I was a freelance writer and editor for a few years, interrupted my career to pursue a graduate degree, but spent most of my work life working in offices. My last office job, which lasted over twelve years, was as a business writer with a consulting firm in Manhattan.
Only a few days after I had joined the firm, I attended a company conference on the West Coast which was devoted to mainly to sharing of best practices with colleagues from various offices. That was the first time I became aware of a high-ranking employee, Mr. ________. We were employed in the same office.
The first time I saw him, he was in a corridor of our hotel prior to the beginning of the day’s proceedings. He looked like he had just woken up, and he was carrying a copy of The New York Times which he had purchased at the hotel magazine shop. He appeared lost in thought and somewhat disheveled and looked like a prototypical New York intellectual.
That’s _______ _______,” someone said. “He’s brilliant!”
It turned out that almost everyone in our office held Mr. _______ in awe. Mostly because of his reputedly large stable of devoted clients and his mesmerizing hold on everyone as an absolute authority on employee benefits.
But — I found out over time — he was no Einstein. Not a genius. His reputation for intellectual prowess, such as it was, was not deserved. (Which is not to say that he wasn’t intelligent.)
Mr. _______’s secretary showed up at my desk one day and dropped a seven page long, double spaced, typed draft on my desktop. “_______ wants you to edit it,” she said. I did not work for Mr. _______’s department, but it was assumed that I would do it immediately with no further discussion. It turned out that what he wanted me to do was edit the draft of remarks, or a speech, he was planning to give to some office, company division, or professional association.
It is actually the kind of work I like to do. I dove right in. Soon I was scratching my hair. The content of the speech may have been okay, but his thoughts were expressed horribly.
However, I have always fancied that I can wordsmith and make read decently just about any piece of English prose — on any subject, technical or nontechnical — written by an adult with a modicum of education and a knowledge of English as a first or second language.
Among the awkward phrases of Mr. _______ that I recall — he kept failing miserably at getting his thoughts across, at crafting phrases and sentences — was “Russian red tape expert,” used in the following sentence about employee benefit laws: “A Russian red tape expert would be proud to issue 49 pages of closely printed regulations. ….” I changed “Russian red tape expert” to “Communist apparatchik.” (Upon reflection, I think that “Soviet apparatchik” might have been better.)
I labored over the speech for about two hours and returned it to Mr. _______’s secretary. It was received without a word. I never heard anything from him by way of follow up or got any thanks. I was proud of my work. I still have a copy of his draft with my edits.
It is true that a lot of so-called geniuses — this includes true geniuses — cannot write well. Many academics who became world renowned (the Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse comes to mind) were horrible writers, and many professors — including many (it seems a preponderance of them) in the humanities — write poorly and pay little heed to style and the craft of writing. It also seems that many of the greatest writers of all time, while showing obvious intelligence, let alone brilliance, in certain respects — did not possess IQ’s that would make them eligible for Mensa.
Just what the relationship between a genius for writing and being in the “gifted” class (as early childhood educators would term it) with respect to intelligence is, is not obvious and raises potentially interesting lines of inquiry.
— Roger W. Smith
I think a major part of good writing is its musicality. Word sounds–rhyme, alliteration, short words, long words, words we know come from other languages; phrasing–it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; sing words of opposite meaning–I hate and I love–these are just the bare beginning of giving writing a musical bounce.
Thanks, Michael. Your words and thoughts count, given your experience and your writings on writing, all of which I confess I haven’t finished reading yet (or should I say, gotten around to reading). You give me the thought or urge (or whatever it should be called) to write more about tone and “voice” in writing. I touch upon one or two of these aspects (mentioned by you) in my post at
where I try to respond to criticisms of my writing. But phrasing, yes — cadence. “It was the best of times, the worst of times” A very good example.. And, by the way, there is the ability the best writers often have to make it sound, as Dickens could, as if the writer were having a chat with you. Melville sort of did this too (as just one other example) in Moby-Dick. To achieve a conversational tone and a feeling of intimacy or being connected with the reader while at the same time writing a masterpiece. (Did I say I am capable of this? The former, yes. The later, no.)