The novelist V.S. Naipaul’s rules for beginning writers, worth a look by non-beginners and editors:
— Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than 10 or 12 words.
— Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.
— Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.
— Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.
— The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of color, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.
— Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.
— Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.
As advice, you could do worse.
I suspect that many people read the CASE Circle of Excellence judges’ reports only if they’ve won a medal. It’s sort of like reading fan mail. But the reports are worth reading under any circumstances, because they are a sort of informed critique of the contest entries. The judges for general excellence in the
mid-circulation small-circulation category were pithy:
13 Reasons Magazines were Unanimously Dismissed from Medal Consideration: Tepid writing; busy design; uninspired storytelling; difficult navigation; riddled with clichés; more of a brochure than a magazine; more advertorial than editorial; uninspired headlines and decks; shockingly wasteful, dated, awful photography; 36 head shots in one 32-page issue; utter lack of photo editing.
Headlines We Saw More Than Once (And Wish Would Be Banished Forever): “Putting Students First,” “Charting Their Own Path,” “Making a Difference,” “Planning for the Future”
Most Head-Scratching Comment From Submission Form: “Several staff members edit the publication before the printing process begins.”
Yep…what they said.
Among the current stack of university magazines on my desk, this stands out as my favorite deck so far, from the Summer 2014 issue of Tufts Medicine:
CHERIE HANDRICKSON LEFT A HIGH-FLYING RUSSIAN HOCKEY CAREER BEHIND TO ENTER TUFTS’ PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT PROGRAM
Hard to see what recommended that for a story, eh?
Tim Kreider is an obscene cartoonist (I mean that as a compliment) and excellent essayist, subject of a profile that I wrote not long ago for Johns Hopkins Magazine. He recently published an essay on The New York Times‘ “Opiniator” blog site, “The Power of ‘I Don’t Know,'” that resonated with me. When I read our form of paid scribbling, I frequently come across what I think of as unearned authority. A writer makes a definitive statement of This Is How It Is and I see through it, knowing damned well that the writer does not know anywhere near enough stuff to be so assertive.
Kreider’s essay may be behind the Times‘ paywall, but try the link anyway. Here are some good bits:
There seems to be a widespread presumption that writing is prescriptive (or proscriptive) rather than simply observational or meditative. Some people condemn or commend even memoirs and novels as though their purpose were to instruct or offer models. I suppose I can’t entirely fault readers for this misapprehension. Confident authority is an appropriate tone for straight reportage, but it’s become the default of columnists, essayists and bloggers, one that’s so reflexive that some of them seem to forget it’s a pose. To some extent this is a deformative effect of the space restrictions within which most of us work; in a thousand-word essay you can’t include every qualification or second thought that occurs to you or you’d expend your allotted space refuting your own argument instead of making it.
This voice is trained into us early on, back in high school or Comp 101, when we’re taught to make our arguments as succinct and cogent as possible, omitting wishy-washy qualifications like “in my opinion.” You’d think these disclaimers could go without saying; every piece of writing includes the tacit caveat: Or I could be wrong. And yet quite a lot of readers respond to your personal observations with wounded outrage when they fail to reflect their own experience, as if you were proposing your idle speculation as totalitarian law. That rhetorical pose of weary expertise has metastasized to the Internet, epitomized by the opener: “So let me get this straight.” It seems telling that this smug, knowing tone has become so endemic at the same time that the amount of information available is so numbing, and actual expertise so rarefied, that almost nobody knows enough about anything anymore to have the right to any opinion at all.
. . . This is another reason so many writers feel the need to impersonate someone wise or in possession of some marketable truth: it’s a function of insecurity, of fear. If we don’t assume some sort of expertise, why, exactly, should anyone bother reading us, let alone buy our books or invite us to appear on Fresh Air? The one thing no editorialist or commentator in any media is ever supposed to say is I don’t know: that they’re too ignorant about the science of climate change to have an informed opinion; that they frankly have no idea what to do about gun violence in this country; or that they’ve just never quite understood the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in all honesty they’re sick of hearing about it. To admit to ignorance, uncertainty or ambivalence is to cede your place on the masthead, your slot on the program, and allow all the coveted eyeballs to turn instead to the next hack who’s more than happy to sell them all the answers.
. . . Since I am not and never will be anyone who knows enough about anything to be worth listening to on the basis of my expertise, my only possible claim to anyone’s attention is honesty. Unalloyed honesty is the iridium of the information economy—vanishingly rare, and therefore precious. We don’t respect people like Louis C.K. or George Saunders because of their credentials; it’s because they’re among the few people in public life who’ll say anything obviously true—or, at the very least, anything they really mean. We trust that, unlike politicians or their spin doctors, corporate flacks, think-tank flunkies or cable propagandists, they have no agenda beyond the self-evident one of making a living with their work. I have no pretensions to any special knowledge, let alone anything like wisdom; I am just some guy, a PERSON IN WORLD looking around and noticing things and saying what I think. If what I say doesn’t reflect your own experience, it’s possible that it isn’t about you. It’s also possible that something that’s not About You might still be of some interest or use. There is even some remote possibility that I am oversimplifying, missing something obvious, or just speaking ex rectum.
I recommend to your attention Kreider’s book, We Learn Nothing.
UMagazinology will resume normal publication—that is, its normally sporadic publication—any day now with a grab bag of things I took away from the just-concluded Editors Forum. (And I don’t mean all those little liquor bottles. To quote Johnny Depp in The Rum Diary, “Are they not complimentary?”)
Meanwhile, enjoy this interview with New Yorker staff writer and friend of the CASE Editors Forum Susan Orlean. Best bit, when asked to give advice to writers:
Write, write, write, and then read. Then read some more. Then sit down and write more. And love writing with all your heart, and that will make it sing.