I ask all of you this question — since the vast majority of you are bloggers and some are very serious and determined producers of journalism, non-fiction and fiction.
Next week I am not writing. Next week, to borrow my favorite of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Effective People, I’m shutting down the intellectual production line to “sharpen my saw”.
I plan to do everything but write: sleep, watch the sky, talk to my Dad, hang out with Jose, see my high school friend Sally and pat her dog Lucy and watch the fire glow in fireplaces and attend my favorite small-town auction. We’ll eat some good food, sleep late, go for long walks through Toronto streets and along Lake Ontario.
I will also read a number of books by career writers and editors and teachers of non-fiction that I hope will help to improve my writing. I’ve been cranking copy for a living since 1978, decades before some of you were born. It is a rare and essential luxury to withdraw and really think deeply and broadly about process. About how to do it even better.
I recently finished On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, who is still teaching in Manhattan, at the age of 88. It is a truly stellar book. I cannot recommend it too highly! Don’t simply trust me — it’s sold 1.5 million copies since he wrote it in 1974 (revised many times since.)
I’m going to read this book, by New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose brief pieces are lovely, clean and graceful.
And this one, by Roy Peter Clark, whose session last September in Decatur, at the Decatur Book Festival, was sold out, a huge auditorium where they wouldn’t let me, a fellow speaker, even sit on the floor to hear him.
I’m eager to read this new book, Good Prose, another guide to writing well, reviewed recently in The Wall Street Journal:
Messrs. Kidder and Todd claim that one reason their relationship remained productive for so many years was that “we shared a code common to men of our era, which meant that we didn’t expect much, or feel like offering much, in the way of intimacy or ‘sharing.’ ” Maybe so, but in a sense they were exceptionally intimate: One of the secrets of Mr. Kidder’s success is that he is not afraid of writing badly in front of his editor, which frees him from the paralysis of writer’s block. I’ve worked as a magazine editor for 20 years and done some writing on the side, and I’d say that the relationship you have with your editor should be like the one you have with your urologist—you should feel comfortable showing him unspeakable, embarrassing things and trust that he will not recoil but endeavor straightforwardly and discreetly to help. (The writer-editor relationship should also have a confidentiality akin to attorney-client privilege or, perhaps more aptly, to that of the psychiatric couch.)
One of the things I very rarely talk about here at Broadside, when I talk about writing for a living, is my relationships with my editors, without whom I would starve in a month. Unlike blogging, my writing for print and books always goes through multiple layers of editing by others, often people I will never meet and may not even speak to.
These relationships have tremendous power and weight:
— I have to retain my voice
— I have to insure my material remains factually accurate
— My stories need to retain their rhythm and tone; like a piece of musical composition, none of my word choices or sentence lengths or paragraph lengths are arbitrary
— I need to be sure the many underlying themes are carried through and clear to my readers
But, I also need
— to retain long-term relationships in a small industry where people move around a lot, but stay in the biz for decades
— be well-paid
— keep, as much as I can, a reputation as someone that agents, editors, assistants and publicists really want to work with again
This is the single greatest inherent weakness of blogging. Other than your followers, who is editing you and forcing you, on every single story, to up your game?
I recently read the post of blogger who said — and I could not tell if she was serious — that she expected an agent to find her and publishing success would follow.
Journalism and commercial book publishing is a team sport! I cannot emphasize this enough. For someone who may have zero writing training or work-shopping experience, who has never been heavily edited — which means answering a lot of questions from a lot of people who now control some or all of your career and income and reputation — it will be one hell of a shock.
When fellow blogger Mrs. Fringe and I met for coffee a while back, I learned how serious and determined she is to publish fiction. But she’s also shown it to some of the nation’s toughest editors and they were encouraging.
My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” got some terrific reviews; Booklist (which librarians read to decide what to buy) called it “groundbreaking and invaluable.” But it was very lightly edited so I had no true feeling for a hands-on editing job until I got my editors’ notes back on “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”
I was alone, in a motel room in Victoria, B.C., visiting my mother. I read them and panicked. Totally panicked.
Basically, my editor — who was, of course, half my age — said “I really like Chapters 11 and 12.”
What about Chapters One through 10?
Suffice to say that 30 years, three big newspaper staff reporting jobs and thousands of freelance articles had still not prepared me, emotionally or intellectually, for this intense level of trust, revision and sheer hard work.
What are you doing these days to sharpen and grow your writing skills?