Category Archives: the craft of writing

how to write; Exhibit A

 

 

 

Roger W. Smith, ‘Sorokin as Bilingual Stylist’

 

See Word document above.

 

 

I am very proud of the short scholarly paper posted here, which I have just finished. It has not yet been published.

It was written by me for an upcoming academic conference.

I had very short notice and a tight deadline — about a week to research and write the piece.

I hunkered down and was virtually chained to my computer for the past few days. There was a lot of spade work to be done before I could begin writing.

On Saturday morning, two days ago, I was still doing what would be called spade work. I was very focused and energized. But, later in the day, I found myself being over anxious — too “wired.” I decided I had to shut down and do nothing for the evening.

I woke up refreshed on Sunday morning and ready to work. But I had a feeling of consternation in that I couldn’t see how I could get the piece done by the end of the day. It was due Sunday at the latest. The editor said she had to begin preparation for publication on Monday.

I told myself,  Roger, no more “research.” No more examining your source materials. It’s time to WRITE. (Note that I had about twelve hours left.)

I had a draft already, but it was an amorphous mess of some preliminary overall thoughts I had had pertinent to my topic and some sections partially written, plus a lot of stuff I had cut and pasted from downloaded source materials and “dumped” into the text.

The creative process started to kick in (if that’s the right way to say it) — miraculously — in my genius brain. (Don’t’ worry, I’m being facetious.) I saw a way I could possibly structure and organize the presentation. I wrote five or ten subheadings that seemed to provide a sort of outline and to group content into some meaningful order. Then I rearranged my materials under the subheads.

“Let’s see how long it is now,” I said to myself. Twenty pages. The editor wanted six to eight pages including an abstract and footnotes.

Howe can I possibly get it down to the required length in such a short time, I thought.

I went at it and started pruning. I found that a lot could be cut, such as long quotations, or repetitive quotations and examples.

The piece was still too long. I did a tightening job which required intense effort and craftsmanship. Lo and behold, I had gotten the piece down to just under eight pages.

Any writer will tell you that the hardest thing to do is to write a short piece when you have more material that you can fit in.

After slaving over a piece of writing — short or long — optimally the materials you are working with, words and paragraphs, suddenly gel and cohere — almost miraculously, it seems — since a moment before you had what was essentially a mess in front of you to work with, or — perhaps one should say — clean up.

 

 

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There’s such ego satisfaction in pulling such a job off. (The editor responded immediately with very positive feedback.) Here’s what I think this piece illustrates by way of pointing out what good writing requires and how excellence and professionalism can be ascertained:

— an ability to work a great deal of documentary material (based upon arduous research) into a tightly constructed piece

— how to assemble all this material and then present it in a coherent fashion, so that the piece reads well

— how to achieve an admixture of evidentiary materials with expository writing in which one conveys lucid, well thought out opinions and insights that do not get “lost in the traffic”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 16, 2019

writing to spec

 

 

 

rogers-tribute-to-piere-coustilas

 

Pierre Coustillas tribute

 
Here’s a good example of writing to spec:

 

Roger W. Smith, “Tribute to Pierre Coustillas,” Supplement to The Gissing Journal, Volume LIL, Number 4, October 2018 (see PDF and Word document, above)

 

The editor of The Gissing Journal, in which this commemorative piece by me appeared, stipulated a maximum of 800 words. My piece is 796 words long.

 

Within this tight limit, I was able to:

 

— sufficiently cover (within the scope of the piece) my subject, the late Gissing scholar Pierre Coustillas and his contributions to Gissing scholarship

— provide specific, illustrative detail to make and support my general points

— maintain an authorial “voice”: The piece sounds like it was written by someone (rather than a canned eulogy), an individual with an enthusiasm for Gissing and an appreciation of Coustillas, based upon actual experience as a reader

— work into the piece, within the confines of the allotted length, a lot of detail: quotations and nuggets from Coustillas’s writings, relevant publication history of Gissing novels and works on Gissing published by Coustillas, the circumstances under which I became familiar with Gissing and his writings, and so on; and at the same time, manage to convey one scholar’s take on Coustillas as a scholar/writer

 

The piece reads well and has a sort of inner momentum. It is not a summary. It is a statement, with a unique slant yet written to satisfy the requirements as a commemorative tribute, fulfilling the editor’s requirements and mindful of the journal’s readership: Gissing scholars and enthusiasts. The tone is not dry or overly formal, but, at the same time, it is respectful. Meaning that I was mindful of the publication I was writing for and the circumstances of publication as well as the audience.

