When I was growing up, I wanted to write like Mr. Rodente. He was my seventh-grade math teacher. The notes he gave me to take home to my parents were simple and straightforward. I know that because I used to read them before tearing them into little pieces.
Mr. Rodente was strict and a bit of an elitist, but he would never pad his prose with excess verbiage like, "Your son, Michael, often seems to be somewhat perplexed by certain routine and well-established aspects of long division," or "I would like very much to meet with you, at your earliest convenience, regarding your son, Michael, and his apparent difficulty with multiplication tables often mastered by many of our students who are even younger than your aforementioned son." Nope, he'd just say, "Mike's not getting what I'm trying to teach." I liked how he used small words, because I didn't know any big ones except supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (I can't believe my spell-checker didn't flag that; Bill Gates must be a big-time Mary Poppins fan).
Using smaller words and fewer words sometimes seems like the opposite of what's expected of us as authors. In school, not only did we get positive reinforcement for expanding our vocabularies, but we were also tasked with writing assignments that specified minimum numbers of words or pages. Rarely did our teachers tell us, "Hey, I want quality, not quantity. Just write what you feel." (I might have heard that right after Woodstock. I don't remember, and neither would that teacher.)
The way we use written language is style. Each of us is entitled to our own, although more commonly we mimic the styles of others. That's a bad idea--well, mostly. If I tried to channel the clarity of novelists Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King, I might shorten my text and save a few trees, but my manuscripts would read like the worst, rather than the best, of a Hemingway-King-Rubin amalgam. (I'm quite sure that's the only time you'll see Hemingway, King and Rubin mentioned in the same sentence.) When imitating others, our weaknesses are more noticeable than our strengths.
There's no such thing as a best way to write. Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Dickens are both revered, successful authors with huge audiences, but their styles are completely different. Fans might debate their talents, but the beliefs and perspectives of those literary superstars distinguish them more than their abilities.
Pick an author: To write like, say, Dickens, with the subtlety and imagery he bundles into his work, you'd have to be Dickens--not a good career move, considering he died two centuries ago. Besides, it's frustrating and unnecessary to try being someone else.
Borrow techniques without trying to replicate talent. Let your writing "personality" evolve. And, according to King, "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: Read a lot and write a lot." The former exposes you to styles that work well enough to impress editors, publishers and audiences; the latter lets you sculpt those examples into something distinctive.
What else do you need to stake your own style? Here are a few reader-friendly guidelines that might help:
Change tempos--Being an effective writer isn't just about brevity; try varying the lengths of clauses, sentences and paragraphs. It's harder to keep an audience's attention when the rhythm of the language is plain and predictable. Grab the textbook of your choice for examples.
Tone vs. content--I'm going out on a limb here: What you say isn't as important as how you say it. OK, there are exceptions--prescriptions, protocols and divorce settlements--but I don't think your readers would find any of those entertaining (maybe I should keep an open mind about divorce settlements).
Consider music. Don't we notice melodies before lyrics? By the time we start thinking about what a song says, we've already judged how it sounds. I think it's the same with text.
Look at the end of the second paragraph in this Life Support column: Do we really believe we can substitute software for civility? For sensibility? I'm encouraging readers to think about the limits of technology by framing my opinion as a couple of questions. The second one is grammatically incorrect--no subject or verb--but it alters the tempo and extends the alliteration (sound repetition) of substitute, software and civility. It flows.
I could have made my point in a more conventional way: "I don't think we can substitute software for civility or sensibility." The alliteration is there, but the sentence structure is bland--like a slow melody with one chord and lots of long notes.
End at the beginning--Manuscripts need beginnings, middles and ends.
The first paragraph should introduce your topic, directly or indirectly. I prefer an indirect approach, with a dose of intrigue or humor. That's how I started this piece. I recalled Mr. Rodente--a gimmick to attract your attention (sorry, Mr. Rodente)--while foreshadowing a discussion of how we write. If I'd stated, "The purpose of this month's column is to explore the role of style," I would have earned points for precision, but you might not have chosen to read this far.
An ending can be abrupt or a reminder to readers about your theme. The latter can offer closure by looping back to the beginning. Read on, and you'll see what I mean.
The middle is for exploring your theme and adding value--some sort of payoff to the public in exchange for their time spent reading your work. In this month's Life Support, I introduce my belief that online messaging can be dangerous, then give examples of consequences. I'd like to think that someone, somewhere, will take my advice and keep a job they might have lost through premature elaboration.
Be cautious with colloquial expressions--From Maine to Miami, along Interstate 95, English undergoes a major transformation. By the time you're two hours south of Boston, wicked is no longer a synonym for very. Continue past New York toward North Carolina, and fuhgeddabouddit starts meaning, literally, forget about it. Local dialects are no big deal--I mean, no problem--until your audience is more than an hour away. If you're writing for national media, avoid regional slang.
Redundancy is unnecessary--Some commonly used words and phrases take space without adding meaning. Ultimately, the fact is, in reality, in actuality, certainly, through the years, truly, with that said, and along those lines will contribute no more to your manuscript than your appendix does to digestion.
Brevity, variety, distinction--Mr. Rodente would approve.
- Part 1: Introduction--goals, philosophy, agenda.
- Part 2: Getting started--generating ideas, choosing topics and planning content.
- Part 3: Developing publishing contacts; submitting queries and proposals to editors.
- Part 4: Language, structure, essential elements of composition.
- Part 5: Using protected material--references, citations, quotations, graphics.
- Part 6: Grammar--common mistakes.
- Part 7: Establishing your style.
- Part 8: Self-critique--reviewing, rewriting, polishing.
- Part 9: Editors and editing.
- Part 10: Summary.
- Part 11: Case study--development of the December 2011 Life Support column for EMS World.
Mike Rubin, BS, NREMT-P, is a paramedic in Nashville, TN, and a member of EMS World's editorial advisory board. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.