Thursday, August 27, 2009

Twain on writing

Reader Dan spotted the error in the AP story (see comments under Sports Talk, Aug. 21).

Mark Twain

With Hal Holbrook's one-man show, "Mark Twain Tonight," coming to the Carson Center in Paducah next month, I thought I'd whet your appetite with some of Twain's words on writing.

"The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say."

"I like the exact word, and clarity of statement, and here and there a touch of good grammar for picturesqueness."

"Anybody can have ideas — the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph."

"... use plain simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice."

"As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out."

"I am almost sure by witness of my ear, but cannot be positive, for I know grammar by ear only, not by note, not by the rules. A generation ago I knew the rules — knew them by heart, word for word, though not their meanings — and I still know one of them: the one which says — but never mind, it will come back to me presently."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Sports talk

Spot the error in this sentence from an AP story on Usain Bolt's second world record at the world championships:

"For the second straight race — five, if his record-breaking runs at the Beijing Olympics are counted — Bolt's biggest competitor was the clock."

Speaking of sports, a coach in the region said last week that this was his "41th" year coaching. Not 41st. Forty oneth (if that's how you spell it). And that's a hint about the answer to the spot-the-error puzzle.

While we're on the subject of sports, I know a lot of people are tired of Brett Favre and wish he would go away. But I, for one, think it's great that he's back, again, because he provides the best quotes of any athlete since Yogi Berra.

Take this plum: "I consider myself more of a loner now, and I think when you get older, especially in this game, and just talking with other players who have come and gone, I see what they were saying when I was a young guy in the locker room."

And: "I know it's not a one-man team win or lose."

And: "I really believe this team has a lot of potential — whether it's this year or in years to come, I don't know."

If none of that inspired you, then this surely will: "I, most talented players don't always succeed. Some don't even make the team. It's more what's inside."

OK, he still doesn't beat Yogi, who warned, "If you can't imitate him, don't copy him."

And: "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."

I hope you know where you're going, aspiring writers, and I hope you get there.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The late humor columnist Erma Bombeck described her writing process in an 1991 interview with the University of Dayton Quarterly:

"Discipline is what I do best. I can't imagine any writer saying to you, 'I just write when I feel like it.' That's a luxury, and that's stupid. The same for writer's block. If you're a professional writer, you write. You don't sit there and wait for sweet inspiration to tap you on the shoulder and say now's the time. We meet deadlines. I write for newspapers, and newspapers don't wait for anybody. You write whether you feel like it, you write whether you've got an idea, you write whether it's Pulitzer Prize material. You just do it. That's it. Discipline is what we're all about. If you don't have discipline, you're not a writer. This is a job for me. I come in every morning at 8 a.m. and I don't leave until 11:30 for lunch. I take a nap, and then I'm back at the typewriter by 1:30 and I write until 5. This happens five, six, seven days a week. I don't see how I can do any less."

Bombeck started writing at age 37 when she convinced the editor of a suburban weekly to pay her $3 a column. By the time she died, 32 years later, her columns were syndicated in 600 newspapers and her 10 books had sold 15 million copies.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The hard work of humor

The late, great southern columnist Lewis Grizzard said humor writing is hard work. "It's like being married to a nymphomaniac. The first two weeks are fun, after that it's work."

Humor writer Dave Barry said (in News Writing Interviews): "It's hard to think of an ending. The beginning is really hard, and the ending is always really hard, and the middle part is also very hard. It's just hard, hard, hard. Kids, don't go into this ...
"I am an obsessive rewriter. I don't even remember how I used to write without a computer because I have to change everything so often. But I write every sentence dozens of times, and that's literally true. ... If they ever had one of those programs that shows all the different versions of a document, mine would be in the thousands for almost every column I write. It's supposed to look the opposite of that. it's supposed to look like it just came out, and you were probably drinking when you did it — in five minutes. But for me it's hour after hour after hour of staring at the screen and just changing, changing, changing."

I am on a self-imposed hiatus from my humor column which appeared most Sundays in The Paducah Sun until earlier this year. The columns were getting a little flat as I found myself with less time to put into them. And a humor column that doesn't make readers laugh is a waste of valuable newsprint.

What P.J. O'Rourke and Dave Barry and Lewis Grizzard all say reflects my own experience. It IS a lot of work and surprisingly time consuming. I might start a column on Wednesday, tinker with it on Thursday, finish it on Friday, then come in on Saturday and finetune it — only to read it in print on Sunday and wish I could change another sentence or two. All that for a piece that is only 600 words long. I usually had it memorized by the time it went to press, and I can quote some columns almost verbatim, including some I wrote years ago, just because I stared at them so long on the screen.

That's not the process I use in editorial writing, which is more straightforward and predictable and routine. I can write two to three editorials in the time it takes to write one humor column.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

P.J. O'Rourke

WARNING: No one who is concerned about his social standing should read P.J. O'Rourke in a public setting.

The communist-turned-conservative humorist isn't the sort whose inappropriate comments force you to suppress a guilty snicker. Instead, they are SO inappropriate (and yet so spot on) that they make you guffaw in spite of yourself, blowing snot on those sitting nearest you, and prompting your wife to say, "If you're going to read that, go in the other room."

I mean, this is the guy whose book titles include "Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism" and "Give War a Chance."

O'Rourke's writing has the effortless quality that comes only with intense effort.

In a 2005 interview with Christopher Gray for the London Telegraph, he described his writing process:

"Writing is agony. I hate it."
"People think writing is easy, but just ask them to sit down and write a thank you note to their aunt or something and they turn purple. I like thinking about writing. I like having written. But actually sitting down and doing it ..."

O'Rourke typically writes from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day. "I take the kids to school and then go straight into the office. ... Four typed pages a day is the quota. That's about 1,000 words. I never yet heard of a writer who doesn't work similar hours and have a quota requirement."

He says it doesn't get easier. "Sure, I can look at some of my old pieces and see lapses of taste or clumsiness of construction and think, 'wouldn't do it that way now,' but that doesn't mean the process has become plainer to me. The thing is, when you get right down to it, and it's painful to say this, but, well, few writers get better as they get older. In fact, it's hard to think of one ... On the other hand, maybe it's just laziness. I mean, I only read English in college because I already spoke the language."

Friday, August 7, 2009


Readers Read ( interviewed the late novelist Michael Crichton in 2002. Below are excerpts from that interview.

"I don't know why I do what I do. And I try not to analyze it too much."

(How long it takes to write a book, from initial idea to publication?):
"There is no way to say, it varies so much. The Great Train Robbery was three years. Sphere was 20 years. Jurassic was eight years. Disclosure was five years. Usually, an idea 'cooks' in my head for a very long time before I write it."

"I tend to write books that grab me by the throat and force me to write them. I don't usually feel as if I have a choice, or much control of what comes out. Often, I don't want to be writing a particular book, but there I am, writing it anyway."

"Writing a book, you get to have things exactly as you want them, but you are often struggling with yourself, which is a very hard thing to do. And you're alone a lot of the time, which is fine with me, except that eventually I start to be very silent in public settings and I find I've lost my ability to do small talk. I never had much ability at that, anyway. So in a way, writing is anti-social. But when the book is done, it's your book — good or bad, right or wrong, it's you own work. And that can produce a feeling of satisfaction."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Henry the great

Secrets of success from two great American authors:

"The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night."
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"In the long run
men hit only what they aim at.
though they should fail immediately,
they had better aim at something high."
—Henry David Thoreau

And the lesson, of course, is that if you want to succeed as a writer, your first name needs to be Henry.