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 Once this has been archived — once there is such control over one’s subject matter (in the case of a writer), over the content, etc.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.

Roger’s rhetoric – introducing my new site

 

 

introducing my new site

 

Roger’s rhetoric

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/
On this site, there are many posts about writing per se: My observations re same; my education and training as a writer; the principles of good writing (including criticisms of my own writing that have made by less experienced writers, and how I have responded; and what I see as shortcomings of some common advice given to beginning writers); good vs. bad writing; political correctness and language policing of writing; what can be learned from the great writers I have read (and continue to read); some critical comments of mine  (both favorable and unfavorable) on the work of journalists; and fine points of grammar and style applicable to writing in general.

There is enough material here, I feel, for a book on writing, perhaps titled “Proverbs from Roger’s Writing Lair,” and Other Essays on the Craft of Writing. See my post

 

proverbs from Roger’s writing lair (with a nod to Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”)

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/01/10/proverbs-from-rogers-writing-lair-with-a-nod-to-blakes-proverbs-of-hell/

 

which I think is one of the best to do and not to do lists of its kind.

 

 

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My posts come at the principles and mechanics of writing, and issues of style, from many different vantage points, and drawing upon my actual experience as a writer. In contrast to the usual freshman composition texts and writers’ guides with a lot of anodyne, boiler plate advice organized in outline fashion, with a cookbook like feel, often overly general as a result of the author’s objective of covering every question a novice writer might have.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  reposted on June 18, 2019

 

one doesn’t write in a vacuum

 

 

 

comment posted by Pete Smith

July 8, 2018

in response to my post

 

“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?

 

“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?

 

 

Stop the self-serving blathering.

Despite your recent posts bemoaning the Trump administrations horrific treatment of immigrant families, you forget your posting in support of Trump after the Billy Bush tape, pretending that this was just “locker room talk” (Trump’s own characterization) and thus joining the legions of racist misogynist xenophobic supporters who chose to look the other way at this horrible idiot and, incredibly, helped get him elected.

Your relatives are not two-faced liberals who pretend compassion but live for only themselves. We and our spouses have given more than you will ever know (because you don’t ask or care) and far far more than you have given to support the underprivileged, both through personal service and financial support. Your hateful screeds denying this are an insult to your family and an embarrassment to yourself.

Stop reposting this garbage.

 

 

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One doesn’t write in a vacuum. Ex nihilo.

You have to have something to start with. To leverage off of. Drawing upon one’s own experience. Something you are reacting to. Which you heard or experienced. Something from your own, lived experience.

Which perhaps — or definitely — got you thinking about something.

For example:

A relative, commenting upon frequent messages of mine about migrant children being cruelly separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, seemed to be implying that I was getting too worked up over the issue (which reminded me of what most “reputable” people used to think and say about abolitionists prior to the Civil War). Which led to the outpouring of vituperation (responding to a post of mine on the topic) from the relative quoted above.

A relative asking me why do I keep posting photos of myself on my City walks on Facebook, and publicly stating that it was a case of vanity.

Close relatives telling me that I am obsessed with being praised for my writing and too proud of it.

 

 

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The following are posts of mine which resulted from me considering such topics after something brought them to mind. The posts led to snide and harsh criticisms, both on line and in emails, from relatives of mine:

 

 

“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?
“expressing outrage” … admirable or to be frowned upon?

 

on photography (MINE; an exchange of emails, with apologies to Susan Sontag)
on photography (MINE; an exchange of emails, with apologies to Susan Sontag)

 

In which the question is taken up: When is the desire to be admired not abnormal?
https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/02/08/in-which-the-question-is-taken-up-when-is-the-desire-to-be-admired-not-abnormal/

 

 

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To repeat. The writer has to have something to start with, to leverage off of. It’s usually something you disagree with or want to clarify and, in so doing, make your point of view stand out. Otherwise, we would only have generic, unfocused, anodyne writing — inoffensive, but dull and not worth reading:

My Summer Vacation

How I Am Enjoying My Retirement Years

Why I Am a Liberal

 

 

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The self-appointed censors in my family would be happy with prior restraint. They wish to be designated “minders” who can control what I write about and am permitted to say, making sure I step on no toes and that no one is ever offended. They want a sort of closed circuit Orwellian publication channel or venue in which thought control and censorship can be imposed, if deemed necessary, by them.

 

 

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Think of the writers — many examples come to mind — such as James T. Farrell in his trilogy Studs Lonigan; Theodore Dreiser in his early novels and his autobiographical work Dawn; Tolstoy in his novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” who were drawing upon their own experience in their families or among boyhood friends (in the case of Farrell) as a source of content and as grist for the writer’s mill. By their doing so, their works gained verisimilitude. The philistines are incapable of recognizing or appreciating this.

