Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lessons from Lists

Last year I posted a "permanent" link to the fantastic New York Times op-ed by Elmore Leonard "Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle" which was the basis of his book 10 Rules.  It's one of those articles that's worth printing out to read and re-read over and over again.  (Incidentally, if you're going to and haven't, you might want to do it soon because the NYT paywall is going up soon... unless - like me - you're planning to subscribe.)

This morning, the folks at The Guardian put up a sort of über-version of Leonard's ten rules with additional rules by other writers, including this gem from Margaret Atwood...
"...there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you're on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine."  - Margaret Atwood
That's an incredibly good piece of advice for anyone in the creative arts to keep in the forefront of their minds.  There's no pension plan for this and no one forced you to do it.  If you wanted to write, you could have finished Journalism school and had a nice secure job at a newspaper or magazine.  (ahem)

This is the sort of advice I try to give my younger friends and friends of the family who come to me in starry-eyed innocence asking me what to major in at college because they want to be writers.

Business.  I say.  Or law.  Or business law.  Or maybe engineering.  Or business engineering law... For God's sake don't major in English or literature or you're going to end up getting a degree just to teach other people who probably shouldn't be majoring in literature who will go on to teach other people who shouldn't be majoring in... Sigh.

They never really listen anyway, God bless 'em.  I've said it one and I'll say it again and again: The only real education a writer gets is the one they give to themselves by reading.

I like this bit of advice from Roddy Doyle especially:

"Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg "horse", "ran", "said"."  -Roddy Doyle
The piece of advice I dispense most often is "Write with the vocabulary you have" not the vocabulary Mr. Roget had.  He was kind of a nut anyway.  Every once in awhile at the writing center, I catch someone revising their paper with a Roget's in one hand and a red pen in the other.  Looking over their shoulder, I see perfectly innocent nouns and verbs lying dead in a sea of red ink to be supplanted by their polysyllabic cousins.

Don't do this.

Your vocabulary is an organic thing, it has to grow naturally or become unwieldy.  You may be  able to graft another type of tree onto it and get kumquats and apples off the same tree, but the unnatural feel of picking a kumquat off an apple tree will never fade.  Grafting Mssr. Roget's lists of high falutin' words onto your personal list will never quite fit either.

Which brings us to my favorite advice from Geoff Dyer:

"If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great auto­correct files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: "Niet" becomes "Nietzsche", "phoy" becomes  ­"photography" and so on. ­Genius!"  -Geoff Dyer
He's right, it's genius.  I periodically ask other writers why they're willing to give up their native understanding of grammar and spelling to a programmer from Microsoft.  I lived in Redmond, WA for awhile and though I love my many friends who have worked for Mr. Gates, I'm not sure I'd ask any of them how best to spell a word.

I am certain that some liberal arts majors were plucked out of the fast food joints surrounding Redmond and given a decent salary for at least a summer to compile MS Word's spellcheck functions and compile their thesaurus.  But some of the quirkier things they did convince me that they weren't happy working there because how else do you explain the furious abandon with which the program inserts semicolons into every sentence?  Subtle vengeance indeed...

Be that as it may, take the time to upgrade your word processor's dictionary and auto-correct features.  My first foray into novelwriting was a fantasy novel that contained so many Gaelic words that about fifty thousand words into the novel, I got a message from Word that there were so many 'errors' that it was going on strike.  No more errors would be tabulated until I got rid of the ones I'd already made.

(In the interest of not having little paperclip people picketing my prose, I went back and started adding Gaelic words to the onboard dictionary.)

There are many many more, but this post is getting rather longer than the article that inspired it.  Go read the article and take it to heart.

Just remember that there are no humble opinions, especially among writers.  We tend to open our yaps because we think we're right. (Accepting that you might be wrong isn't humility, it's reality)  And like all advice, take what works for you and discard what does not.

And remember Anne Enhright's advice which has the benefit of being true no matter who you are or what you plan to write:. 

"The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page."


  1. Playing catch up at the moment, great post which I will be promptly showing the teenager with literary ambitions. I absolutly support her choices but I was relieved when a history teacher convinced her to apply to do a double degree arts/law, so she can indulge her passion while getting a qualification that may help pay some bills while she writes the great novel. Really love the point about vocab and reading, this is something I am always telling kids, vocab improves with reading and so does your own writing.

  2. There's a great essay in Lawrence Block's book "Telling Lies for Fun & Profit" that I wish I'd read before I headed off to college for the first time. It's written as a sort of open letter to his niece and it's sort of a writer's guide to attending college.

    The long and the short of it is this: There is no need whatsoever to major in writing in order to be a writer. Quite the contrary, many if not most of the novelists you've actually heard of have degrees in anything but. The only education that matters is reading and writing and if you are a personality that desires feedback and collaboration there's critique groups for that.

    In my opinion, the people who should enter into a program of study... any education program are those who want to embark upon an in-depth study of that subject for its own sake.



Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).