Can Writing be Learned?
Writers will disagree about whether writing can be learned. I say yes.
I sucked as a writer through most of school. In my defense, I had no one to learn from. My parents were Japanese, and English was their second language. They expected school to teach me, but most of my teachers didn’t really know how to write. They could string together sentences into paragraphs, but they didn’t know how to paint with words, how to tell a story, or how to write with rhythm, expression and structure. By the time, I encountered a teacher who could write, I was already a junior in high school, and it was too late for her to help me with anything but a handful of mechanics. In college, “ameliorate” was my favorite word. I don’t have to explain to you writers out there how wrong THAT was.
Reuters was an ideal training ground for me because I learned how to write succinctly in short one-sentence paragraphs. I learned basic story structure by virtue of their process. When news broke, we wrote one sentence alerts, followed by three short paragraphs called “Urgents”, followed by “Updates.” Each update contained more and more information.
At The Wall Street Journal, I began learning how to tell stories through 3,000 word articles that were written after months of reporting, but that soon changed as financial pressures and the growing number of online readers required us to push out shorter, snappier, faster stories.
Haunted Empire gave me my first insight into true narrative writing. Working under the tutelage of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tom French, I learned to think about word choice, narrative structure and sentence rhythm. Tom is famously known to map out the structure of every book that he reads and every movie, play or television show that he watches. When we worked on my book together, he’d casually reference specific passages from books like Homer’s Odyssey and Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato as examples for me to emulate. Every holiday season for the last 30 years, he has read Dickens’ Christmas Carol and claims that he learns something new each time. Tom essentially gave me a post-doc in narrative writing.
Not everyone has the privilege to work with Tom, but this book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer is a trusty substitute.Poynter Institute’s Roy Peters Clark, who also happens to be one of Tom’s closest friends, wrote it. Tom and Roy come from the same school of narrative writing. They both paint with words and weave tales in spellbinding ways. In this book, Roy breaks down his 50 essential writing tools by chapter. The first tool he gives you is to begin sentences with subjects and verbs. That might sound obvious, but it’s a brilliant piece of advice, and you’ll have to get the book to understand why. It builds from there. Along the way he references music, literature and poems in addition to journalistic works. By the end, you’ll not only be a better writer, you’ll have a list of works that you will want to read and learn from.
As you can see from the worn out, smudged cover and the many, many Post-It markers, this book is my bible. If you don’t have it already, add it to your library. You won’t regret it.