Inventing characters out of whole cloth or opining about hypothetical situations usually does not lead to good writing. A writer leverages off his or her own unique experiences.

 

 

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A final thought: Beware of people who want to beat you with a cudgel by bringing in some public figure such as Richard Nixon or Donald Trump whom they loathe and somehow, incongruously, trying to place you or your views in the same “camp.” It’s usually a case of psychological projection.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 2019

“Let it stand.” (an exchange of emails about James Joyce)

 

 

Once or twice [Joyce] dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to [Samuel] Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, ‘Come in,’ and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, ‘What’s that “Come in”?’ ‘Yes, you said that,’ said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, ‘Let it stand.’ He was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator. Beckett was fascinated and thwarted by Joyce’s singular method.

 

— Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford University Press, 1965), pg. 662

 

 

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I had the following exchange of emails with my brother the other day. We were discussing certain aspects of writing.

 

 

May 8, 2019
ROGER

 

Writing shouldn’t amount to an incoherent, rambling screed; a sort of data dump of the brain. But sometimes thoughts creep in and occur that don’t have to be excised.

P.S. There is an interesting passage in Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce describing how in Paris Joyce was dictating a passage from either Ulysses or Finnegans Wake (I don’t recall which) to his amanuensis, Samuel Becket. There was an interruption such as someone knocking on the door and Joyce said something which Becket wrote down. Then, Becket asked, was that supposed to be included? Joyce mulled it over and said leave it in. It was words such as “Come in.”

 

 

PETE SMITH

 

Agree.

But leaving “come in” in text when it was just a remark that happened while writing and when it has nothing to do with the subject about which is being written is absurd. Joyce’s ego must have been enormous by then.

 

 

ROGER

 

Joyce was a genius. Us mere mortals can’t carp or judge.

Yes, a bit nutty at times.

Dr. Colp [my former psychiatrist] and I talked quite a bit about Joyce from time to time. Dr. Colp once said to me: “What would I do with a genius like Joyce for a patient?”

 

 

PETE SMITH

 

Yes, a genius, but clearly his self-importance was out of control if he had become arrogant enough to leave something in that made no sense.

 

 

ROGER

 

I wouldn’t argue the point. When I read this (years ago), it made me wonder.

 

 

 

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I read Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce when I was in my twenties.

I don’t think it will be surpassed.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 12, 2019

My Career as a Freelancer

 

 

During the 1980’s, I made my living as a freelance proofreader and copyeidtor. I never earned much, but I did manage, which was in itself an achievement, to get steady work. In my best year, I made somewhere between 16 and 17 thousand dollars, which was then a creditable though not great income and was proof that I had a legitimate freelance occupation.

I started out doing occasional writing of articles and proofreading. In fact, my entree into freelancing, and into publishing I was employed full time as an advertising copywriter for three publishers for four years in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s came about through freelance proofreading work for the publisher Putnam’s, which began in 1977. A friend of mine who worked at Putnam’s recommended me to the in house supervisor of freelancers.

While working full time at Columbia University, I had taken, in 1976, a noncredit course at Hunter College taught by T. O’Connor Sloane, a high ranking editor at Doubleday. It was an outstanding course, very well organized, very well presented, and very thorough. I was greatly interested.

The course was taught once a week in the evenings for two or three hours, and when I was there, I became despite having worked a full day fully alert and energized. I learned a great deal; every fundamental of proofreading and copyediting, as well as book production, was covered. I took excellent notes and still have them.

I had always thought of myself as a competent speller, but, like most educated people, I wasn’t. (When I was 15, my high school English teacher, Mr. Tighe, told me that one area of composition I had to work on was spelling.) Mr. Sloane, the instructor in the Hunter College course devoted part of one class to spelling. He said that overcoming spelling difficulties was simply a matter of recognizing and learning how to spell a few commonly misspelled words. He then produced a handout, a list of the 25 or so most commonly misspelled words. Ones I remember: misspell, judgment, acknowledgment, chaise longue, supersede, accommodate. (Supersede, he explained, comes from the Latin, super seder: to sit above. He had helpful explanations like this enabled one to remember the correct spelling.)

Since that lesson, I have always been an excellent speller.

He discussed fees in the last lesson. He said with irony that the class always tended to laugh when he commented on this topic. The freelance fees he mentioned were then in the neighborhood of $3.50 an hour, which seemed okay.