 

 

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It’s hard for me to articulate this, but a further thing that has occurred to me is that a mark of mastery in writing and in other fields — it could be music, say, or even something like sports — is that the “performer,” the writer, composer, or (as I have said) perhaps an athlete or some other performer — is in complete control. Once this has been archived — once there is such control over one’s subject matter (in the case of a writer), over the content, etc. — the writer/performer can put an individual stamp on one’s “production,” has freedom to do so.

Once I know, for example, that I am in control of a piece of writing such as this one — that it conforms to the editor’s expectations and the publication’s requirements (e.g., length, an all-important requirement for any writer to consider — is it going to be a 500 or 600 word op-ed or a 2,000-word magazine article?) and that the tone was right; that I have done my homework and provided sufficient, accurate information — then I can add pithy comments and pick and choose among details and quotes, to make the piece interesting and unique. The great composers do this. They have to master a form; the challenges are immense. Within, say, a form or musical style, there is great opportunity for a composer to put his stamp on the music. We marvel at the brilliance and mastery. At the same time, the composer communicates with the listener in an imitable style.

I am not saying that I wrote a brilliant piece. But, what I have noticed — in the works of professionals who have mastered their craft — is that you can observe complete control over the material no matter what they are writing, which does not mean that all individuality or a voice has been stamped out in producing a piece written to spec. For an example of what I am talking about, see my post

 

a superb craftsman (Jim Dwyer)

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/01/13/a-superb-craftsman-jim-dwyer/

 
— Roger W. Smith

   June 2019

 

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Pierre Coustillas (1930-2018), a professor of English at the University of Lille, was the world’s foremost authority on the works of the late-Victorian novelist George Gissing.

“ballet in a telephone booth”

 

 

 

“… it was as a columnist that Mr. Baker made his name. Based at first in Washington, he recalled that he had to feel his way in the new genre of spoof and jape. ‘Nobody knew what the column was going to be,” he told the writer Nora Ephron. “I didn’t. The Times didn’t.’

“But soon he was doing what he called his ‘ballet in a telephone booth,’ creating in the confined space of 750 words satirical dialogues, parodies and burlesques of politicians and the whirling capital circus. …”

 

— “Russell Baker, Pulitzer-Winning Times Columnist and Humorist, Dies at 93,” By Robert D. McFadden, The New York Times, January 22, 2019

 

 
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I think I know what Russell Baker meant (I grieve for his passing) by “ballet in a telephone booth”: He meant writing a compelling, funny, readable, coherent op-ed piece within the confines, so to speak, of a strict word limit of 750 words.

In the days of totally printed publications, word limits, the equivalent of what constitutes space limitations, were particularly important. The number of pages in a newspaper or magazine was more of less fixed and there had to be lots of room for advertising.

I experienced this. I worked for a while as an intern and, subsequently, a freelancer on a daily metropolitan newspaper. And, I also wrote reference book entries as a freelancer. The length of the reference book articles was strictly set, with some variation among entries depending upon how important the subject of the entry (article) was.

Later, I was a freelance book reviewer, Same thing. There was strict word limit. In the case of a newspaper, it was usually something like 600 or 750 words. My review in the Indianapolis Star of Bill Clinton’s autobiography My Life, a book over 1,000 pages long, was 600 words long (the review, that is).
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In my post

 

 

“the importance of professionalism (as seen by a writer)”

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2018/12/28/the-importance-of-professionalism-as-seen-by-a-writer/

 

I wrote that a professional writer has “to be able to write to specs, adhering to a specific word limit (not to be exceeded under any circumstances; I found out that 600 words means 600 words, not 625 or 650; your editor does not want to have to do the work of cutting your submission to achieve the right length); and … to ‘shoehorn’ in ideas and information that you want to include in a piece — within, so to speak, a tight space.”
The key idea here, the required skill — it’s one that sets professionals apart from amateurs — is what Russell Baker termed a “ballet in a telephone booth.” His coinage gets across the idea of skill or grace under pressure: the pressure being the constraints of a space limitation. It’s the same thing I meant by shoehorning in ideas and information.

