Archive for May, 2010

Most of us Will Never Be Great Writers!

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

The upcoming June edition of the rewrite newsletter deals with how meaning is conjured, apparently from nothing, when we write. And it looks at what readers bring to the meaning table when they begin to interpret what we write. A goal of the ‘meaning of meaning’ theme is to examine to what extent meaning and the significance of a text can be controlled or developed by the writer, because writers tell us that they often feel like they are following rather than constructing as they write.

Novelists report that fictional characters and situations seem to independently take on threads of meaning that the author recognizes, follows, and explores. Non-fiction writers can find themselves in similar situations, when structural demands of the text, contextual resonances, and the unpredictable situations in which the text will be interpreted can lead to a sense that meaning is being corralled rather than created.

A related question is whether, given the tendency of texts, presentations and written communication in general to escape the control of the author, we can identify what it is that authors are doing when they produce “good” or even “great” writing. Because if teachers can’t figure that out, they can’t really coach others to be great writers.

Stephen King reckons it’s not possible to teach anyone to be a great writer. You can become a good writer, but his claim is that great writers – like people who are great at almost anything – have an aptitude at the outset that you either have or you don’t.

So it may be like great painting, or great musicianship; we know it when we see it or hear it, and we can go to great lengths to explain why we think one work stands out above the rest, but most of us don’t really expect to learn to write like Hemingway, paint like Van Gogh, or compose our own fifth symphony. But we do, often, feel compelled to ask why it reads well, looks interesting, or sounds so moving.

Common advice to would-be writers is to read as much as possible, presumably choosing among texts that are already judged well-written. And this we can all do, in the hope that some of that technique will rub off. In many endeavors, when we hang around successful people we raise the chances that we, too, will be successful; perhaps the same principal applies here.

So if Stephen King is right, what can a writing newsletter have to offer and what kind of articles can you expect in rewrite, which claims to deal with the “techniques and technologies of effective written communication”?

We do include a few purely pragmatic tips to help identify common stumbling-blocks that prevent writing from working for us. More in-depth articles look at practical tools such as single-sourcing and content management support systems that increase the efficiency of individual writers and writing teams.

But we also follow the idea of summoning success by standing closer to someone successful. We look at greater length at what makes great writing work; why it’s effective, why it’s a pleasure to read, and what makes it unusual. Why do some texts seem to carry us forward and propel us toward their messages, while others are like pushing rocks uphill? What features of the language are at play when writing achieves something remarkable, or what techniques make one presentation memorable while another is forgettable? By reading, by reflecting on what we read and by analyzing it when it strikes us that something unusual is happening, we may learn to at least better recognize the good and the bad, the resonant and the unreadable in our own work.

The intention is that in the process we may not become great writers, but we may become better writers and we may just have more fun writing.