My prose, he explained, was full of jargon and intellectual pretension. Most writers had about a thousand pages of shitty prose in them, he went on, and these have to be expelled before they can hope to write seriously. “In your case,” he added, “make it two thousand.”

Amen. Amen.

So how do you make the switch from “shitty prose” to good writing? I don’t have any foolproof formula to teach you how to write well. But I do have three suggestions.

1.  Monitor your own feelings while you’re reading. If you’re reading something and start experiencing the Yippee! feelings I had while reading The Destiny Thief, go back and read it again. Try to figure out what makes this piece so wonderful – and do likewise.

2.  Make a vow that you’re always going to aim to create that feeling for your readers.

3. Read the New York Times.

Here are a few sentences from a page 1 story in last Friday’s Times about the 73 million Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar:

The Rohingya have not returned by the hundreds of thousands, or even by the thousands.
In fact, they have hardly returned at all.
After all the assurances that it was safe for them to return to Myanmar, only a few dozen have done so. The first batch of about 1200 returnees was supposed to be sent home in January 2018….

That is gorgeous writing. No pretension. Why doesn’t everyone write like this? (Why don’t I always write like this? I hope I do part of the time. But why not all the time?)

It’s so readable and clear – and so human. You’re drawn in to the story. You understand the problem that journalist Harriet Beech is describing, and you’re trying to figure out what’s coming next. She’s piqued your interest, and you want to keep reading.

I ran it through seven readability formulas. They all placed it in the “difficult range” – 11th or 12th grade. But it’s still eminently readable. Pleasurable. The only slightly difficult words are “assurances” and “returnees.” What lovely, lovely writing. 

Have you made that vow? (I did.)


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