 

One wants to be clear and concise. One has to cover the subject. Yet one doesn’t want to be dull. The writer wants the piece to be readable, and to have its own slant or edge: an authorial voice, a tone.
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Here are two examples of book reviews of mine where I achieved this — if I may say so — admirably.

 

o’connor

 

Roger W. Smith, review of A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor by Charles F. Duffy, The New York Sun, January 8, 2004

 

rws review of edwin o’connor bio by charles f. duffy

 

roger-w-smith-review-of-link-the-vast-and-terrible-drama-dreiser-studies-2004

 

Roger W. Smith, review of The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century by Eric Carl Link, Dreiser Studies, winter 2004

 

 

 

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What I would say about these book reviews — in praise of myself, and in the interests of demonstrating elements of good writing — is that they were written with strict requirements regarding length and, to some extent, a tone suitable for the type of publication and its readership. Yet, within these parameters, there is a clear authorial voice (mine), a definite slant. (One can see that a “critical thinking cap” is being worn.) And, in addition, interesting sidelights or digressions and pieces of information as well as related ideas, writings, or topics that occurred to me, which the reader might not have thought of, but are thought provoking, are worked in, all within the tight confines that any op-ed writer or book reviewer faces.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   January 2019

a superb craftsman (Jim Dwyer)

 

 

 

Jim Dwyer is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and columnist for The New York Times. When I was an intern and freelance reporter at New York Newsday, Dwyer was writing an “In the Subways” column for the paper, which made him popular.

This post regards Dwyer’s op-ed piece:

 

“The Transcendent Incompetence of the L Train Fiasco”

The New York Times

January 12, 2019

 

 

I have always felt that Dwyer is a very good writer, and this piece demonstrates why. It seems to be true of all good writers — Dwyer is no exception — that they never write a weak or inferior piece.

 

 

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My analysis.

Dwyer starts off with a clever lead which enables him to arouse reader interest, and to say something provocative and original. What the reader would not be anticipating. It’s true in writing as in music: Surprise, taken in the broadest sense of the word, can often show ingenuity and arouse interest. But novelty (an unexpected idea or fact thrown into a piece to startle or amuse the reader) will not necessary work by itself. It depends.

The lead:

In a famous medical study, two doctors traced a chain of errors that brought the wrong patient, a “Mrs. Morris,” to an operating room for an invasive heart procedure that she did not want, did not need and that no one had actually ordered for her.

It turned out that 17 separate mistakes were made before anyone realized that the wrong woman was on the table. Thankfully, Mrs. Morris was not harmed. The doctors said it was an “organizational accident,” meaning that one person could not have done it alone. Sticking tubes into the wrong person’s heart required mess-ups by many people.

One day, Mrs. Morris may be joined in the great case studies of near blunders by New York’s L train fiasco. This one took a team of people, too.

So, Dwyer takes the reader by a commodius vicus of recirculation to the here and now. In January, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the startling announcement that New York City’s L subway line, whose East River tunnel was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, could remain in service while fixes were carried out.”

To New Yorkers like myself who use the L train, this was indeed welcome news, a major development.

Then, Dwyer gives the reader needed context and background: “In April [2019], the line was to stop serving Manhattan for 15 months so the repairs could be made in the river tunnel. Its users had spent two years planning alternative routes and, in some cases, finding new places to live. They are just a fraction of the city’s subway riders, up to 300,000 people a day. But that’s more than the ridership of most mass transit systems in the country.”

He goes on to demonstrate, convincingly, why shutting down the L line for over a year was not necessary. Engineers who have been recently consulted have concluded this.