This course greatly helped me. My friend had previously worked at Funk & Wagnalls and through his intercession I got the opportunity (in around 1976) to take a proofreading/copyediting test there. I did not do well and was not hired. (This was just before I took the evening course with the Doubleday editor.)

The guy who gave me the test, a young editor, was sort of condescending. I was very frustrated, because I was very determined to get into publishing and knew that, if given the opportunity, I would overcome any deficiencies I had and would do well. I had the basic skills, I was certain, was very conscientious and very detail oriented. If I was unsure about the spelling of a word, I would look it up.

When (after taking the Hunter College course), I started freelancing as a proofreader for Putnam’s, I did NOT do good work on the whole. I was worried about overcharging them; worked way too fast and carelessly, as it turned out; submitted bills that were unusually low; and missed lots of errors. (I remember 33 or so in one book, I was later told.)

My in house supervisor/contact, Fred Sawyer, was patient with me and told me to work slower. I got some very good books to proofread. One, by a son of RFK, was about a famed Southern civil rights judge. Another was novel by a very popular science fiction writer, Frank Herbert. The sci fi novel was clever but pretty far out. Weird language and concepts.

Later, I became a pretty good proofreader, working for the Random House College Division and a medical publisher, Raven Press, among other places. The work required intense concentration. It’s awfully easy to pass over typos when reading.

For Random House and a couple of other places, a take home test was required to get hired. One would think that a take home test would be easy after all, you have unlimited time to complete it but the Random House proofreading test was extremely hard. It was a different story for me from my experience with the Funk & Wagnalls test. Thanks to the Hunter College course, and, with the freelance experience I had by now, I was able to ace the test.

I didn’t do copyediting per se (as opposed to proofreading) until late in my freelance career, but I became very good at it. (I had actually become good at catching errors of fact and grammar in my capacity as a proofreader, where you were allowed to query dubious things in the margins of the proofs. I recall one book on African-American history where the author, who one would think would at least know such things, misspelled W. E. Du Bois’s name throughout.) The bulk of the copyediting I did was for an academic who was the head of a foundation. He couldn’t praise my work enough and acknowledged it in his prefaces. He kept holding out the promise that he would promote and abet my advancement, but nothing came of it.

I developed into a very good copyeditor. It’s something one has to have a background and aptitude for, obviously, but one also has to have experience. It requires broad knowledge and a sixth sense of what to look for.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 2019

Walt Whitman: simplicity and complexity

 

 

“No one makes craft, carefully wrought, seem more casual than Walt Whitman.”

 

— Richard Rhodes, How to Write: Advice and Reflections (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995), pg. 12

 

 

 

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, made a comment to me — I wish I could remember exactly what he said — to the effect that Walt Whitman is actually very difficult. Difficult for the reader, that is. That he presents a level of difficulty that requires acute understanding of? I think Pierre would have said: an understanding of what Whitman is doing; of his poetic technique; of his originality, poetic genius, and ingenuity. That Whitman, who seems on the surface so simple, is not really simple.

And yet, I find Whitman to be easy to become acquainted with and comprehend without necessarily being (as in the case of myself) expert at poetry. I “got” his poetry almost right away.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

In which the question is taken up: When is the desire to be admired not abnormal?

 

 

“It seems that you must have some insecurities about your writing if you feel compelled so often to exclaim how well done it always is.”

 

“You are often harping about how great your writing is and how unappreciated it is and how jealous people are of your writing. You seem to have some illusions of grandeur and seek to dazzle whatever readers you have with your continued brilliance. “

 

“Are you the only judge of your writing? Recently there have been a number of posts in which you highly praise your own writing and intellect. Shouldn’t this be something that other people (your readers generally) evaluate?”

 

 

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Several relatives of mine have been critical of what they feel is my undue desire to be admired for my writing.

Like many people who themselves do not engage in creative activity, they are quick to find fault with others who do.

I can not help thinking of my father. He lived a life in the arts. He was a musician.

He loved the life of a musician. He was proud of his skills, which he exhibited at an early age and then developed and honed throughout his lifetime. He was well trained and well educated in music. Along with natural gifts, he was completely dedicated to music and highly motivated. A natural interest and innate ability drew him to music, yet he could have, at some point in his life, given it up and chosen a different, perhaps more common or pedestrian occupation, which is what many who showed promise in, say, the arts or athletics in their youth often do. At some point, they give up study or pursuit leading to a professional career.
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My father loved being able to earn a living doing what he loved most: playing the piano. It was, in a sense, hard work for him. He worked long hours and odd hours, usually for low pay. He never became wealthy. I would observe intense concentration on his face, as if the rest of the world had been blocked out (which is not to say that he was oblivious to there being an audience), and, although he usually seemed at his happiest at the piano, I would sometimes see him grimace and scold himself if he hit a wrong key.

