My oldest child writes for the creative writing column of their online school paper, The Cracked Pot. Here is a link to her November article entitled “The (Extensive) Art Of Writing” or you can also read it below. For more on the author, here’s a write up by a fellow columnist.
THE (EXTENSIVE) ART OF WRITING
The fellow desperate to write well and willing to suffer some foolishness may read on.
Mom would readily confirm the difficulties encountered in teaching good writing. Frighteningly thick volumes have been written on the subject and many lives devoted to its teaching. I, however, shall attempt to shame those volumes and those lives by revealing the art, trade, and mystery of writing in the confines of a single article. A foolish venture, yes. The task will require no small amount of brilliancy, as well as audacity. But you will find that the fools in this world have something of the genius. And fear not. While some will hereafter brand me lunatic, I am no murderer. I do not wish to butcher the subject of writing. I admit an article cannot do justice to the numerous aspects and nuances of writing. But it might reveal a few of its major muscles.
We might start with this: to write well one must read well. Rarely is one a good writer without being first a good reader. To define our term “good reader,” we maintain that the good reader performs two acts. Firstly, she reads slowly. We do not mean she reads at the rate of five sentences per hour but that the good reader savors the author’s writing. If you often analyze and admire an author’s word choice, sentence structure, or general brilliance, I give you sincere congratulations – you are well on your way to good reading. Secondly, the good reader reads wisely. There are a great number of books that deserve to be read, but there are a great many more that do not. Fewer works still deserve to be analyzed so painstakingly. The more commendable are usually labeled “Great Books”; they are books that truly say something to man, regardless of the time and place he belongs to. (I refrain from naming such works as classics, for most of the world imagines only the local bookstore’s dusty, deserted section no one visits and dull, ancient literature no one really likes.) But whatever the case, one must choose reading material shrewdly.
And what are the benefits of good reading? They are two-fold. Through analytical, active reading, one gains familiarity with the rhythms and secrets of words. As your friendship with them grows, the words themselves will reveal their mysteries to you. And when you finally put pen to paper, quill to scroll, fingers to keyboard, the words will bend themselves obligingly to your will. Secondly, the wisdom of the good reader affords her both worthy writing to imitate and worthy ideas to digest. A good reader will not only be at ease with words, but she will have much to write about. For as Darcy remarked, she will have “something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading” (Pride and Prejudice).
That is enough on reading; we now turn to planning. Our good friend Abraham Lincoln said that if you give him six hours to cut down a tree, he would spend the first four sharpening his axe. (Yes, tree-chopping is not the same as writing, but Old Abe deserves to be mentioned anywhere possible.) In planning, one is forced to think through exactly what one wants to say and how it shall all be said. That is simply the best way to keep from running aground someplace or other in what was to be your masterpiece. So plan! Plan the piece, the paragraphs, the sentences! Perhaps (just perhaps), by the end of it all, you will have put some sense behind your words.
You have read. You have planned. Now write. The general of war trains his troops and plans the war, hoping against hope that he and his men will meet victory. But after hundreds of maps are studied and dispatches sent and soldiers drilled, the general can only stand aside despairingly and let the battle take its course. You have done your duties, commander of words. Now let war be waged with paper and pen.
There is the last step to writing (I have very keen ears, mind you – know that your breaths of relief are heard). But I’m afraid that this step is the longest, perhaps the most tedious, and most assuredly the most important of all steps to be taken: editing. An antiquated, Latin author said that if one would write well, one must turn the stylus often. Apparently, despite their genius, the Romans had not invented a word for eraser, for that is what our author alluded to. I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who wrote a sentence one hundred different ways and then chose the best one. Rarely can even the best of writers perfectly capture their ideas the first time. Perhaps if one is acting under the inspiration of genius, it is possible, but we cannot claim to be under such an influence at every second (or can we?).
As one edits, one must keep vigilant for a few things. I shall name three, though of course, there are many more. These are grammar, strong expression, and tasteful style. Winston Churchill said he would beat the boy who didn’t know English, and I would most delightfully concur. How can one write if one is still questioning the commas and capitals, the singulars and plurals, the subjects and predicates, the direct objects and indirect objects, even the finer matters of the participles, infinitives, and gerunds? Learn your grammar well, boy. Then you have a fair chance of writing well enough. Then there is the matter of expression. Be active, positive, hit the nail directly, and be done with it. Remember the phases of matter. (I have very keen eyes too – know that your blank stares are seen.) Of the three, gases spread the most quickly. Their atoms possess the most energy, the most activity. They fly, fast and free, bouncing off this and that. As a writer, you want your message to spread, to fly out and be understood by the world. Then your words, just as the atoms of a gaseous substance, must possess this great energy. In closing, there is tasteful style. Do not forget that writing is an art. Keep handy some humour, some irony, some figures of speech. The best writers use these tricks of the trade tastefully. C.S Lewis and Jane Austen knew occasional laughter would keep their readers from drowning in the depths of their words. J.M. Barrie described the various boxes and drawers of children’s minds in order to paint a picture of a child’s psychology. These authors knew the advantages of mirth and concrete imagery. They knew humor kept the reader from sleep, while imagery kept him from the overly metaphysical.
So the end of all this foolishness is reached here. Perhaps I have butchered the subject of writing and shamed C.S Lewis, Austen, and J.M. Barrie. Whatever the case, I shall leave you to make what you will of it. Perhaps you will take my poor advice and begin to read well, plan carefully, write boldly, and edit continually.