An important part of a freshman composition course is learning how to make transitions. Many writers, including experienced ones, do this heavy handedly and awkwardly. Dwyer continues:

Which leads us to the next question: [italics added] If the planned new repairs would be as safe and durable without requiring closing the line, why didn’t anyone think of them before? Shouldn’t someone downstream of the governor have thought to bring in outside experts for a fresh look, given the disruptive stakes?”

A seamless transition. Such transitions are most effective when the piece itself is coherent. Where the inner logic and the flow of ideas are apparent and, therefore, easy to follow.

With regard to the next paragraph:

Some people are skeptical about this new plan, in fact, precisely because it was driven by Governor Cuomo. That’s good. Without skepticism, society collapses. But this entire episode illustrates a failure to be skeptical. And it shows us the risks of ignoring what it means to fail, at scale, in a booming city that grows every month. It didn’t have to be the governor asking for a better way. But no one else did.

This paragraph shows one of Dwyer’s key strengths, and illustrates an important principle lost on many academics. Good writing mixes the pithy — fact based, anecdotal writing — with generalities. By generalities, I do not mean vague ones, or truisms. I mean that the writer is always trying to draw out the implications — the inferences — of what he or she is saying. Constantly moving back and forth, so to speak, between providing information to the reader (as well as context) — in the form of facts, anecdotes, data — and teasing out the implications of what they all mean, making sense out of the “facts” (in fictional detective Sergeant Joe Friday’s memorable words). Or, to put it another way, is balancing the factual and informational with explication. Example: Theodore Dreiser grew up in a family where German was often spoken at home. As a writer, he always struggled with the basics of written English. He has often been said to be an awful writer stylistically.

Dwyer goes on the explain the intricate managerial and organizational structure of the subway system, a bureaucratic tangle. He concludes by saying that “The price of all these people being in charge is that no one owns the work.” A sentence which nails the whole point and thrust of the piece down.

He then goes on to say:

In all walks of life — engineering, politics, transportation — there is a fine line between the earned wisdom of experience and the toxic self-regard of a credentialed rut. (That goes for journalism, too. For most of the time the L train shutdown was in the air, I was writing a column in the New York section of The Times. No one stopped me from asking questions. I just didn’t.)

Pedestrian writing? I don’t think so. In the work of a master craftsman, there is much to admire. The first sentence of the above paragraph is a brilliant one. It says so much simply. It gets the reader to think. It suggests a new and propitious way of looking at things. His parenthetical admission that “No one stopped me from asking questions. I just didn’t.” shows humility and self-awareness. By including himself among others (e.g., administrators and politicians) who should have questioned the need for an L train shutdown, he actually strengthens the points he is trying to make.

His concluding paragraph is brilliant:

Mrs. Morris landed on an operating table for a procedure that she didn’t want or need, and that no one had ordered for her. New York City wound up being prepped for a different kind of surgery that it surely did not want or need. This organizational accident took a lot more than 17 errors.

 

 

— Roger W, Smith

   January 13, 2019

the importance of professionalism (as seen by a writer)

 

 

Last winter, I emailed a relative with the following comment: “Largely because of having had professional experience, I know I’m not fooling myself when I say my stuff is good, unlike a lot of people who fancy themselves writers or poets.”

A few months later, we were having a discussion about various matters, including my blog. I came from a very literate family and have three siblings, all of them gifted writers (as were my parents). I emailed my relative again, saying: “I am ahead of the rest of our family in one key respect: I have had professional writing experience (plus a journalism degree) and have written for publication in scholarly journals, reference books, major newspapers.”

My relative seemed to think I was bragging, was guilty of puffery, for no reason, and, besides, what was the point of making the comparison, which it appeared to my relative was an invidious one, but which I thought was worth mentioning. “I am not questioning your writing credentials, which are very strong and give you more knowledge of and experience in writing than anyone in our family,” the relative wrote back. “But I do not understand why you are comparing yourself to your family in this regard. There is no family writing competition.”

 

 

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I did not intend, did not mean, to disparage anyone, or to exalt myself. I merely wished to make a point. To wit: that professional experience is crucial for anyone who wants to master a craft.

