AJR  Books
From AJR,   June/July 2007

Excellent Writing About Writing   

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Writing Tools: 50 Essential
Strategies for Every Writer
By Roy Peter Clark
Little, Brown and Co.
272 pages; $19.99

A Writer's Coach: An Editor's Guide
to Words That Work
By Jack Hart
Pantheon Books
304 pages; $24.95

When You Catch an Adjective,
Kill It: The Parts of Speech,
for Better and/or Worse
By Ben Yagoda
Broadway Books
256 pages; $21.95

One splendid thing about writing is that nobody has ever mastered it.

Many of us have been doing it for decades, and you might think that steady practice and progress would eventually transform us into supreme grandmasters who never write a soggy sentence. But here we are (one of us, at least), struggling with the next assignment, still confounded when those promising seedlets of brilliance in our minds turn out so banal on the page.

That's why we have so many books about writing. Here are three welcome examples, filled with wise, immediately applicable advice from leading writer-thinkers.

Clark is a coaching and teaching luminary affiliated with the Poynter Institute. "Writing Tools" has 50 essays, each presenting a slice of advice conversationally and agreeably, with numerous examples. Clark has a flair for pearls of pithiness ("turn procrastination into rehearsal," "prefer archetypes to stereotypes"). Even with obvious tips ("activate your verbs"), he surprises with eclectic sources and witty asides.

Hart, longtime writing coach at the Oregonian, is more professorial in approach, and "A Writer's Coach" provides a serious but readable handbook of high-level craftwork. He, too, offers loads of helpful examples, and he ends each chapter with his own pungent checklists: "Think first; write later." "Avoid that lame last line." "Let characters talk to one another."

Yagoda, a University of Delaware English professor, is that rare specimen, an open-minded word lover. He offers nine droll essays, one for each part of speech, managing both to celebrate language's dynamic vitality and draw reasonable lines at its corruption. He denounces the misuse of "hopefully" and "enthuse," the "sin of showing off" and, oddly enough, nouns in general. He savors "nifty uncommon adjectives" (gormless, demotic, liminal). His take on the difference between "a" and "the" is supernal.

Buy these books and read them. You will then write better. (Fair disclosures: I know all these authors and have published a writing book, too.)

Beyond worthy advice about craft, however, these books display something even more valuable: a munificence of spirit that is profoundly encouraging.

The authors take pains to stress that writing is hard work and fundamentals are vital. And they are mostly right. An inescapable rule of writing, as Natalie Goldberg memorably observed, is to "keep your hand moving."

But hard work alone isn't sufficient. In his own new guide ("This Year You Write Your Novel"), author Walter Mosley calls writing "primarily an unconscious activity" in search of "the dream of your story." This dream, he explains, is "a mood and a continent of thought below your conscious mind." You find it by writing, rewriting and rethinking every day.

Writers, like carpenters, need their tools. But they also need the architect's soaring vision, the dream in hope of realization. Excellence requires left-brain discipline plus right-brain artistry, and the beauty is that the two reinforce each other. The harder you work, the more you're treated to imaginative leaps, which send you back to more hard work moving your hand.

These authors don't so much talk about this point as demonstrate it. Yagoda's entire book exalts writerly sensibilities. In his introduction, Clark writes, "I once learned that only three behaviors set literate people apart. The first two are obvious: reading and writing; but the third surprised me: talking about how reading and writing work." Not only is this a grand observation, but the sentence itself--two colons and a semicolon!--is a syntactic marvel.

At the end, Clark confesses, "I do believe that writing is a social activity." Yes, it is, a social activity too many of us do alone, on deadline, under unpropitious conditions. As a counterpoint, Clark, Hart and Yagoda generously credit and quote other writers. Now, Hart says, "the inspiration is up to you."

But there he's wrong. These books are founts of inspiration. They bestow the priceless gift of salon time with collegial comrades, musing together about the imperishable dream of all our stories.