A key thing to understand about my father — and people like him — was that his identity was piano player, and piano player was his identity. Not solely. He was also a husband, a father, and a family man. If someone asked him who he was, I am certain, he would have said, I am the husband of … (my mother), the father of … (four children), and a pianist. (Or, perhaps, a pianist, a husband, and a father, in that order.)

His ego was coterminous, so to speak, with his music making. Take that away from him, and he wouldn’t have been the Alan Smith we and the admirers of his playing knew and loved.

 

 

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Being able to perform music for emotional satisfaction — knowing it gave others pleasure — and for profit gave me father a sense of being (to use a clumsy phrase) emotionally validated, of being affirmed.

Yet, he was not a narcissist. He had a quiet confidence in his abilities, a not bashful — but not boastful either — sense of them. Only occasionally did he speak to me, in confidence, of his own assessment of his skills. He quite realistically appraised them, once telling me, for example, about his ability to transpose music on demand and on the spot. And, on another occasion, saying, “You know, I never really mastered the organ. I can get by, but I never fully learned the organ, I never learned all the stops.” (Or words to that effect.)
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And yet. (Here’s where my writing comes to mind.)

My father loved to be admired for his playing He loved to give pleasure to listeners. To be told how much they enjoyed his music. He was motivated as a professional by the love of his craft, the love of music, and, also,  love of the attention and praise it brought him. By the ego gratification he got.

It’s the same with my writing. I have a quiet confidence, or self-assurance, in my ability as a writer. I feel that I am very good, but I can make realistic appraisals of my own work. I am a perfectionist and am probably my own best critic.

 

 

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Which leads me to my main point. There is difference in the desire for ego gratification and praise or admiration on the part of creative person and narcissism or self-promotion.

Speaking from a psychological perspective, I would aver that it is normal to desire to receive and enjoy praise and admiration when it has been earned and one knows that one deserves it.

This is not a sign of overweening, all-consuming egoism or vanity.

A soloist or actor performs. They enjoy the applause and plaudits. They have worked for it. They know when they have met their own demanding expectations and deserve credit.

There is nothing psychologically wrong, unhealthy, or abnormal about this. It fact, it would be abnormal to find a person in the arts who did not feel this way. It’s a healthy exercise of one’s selfhood, of exerting oneself, in which one seeks affirmation and validation of one’s industry and talents.

One does not create in a void or a vacuum. Affirmation is crucial. It’s like saying, one can’t love in a vacuum. There must be reciprocity. One seeks someone to love (a love object), and to be loved in return. One loves others reciprocally. Narcissism is something else.

 

Similarly, “public” acts of creativity are an act of unselfishness, a kind of selflessness, wherein the ego both asserts itself and gives or vouchsafes the productions of one’s self, an individual, to others, expecting to receive appreciation and admiration in return. When affirmation or recognition does not come, one must accept it; it can be frustrating, disappointing, depressing, and worse, the worst case being that of the creative artist who never gets recognition.

But lack of appreciation, or not getting enough or as much as one feels one should, does not mean one should give up. Because creative activity is a fundamentally good thing, like doing other types of productive work, engaging in sports, or being physically active. And wanting others to take pleasure in it is the opposite of selfishness.
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I am constantly trying to interest other people in my writing. I often get a response along the lines of how interested they would be reading it, and then, they never mention my writing again — in most cases, they probably never did get around to reading it.

I take this in stride.

But when I do get a reader, when someone tells me how much they thought of a piece and makes complimentary remarks about my writing, it is very gratifying.

I am slaving over a major piece of writing now. I have been working on it for months. I am certain it will be good when I finally finish it.

I can’t wait to make it public, in the hope and expectation that people will read and praise it. What in part motivates me is the desire and thought of wanting to make it good so that it and I will be praised.

If one didn’t feel this way, we would have a case of de facto solipsism.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

 

 

 

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COMMENTS

 

 

posted on Facebook by Nancy Jordan Ables (a former piano student of my father)

February 8, 2019

I am thinking that a writer of any kind needs to have confidence in their abilities, especially when they publish it for all to see, and I see nothing wrong with saying “I think I did a good job.” Musicians, politicians, actors, or anyone who has their work available to the public make similar statements all the time.
a comment via email

Ewa Solonia

February 8, 2019

Thank you for your post. It was interesting. The comments you are getting are upsetting and unconscionable. I totally understand how you feel. I’ve also been doing all kinds of art throughout the years. Compliments are always appreciated because it’s art! It’s the highest form of communication with the world one can achieve. It’s not about the grandiose.