I was thinking when I made the observation to my relative, and have often thought in the past, about my father in this regard. My father was professional musician: a pianist, church organist, and piano teacher. He was born with musical talent. His mother was a church organist and attended a music school in Boston for a couple of years (of which she was very proud). It was said that her mother (my father’s maternal grandmother) played and/or conducted choir music in a church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where my grandmother grew up.

My grandmother recognized my father’s talent and encouraged him. He began piano lessons at a very early age. By the time he was a teenager, he was moonlighting as a musician with bands in the Boston area. At a young age, he was hired as a piano teacher in a studio in Boston, where he worked for several years before becoming an independent piano teacher. He appeared on radio programs in the 1930’s, playing and discussing music.

His experience was extensive. After serving in the Army in World War II, he went back to college and got an A.B. degree from Harvard College in music. In his senior year, he took five music courses. One was a course in composition with the renowned composer Irving Fine. He told us children that on the final exam, Fine said: “You have been studying composition all semester. Your requirement for the final is to write a four-part piece.”

My former therapist, discussing my versatility in writing, once brought up the actor James Cagney during a session with me. He quoted Cagney as once having said, “I could always play any part, any type of character, they asked me to.” He said that this was a significant statement. My father was the same way. He played in nightclubs, on a pleasure boat making daily cruises, at ice skating shows, briefly in a burlesque house orchestra, with back up Big Bands, as an accompanist to singers such as Dinah Shore (who was making a demo record early in her career), at functions such as wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs, as a church organist, and for many years as the entertainment in a restaurant/lounge. He played the accordion when required (e.g., on the excursion boat) and the organ in a Unitarian church. He told me, “I never mastered the organ,” explaining that to really do so required mastering the pedals and stops. This admission by him was not a sign of weakness. It showed the kind of awareness that professionals have of what their true strengths are, as well as their limitations. Similarly to my father’s case, I know that I excel as an essayist and writer of scholarly articles, and have reportorial and research skills. At the same time, I know that I can’t write fiction or poetry.

 

 

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My father once had a revealing talk with me, which I never forgot, about his technical skills and expertise as a pianist. It wasn’t braggadocio, it was a matter of actual fact.

For years, my father was the pianist at the Chart Room, a restaurant bar in Cataumet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. He would play there six nights a week for around six hours each night. People came to hear him play.

My father told me something that might have seemed trivial or not worth noting, but that I found quite significant for what it said about him, and his self-awareness when it came to professional capabilities. He would take a 15 to 20 minute break after a set. During the break (when he was probably enjoying a drink at the bar and would be chatting with customers), someone, it seemed, would always get up, sit down on the empty piano stool, and start playing. My father had no problem with this.

As my father told me, they would play simple tunes and enjoy emulating him, encouraging customers to sing along. My father pointed out to me — this was significant — that they would always play in the key of C. To my father, this distinguished the amateurs from him. He could play in any key that was required and was proficient at accompanying vocalists and singers because of this. And, by the way, my father had perfect pitch. One of my siblings would be practicing piano in the living room when my father was in the dining room. If they hit a wrong key, he would say, without leaving his chair, “E flat!” or “G sharp!”

 

 

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Like my father with the advantages of not only being born with musical talent but also of having had professional experience — where he honed his skills and kept developing and refining them — professional experience in writing has been invaluable to me. One learns certain lessons as a professional that are crucial to one’s development. And, then, as was true in my father’s case, and was also true in mine, there is formal education.

What seems to be the case with most people (athletes are a good example) is that there has to be inborn talent — one has to have the “genes,” endowment, or makeup for achieving the highest levels of excellence in writing/verbal expression, music, or sports — but then one will never reach that level without rigorous training and professional experience. This often means formal training, such as a good writing instructor(s) or education in general, or a professional level coach. Some writers and athletes seem to be naturals who do not get that much formal training. But think of all those who do. Writers such as Thomas Wolfe and James T. Farrell come to mind. They started out as writers in college and graduate school. Similarly, my writing instruction began in the “writing workshop” (writers’ boot camp?) of my high school English teacher, Robert W. Tighe — where we wrote almost every day, and were trained to do so “on demand,” on any given topic, in class — and continued with a superb education in the humanities in college and as a postgraduate special student taking college courses in languages, editing, and translation.

