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Jim Nowlan: Want great dividends? Try writing daily

January 20, 2018 GMT

A reader asked, “How did you become a writer?” I don’t think of myself as a “writer,” yet, I do lots of it: this column; feature and news stories for my hometown county-seat weekly I restarted 15 years ago; several books.

If you will indulge me, I will use my experience to offer varied lessons learned about writing.

My beginnings were inauspicious.

As a freshman at the University of Illinois in 1959, I was put in a lower-level writing course (the only one I have ever taken).

One of our first assignments was to write an essay about something of importance to us. I wrote about my little town.

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The instructor had us read each other’s papers; my effort generated some criticism among class members and the instructor. One student, however, noted she felt herself a part of my hometown after reading it.

My heart soared and made me believe, for the first time, I could write.

I received a lowly C for the course.

In other liberal arts courses at Illinois, I remember being asked to write for length; one’s papers had to be no less than, say, 1,000 or 5,000 words. This is a terrible way to learn to write. Better assignment: Make your point in absolutely the fewest words possible.

As a graduate student, I recall writing a final paper for a course in Latin American politics. My final paper was not fancy, yet, I had devoted much time to organizing my thoughts in a logical flow (good writing is all about logic). I had friends read my paper and tell me where they “stumbled” in understanding me; I made revisions.

This was the first time I had written each of my research notes on separate sheets of 4-by-6 paper, rather than on a tablet. This allows one to organize — and reorganize — one’s thoughts and notes into separate little stacks. I highly recommend this technique.

The week after I submitted the paper, the professor came into our seminar room waving a paper as he reached his desk; it was mine. “This is a model of a good paper,” the professor said. He directed every student to read my paper.

I knew then I had reached the point where I could communicate effectively. Confidence kicked in.

I have a dear friend who is a successful TV producer, director and writer, with several creative writing courses under her belt.

She oh-so-gently passes on principles she has learned, hoping I might adopt them. For example: “Never use a cliche; always write anew in place of a cliche.”

She probably is correct, overall, yet, I have a soft spot for cliches. Yes, cliches are, by definition, overused. But, they are overused because they are so apt, fitting almost perfectly the descriptive need of the moment.

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The point is not whether she or I is correct. Instead, that each writer develops his or her own style, one he hopes will communicate effectively to his audience.

I have friends who are naturals at the writing craft. Sometimes, however, they are so enamored of their own flights of rhetorical fancy, these natural writers lose track of the underlying point they are trying to make.

Beautiful writing is not always effective writing.

I am but a journeyman writer, learning my craft as I go; capable maybe, but not a natural. That’s the case with most writers.

Other lessons learned: Never, ever submit your first draft. Put it down and come back to it the next day.

Always have someone or more read your draft. See your efforts through the eyes of others.

To illustrate, I asked my buddy, Randy Fritz, to read the original draft of this column. A retired high school teacher, Randy stumbled on a couple of sentences. He suggested both shortening and reorganizing the sentences. They now are clearer, and the meaning easier to grasp quickly.

More words than ever are being spewed out via digital media, in tweets, emojis, loosely informed, often incredibly vulgar, one-line comments.

I fear, however, that thoughtful, effective writing might be going the way of pen-and-ink letter writing, a nearly lost art; think John and Abigail Adams, whose letters sustained them through years apart.

Writing is hard work, yet satisfying. Have your children and grandchildren practice by writing thank-you notes for gifts received. Press them on what specifically they liked about the gifts. Write, write. It will pay great dividends.