Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Learning Writing by Reading
There are several ways of learning to write well, and one of them, certainly, is to learn by reading good writing. My junior high school journalism teacher, Jack McDonald, understood this. He taught us the fundamentals of journalistic style — the five W’s, how to write a lead paragraph, the inverted pyramid — in short order, as we were putting out the student newspaper for one semester only.
So after the brief instruction, he added, “If you really want to know how to write a good news story, read the front page of the Times every day and do what they do.”
That would have been early 1965 in Southern California, so he was of course talking about the Los Angeles Times, which, under the direction of Otis Chandler, was rapidly becoming one of America’s best newspapers. Situated in an area that was booming economically and growing rapidly, the Times could spend all the money in the world on its news department and still be spectacularly profitable. And they spent it well, hiring top-notch people who taught and learned from each other, producing a paper that was a joy to read.
Learning from the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
I took his advice and read the front page thoroughly almost every day for the next year, and, by George, I learned how to write a news story. Now that I’ve published a mystery novel and am working on another, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries by other writers in much the same way I used to read the Times back in junior high. That is, I’m trying to watch what they do and see what I can steal.
Any aspiring mystery writer who could learn plot from Agatha Christie, voice from Raymond Chandler, and sense of place from Tony Hillerman would certainly have a leg up on the competition. I don’t think I’m there yet, but I’ve been learning something else in my readings. You can pick up a lot of writing pointers from a bad book, too.
Not too long ago I read a self-published mystery that I felt wasn’t very good. You can find it on Amazon, but you’ll have to do it without my help. Attacking an unknown author is bad form; public attacks should be saved for big-buck authors who are coasting, and if you find this particular author yourself, you might disagree with my assessment.
Not So Good, but Compelling
In spite of the fact that I concluded early on that the book wouldn’t be very good, I read it all the way to the end. A major reason was that I wanted to break down what was going wrong, if only to avoid doing the same thing in my own writing.
Part way through the book, I realized that one of the major problems the book had was the author’s use of adjectives. In almost every paragraph, there was an adjective that was wrong in some way: it didn’t need to be there at all; it jarred because it wasn’t descriptive enough or overly descriptive in the wrong way; or it editorialized. After all, if you’ve accurately and specifically described what the villain has done, there’s no need to keep referring to him as “wicked.”
Strunk and White famously wrote, “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak and inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” Bud O’Brien, one of my mentors at the newspaper, used to say, “The adjective is the enemy of the noun.” Like guns, adjectives are good tools, too often wrongly used. The next time I sit down to write, I will be herding adjectives tenaciously and keeping them on a tight leash.