My point is that some would be athletes, musicians, writers, and so forth never progress beyond the amateur stage. In the playgrounds and parks of New York, there is a plethora of amateur athletes who exhibit great talent — basketball players, say — but who, at some point, never progressed beyond achieving distinction on sandlots and in playgrounds.

 

 

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From professional experience, which means writing for pay and actual publication, I have learned:

— to become less fearful of criticism and failure as a writer

— to be able to write to specs, adhering to a specific word limit (not to be exceeded under any circumstances; I found out that 600 words means 600 words, not 625 or 650; your editor does not want to have to do the work of cutting your submission to achieve the right length); and how to “shoehorn” in ideas and information that you want to include in a piece — within, so to speak, a tight space

— becoming hyper attuned to the actual editor who you turn your work into, and to the “editor in the sky,” and thereby to become more vigilant and careful in trying to avoid errors, having the final, published piece and how it will look always very much in one’s consciousness (a rule of thumb I learned when working as a freelancer for a daily newspaper: if your pieces go into the paper virtually unedited, that means you are meeting expectations and can consider yourself a success)

— continually engaging in fact checking as one writes (the way a copy editor does) and not relying on someone else to do it for you — in short, having a hyper sense of responsibility when it comes to accuracy. (A good writer knows that when one is sloppy about facts — as well as about grammar, for that matter — the whole piece is likely to be called into question.)

— being very alert to one’s audience — that is, readers — and cautious about making assertions or stating facts that might be ambiguous or questionable.

Regarding the “inner editor,” I notice that nonprofessional writers — good ones, well-educated ones — frequently make the same mistakes repeatedly because they lack professional experience. For example, a professional writer working in a newsroom or for a publishing firm knows where a period or comma goes: inside or outside closing quotation marks. Some basic style points have never been learned by amateurs who are otherwise excellent writers. The same thing with spelling. I never really learned to spell until I wrote professionally. An instructor I had in journalism school (a longtime New York Times reporter) told the class that there was zero tolerance in the newsroom for stories submitted with any errors whatsoever, including typos. Another way of putting this is that any professional (including writers) learns at the outset of his or her career some common mistakes to avoid. But you can spot the amateurs because of the obvious errors (small but nevertheless “impermissible” ones) they make.

 

 

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I worked for four years in the publishing industry before getting my first freelance writing assignments. My job was writing advertising copy for scholarly/technical books and textbooks. The job and subsequent ones enabled me to acquire an essential skill: how to process and digest information for rendering, so to speak, in publishable form.

Someone hands you a prospectus — often no more — of a book about to be published. One of the first I ever wrote advertising copy for was a textbook on neurology. From a professor’s dry summary of a few paragraphs (often leaving out key points that would be relevant from a sales point of view), I would come up with a cogent, readable advertising brochure. I faced similar challenges early on as a freelance writer for reference book publishers and as a freelance reporter for a daily metropolitan newspaper and a business magazine. One has to dig for information and quotes, weigh them, verify them, then do the best one can with what one has by way of facts/information and quotes. Until one has worked for a daily newspaper, I doubt anyone realizes how difficult it can be to get good quotes. To get an interview. To dig out information and verify its accuracy. I once wrote a routine article having to do with an elementary school. I was at my cubicle in the newsroom for a good part of the evening calling a source again and again to make sure I had all of the school personnel’s names spelled correctly and got other facts about the school (from the picayune to what some of the major issues were) right.

The editor of the business magazine liked my writing and had me writing a couple of stories every month, including cover stories. When you are a beginning writer, you are thrilled to get any sort of assignment.

The editor asked me to write an article about cooling systems (e.g., fans) used in commercial buildings, which ones were most cost and energy efficient and so on. It was not a topic of interest to me, but it was to businesspeople in the area, and that was what mattered to the editor. Needless to say, I had zero knowledge, but I interviewed building managers, asking them not only which systems they preferred but also to educate and bring me up to speed on the subject.

I pulled it off a la James Cagney.
— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

manifesto (my response to critical comments on my posts)

 

 

 

Montaigne wrote about everything under the sun; he’s my model. Samuel Johnson in his essays did something similar. A former English teacher colleague of my wife told me once, “You could write about a doorknob and make it interesting.”

