Over more than 40 years I’ve written countless articles and sermons, yet only when I began writing blogs a dozen years ago, my first book in 2017, and in helping to edit the work of others did I pay close attention to what makes writing good and bad.
The most important elements by far in good writing are a good idea and clear thinking. If the writer doesn’t have anything meaningful to say, no amount of verbiage will make the result worthy to be read.
Very few of us are born-writers. Most writers need time to evolve their craft. Good writing requires technique and artistry. Even good thinkers need maturation time as they work through ideas.
Serious writers study other writers. Newbies ought to do as great artists did who sat with a pallet and/or drawing pad before master works in museums and galleries and copied them as they developed their technique through imitation. Most of the best writers write every day, and when they aren’t writing they’re thinking about writing.
For those who speak and teach for a living – speaking well too is a skill developed slowly. Focus, self-discipline, clear thinking, command of the language, and awareness of one’s audience all work together as an integrated whole for maximum impact.
When giving formal addresses, I found that I produce a far better product when writing everything out in advance even if I wander from the text during delivery. When I was a young rabbi, I received justified criticism for how I wrote and read from a written text. And so I sought out a veteran Hollywood and New York actor and director who told me a few things I never forgot, that the challenge the actor faces in every performance is to bring forward into the present what was written in the past. Imagine speaking the same lines hundreds of times and making each performance feel as though it was never spoken before.
When I asked him to share with me tricks he used that I could adapt to make it seem as though I was thinking out loud and personally to my congregation and students, he told me that he always directed his performance either to someone he knew in the audience or whose face he liked. Then he spoke as if to that one person who, he assumed, had never heard his spoken words before even if it was Shakespeare. Any formal address, he noted, though striving to be colloquial, ought to employ elevated language that inspires and touches the heart more than common words and phrases might do. Yet, he warned against using language that’s feels unnatural to the speaker, is self-conscious and pretentious.
In recent years, I have edited books and the blogs of others, and I’m often amazed at the number of grammatical errors made by thoughtful and good writers, as well as repeated words (use a Thesaurus), unclear thoughts (ask yourself if what you wrote makes sense), disorganization and repetition (outline your piece before and after your first draft), and unnecessary verbiage (stop stringing together superfluous adjectives and adverbs) that all diminish the punch and power of the thought intended. That’s where good editing comes in. Two heads are always better than one. Of course, if writers engage editors they have to show humility and be open to honest and constructive critique.
My first draft is invariably far from my final product. Once I get close to saying what I want to say, I read what I’ve written over and again, edit as necessary, be certain that I’ve caught careless grammatical errors, clarified confusing sentences and thoughts, and cut mercilessly that which doesn’t add value to the piece.
Being a writer requires immense patience with oneself. I rarely publish a blog or put anything onto social media without allowing time to pass before hitting the send button. I also don’t publish until I’m satisfied that I’ve written exactly what I want to express in precisely the way I want to say it. There have been many pieces that I didn’t publish because I came to regard what I wrote as rubbish. That said, I confess that sometimes I should have held back and pressed delete instead of send.
For serious writers I recommend checking a web-site – Stanford University’s Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, “Top 20 Errors in Undergraduate Writing” – https://hume.stanford.edu/resources/student-resources/writing-resources/grammar-resources/top-20-errors-undergraduate-writing.
Also, there’s a terrific volume written by the copy editor at Random House called Dreyer’s English – An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer (New York: Random House, 2019, 320 pages).
The French author, mime, actress, and journalist Sidonie-Gabrielle Collette (1873-1954), known as “Collette,” once remarked:
“Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge one’s own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”