I’m a writer, not a professor, policy wonk, or doctor.

I do not pretend to expertise I don’t have or put on airs.

I write ESSAYS. I know they are consistently good and of a consistent level of excellence. If you like good writing, you will like my blog. Which is my followers keep coming back, regardless of subject matter.

I write from personal experience. MY experience. Which is exactly what Montaigne did. Which is what good writers do. If I tried to write from an omniscient stance and pose as an authority, my writing would fall flat. Any writer will give the same advice: write about what you KNOW (and have experienced).

It is not surprising that some people will not find my writing interesting or appreciate it. To appreciate it, you have to be able to appreciate good writing.

If I write about Mozart, I’m not fooling myself that I am an authority. But I think that the writing is good and interesting. That’s what matters. If someone wants a self-help piece, or to bone up on history or politics or classical music, my blog is unlikely to be of interest or value to them. Its appeal lies solely in its excellence of writing.

I do do an awful lot of background research to ensure that my pieces are factually accurate and that I have covered the material. I rarely make factual errors or wild assertions or claims. This is different from stating opinions, when it’s clear that that’s what I’m doing.

Good essay writing should have a point of view. We’re not talking about a scholarly monograph. But, when I provide facts or background material, it’s usually reliably accurate.

Some of my writing is whimsical, impressionistic, or what have you. A light piece playing with or sometimes floating an idea or trying to convey an impression or mood. This is well within the essay writing tradition.

I don’t know quite how I would compare alongside acknowledged masters. But, I am convinced that my essays are very good and worth reading mainly for the pleasure and enlightenment that can be derived from good writing.

An artist paints in his studio. A lot of what motivates him is the pleasure of painting and doing it well. Once you’ve gotten good at something, it’s a lot of fun to keep doing it. You get pleasure every time, and there’s a feeling of self-affirmation.

The artist wants his work to be exhibited … craves recognition.

The pleasure of writing well, of meeting my own standard of excellence, is its own reward. I know when I’ve done justice to a topic and met my own high standards. There’s great satisfaction in carrying it off.

A lot of my pieces probably don’t seem that substantial. But, if one looked closely, they would see the craftsmanship and how well done they are. Yet, think of all the people who buy a pair of shoes or a bottle of wine with no idea which ones are best or appreciation of what production entails.

Largely because of having had professional experience, I know I’m not fooling myself when I say my stuff is good, unlike a lot of people who fancy themselves writers or poets. But I know what I can and cannot do. I do not write fiction or poetry. It’s a matter of what kind of writing I am qualified or prepared to do, not whether I can or cannot write well.

I have a small, slowly growing coterie of followers. I get great satisfaction out of their positive feedback and knowing I have reached them. It speaks well for me and them that they are discerning readers who can see the person embedded in the piece as well as the words and who appreciate my range of interests and integrity.

That’s enough for me — it means so much to me — but I do crave recognition and believe I deserve it.

The best man at my wedding, Charles Pierre, is a poet who had at that time just self-published his first book of poetry. He always made it clear that, in his opinion, he was good, despite not getting recognition, for the most part. I know very little about poetry, but I read his poetry and somehow, I knew that what he claimed was true.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

a letter of recommendation

 

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My father wrote this recommendation for my good friend John Harris in October 1965. John was a 1963 graduate of Canton High School in Canton, Massachusetts.

I feel that my father’s letter of recommendation demonstrates – provides one small example of – how well he could handle any writing task.

I have found that various samples of writing can teach you a lot about writing in general. This includes both good and bad writing.

In the case, of bad writing, I find that it sometimes enables me, by comparison, to become more aware of what the difference between good and bad writing is, and thereby to see more clearly what the ingredients of good writing are.

Similarly, one can learn a lot about good writing both by reading and appreciating the works of the masters – an Edward Gibbon or Charles Dickens, say – and by examining pieces of everyday writing – including those of young people and of adults who are not necessarily of English prof caliber – when it is apparent that there is an innate gift for expression and an ability to convey ideas and feelings. It could be a letter not intended to be “literary,” for example.

What I notice in my father’s writing:

GRACE – his prose is always graceful, regardless of what he is writing about, whom he is writing to, or how important the topic may or may not be.

CONCISENESS – he says just enough, no more or less. There are no unnecessary words.

CLARITY – his prose is crystal clear.

COHERENCE – the sentences and paragraphs are tied together seamlessly, like a well made piece of clothing.

IT FLOWS – the exposition proceeds logically and straightforwardly. There is no discontinuity.

TONE – it is just right for target audience. There is awareness on the writer’s (my father’s) part of who his audience is – whom he is writing TO – and of the kind of language and tone that should be employed for that target audience.

CHOICE OF SUBJECT MATTER – he uses appropriate, telling examples, the best ones he can think of, to get his points across. He has gone through his mental storehouse of impressions and memories to come up with the best examples. He has chosen the ones that best fit. Then, he has plugged them into the letter in just the right places, where they support the key points being made.

ORGANIZATION – the organization is not really noticeable, which is not to say it is flawed. It is not noticeable because it doesn’t require attention. One can follow the logic of the communique with no special effort required. There are a logic and orderliness to the way the letter is constructed. Points follow in the order that makes most sense. (This, by the way, is not true of a lot of writing. Poor organization can tire a reader trying to follow what is being said.)

EMPHASIS – this is something my high school English teacher commented upon that many writers seem to be either unaware of or unable to achieve. The letter is constructed in such a way that key points are highlighted without this being obvious. I believe that the ability to achieve this is a mark of a master writer.

 

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I have thought about writing at this level of excellence (as I deem this short, perfunctory communique to be) and have concluded that in writing, many of the principles that apply also apply to music. For example, a composer must achieve a logical progression to his piece; he can’t be, or at least shouldn’t be, bombastic; he needs to hold the listener’s interest and to be able to convey musical ideas in such a fashion that they are not utterly incomprehensible and “take hold” upon the listener.

Which brings us back to the topic of EMPHASIS.

In good music, you feel that there is something inevitable about the “logic,” the flow of the music. You feel it sort of HAD to be constructed that way. You feel the piece could not have been composed differently.

I would contend that my father’s letter, while perfunctory in one sense, shows some of the same qualities. You get the feeling that there was only one kind of letter of recommendation that would do for this particular individual (my friend) in this situation, and that my father managed to write just that letter.

 

 

 

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I myself have often felt, when writing, that there is some kind of abstract, perfect piece of writing — appropriate to, called for, as pertains to — whatever I am writing about – just what needs to be said about this or that topic (say, a book under review) – and that I have to “find” the absolutely perfect words, not only so that they are expressed perfectly, but also that they are just what needs to be said about this or that topic, and that they cover it fully. In other words, it’s a question of both prose (wording) and subject matter (content).

It’s kind of like the search for the Platonic ideal.

So that the examples chosen to make the point are just the right ones. Say, it’s a book review I am writing, for example. This would mean that I have discussed exactly those parts of the book that merit or require discussion, that I have found exactly what passages should be quoted, and have come up with the best analogies or comparisons that must be made to other works with which this book should be compared.

Searching for the best examples, for just the right things to say, can make writing very difficult, indeed exhausting. Many pieces are not written this way. They are tossed off, written in haste. (A writer notorious for this who comes to mind is the historian A. J. P. Taylor; many op ed writers compose in this fashion.) Such writing can be adequate, but it does not have the staying power of a piece that a great deal of thought and effort have been put into.

I think my father did something similar here. He thought of just what needed to be said about my friend. He chose the best examples: marshaled them. Then, he succeeded in presenting them in the most effective possible fashion.

A further word about emphasis. In writing, as in music, emphasis, which is to say putting the weight where you want it to fall — making the reader (or listener) come to attention — can be achieved in many different ways. It could be a short, punchy sentence or phrase (“I recommend him without qualification”) or it could be something elaborate and wordy. It depends.

Variation often helps here, which means variety of pacing and tone and an admixture of the terse and direct with more high flown, wordy, abstract language. Composers do this all the time: a short musical phrase followed or preceded by a long intricate passage.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 2016