Sunday, October 18, 2009

Weekend Update?

Well. A slow sort of weekend, this. Yesterday was consumed with the usual, customary, and reasonable college football orgy, with some grins (we're talking about the outcome of the game, not the significant injury therein) and one groan... although I have to admit the groan was highly entertaining and not the blow-out that some of the pundits predicted. ND was all set to tie on the final play of the game, but alas... it was not to be. We ended the evening by watching Game Two of the ALCS and went to bed somewhat satisfied with the outcome of the day's sporting events. I'm not a big besbol fan but I do enjoy the playoffs... even if I don't have a dog in any of these fights. The spectacle is entertaining as all get out.

One other sporting note and then we'll move on to other things: the Beloved Wings lost to Colorado last evening in a shoot-out. The Wings are off to a miserable start this year, quite unlike the Avs. The Avs didn't make the playoffs last season and finished dead last in the Western Conference. But this year? They're on TOP of the West... Numero Uno... leading the conference in these early days. Who'd a thunk it?


So... we were making our blog-rounds earlier today and we came across a post by blog-goddess Daphne wherein she makes the offhand comment that she finds the quality of her writing  depressing compared to that of some folks she reads.  I suspect know Daph ain't alone in this regard; Hell, even Lileks questions his ability at one time or the other... we ALL do.  Well, those of us with a normal amount of humility, anyhoo.  There are exceptions.  

Which brings to mind this lil screed I put up on the subject of writing last year, which I'll repost below.  But first:  The fundamental purpose of writing is to communicate; style, grammar, and basic spelling... while important... ain't the be-all, end-all of writing.  I can cut some people a lot of slack in this space if they have good ideas or good stories to tell.  You might get the opposite impression from what follows (insert a "heh" here), but that ain't my intent... not at ALL.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Lessons in Writing Humility

(OK… I was saving this post for tomorrow. But My Bud Dan’s comment to the post immediately below cut me to the quick. He’s right. I’ve been phoning it in of late. So here’s something that contains a lil bit more “substance.” Not a lot, mind you…just some.)

Apropos of not much…but, by way of introduction, this: I’m often struck by the quality of writing I encounter in my wanderings around these here inter-tubes. Or, more better, the absolute dismal state of most of the writing I encounter. Present company excepted, of course. All y’all write well, for the most part. There are exceptions…and all I can offer is: “if the shoe fits…” But in most cases it won’t fit. Mainly coz I have little or no tolerance for poor writing, there being some exceptions. I’ll leave it at that… criticizing others is not what we’re on about in this post.

The Second Mrs. Pennington and I, the both of us being professional writers (of a sort) and more to the point… she being an English teacher (of a sort)… used to have this on-going argument discussion as to whether good writing can be taught, or not. My position has changed back and forth over the years and still isn’t firmed up to this very day. On the one hand, the mechanics of writing most certainly can be taught… which is to say grammar, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, and the like. Anyone with half a brain can go out and buy a copy of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” study it intently, absorb all the lessons therein, and call himself a writer. And a lot of people do just that. On the Other Hand… good grammar and punctuation doesn’t begin to make what we know as “good” writing. It’s a start, but only a start.

Once upon a time I considered myself a “good” writer. I’d taken several undergrad courses in English and composition, I had a fairly extensive writing background acquired as an additional-duty Public Affairs Officer (NCO, actually, but the title was “PAO”), and was recognized by various and sundry Air Force supervisors and such as a “go-to” guy when it came to putting words on paper. So, it came to pass (in my post-USAF career) I was assigned to a proposal writing team sometime in 1986 or thereabouts. And here for your illumination, Gentle Reader, is my very first effort in this space, as returned “for corrections” by my proposal editor:

(click for larger, if you have the inclination)
Bloody. Literally dripping with blood, in the form of the dread red editor’s pen, and this is but four of 14 pages, all similarly deeply scarred and dripping red. Including all 14 pages in this post would be overkill, not to mention boring beyond belief. My draft was returned with a post-it attached that said “Good Work!” (the post-it has gone missing after all these years). I scanned my draft, bloody as it was, and immediately went to my proposal manager/editor and said words to the effect of “You think this is Good?”… to which she replied “Yeah. I didn’t tell you to re-write it, did I?” Well, OK, then.
So... I returned to my desk, made the corrections and re-submitted my draft, which was accepted without further edits. Things got progressively better for me (and my editor) as time went on. At the end of the six-month pursuit cycle I came out a much better writer than when I went in. My first proposal was a learning experience of the first order.
I became very, very close to my editor… a woman by the name of Mary who later went on to become an EDS corporate VP, and I had the delightful opportunity to work with her on a couple of other proposals while she was still doing that particular gig. I learned nearly everything I know about writing today from that woman… lessons that are much too detailed to repeat here but had a lot… nay, everything… to do with word-choice, economy of language, what to leave in your writing, and… much more importantly… what to take out. Another thing Mary emphasized is one needs to recognize good writing before one can even begin to emulate it. In other words: good writers are voracious readers. Mary was also of the opinion that the best writers read a wide variety of “stuff…” fiction, non-fiction, op-eds, soup cans, cereal boxes, and (she emphasized) poetry. Mary maintained poets are all about economy of language, which, to her way of thinking, is the very essence of communication.
Mary was a wise woman indeed. My only regret is I failed to keep in touch with her. So... take what you will from this, and leave the rest. Such as it is.

Committed to The Inter-tubes by Buck on 4/25/2008 07:19:00 PM 17 Astute Observations
So... one point I didn't make in the post above is any tendency towards flowery, "poetic" language I may have had in the past was bred out of me during my short career as a technical writer.  We're mostly about "short and to the point" these days, and that serves me well.  And you, Gentle Reader?  Mebbe not so much.


  1. That reminds me of the first sports story I wrote for the P-Ville News-Tribune. This would be back in 1975 or so. The story, as published, had three consecutive words that I recognized.

    I learned fast, and painfully. I had a couple of very good editors who took the time to teach, as well as criticize. Two months after that first story, and after a couple of hours' worth of layout training, I was editing the sports page while the regular was on vacation. A year or so later, I was editing the whole paper from time to time. Mind you, that's different from being the editor -- that's a whole other ball of wax.

    I think it helps to have good editing even if you have years of professional experience. It's easy for bad habits to creep into your writing.

  2. One benefit derived from blogging is exposure to all kinds of writing. It has kinda de-jaded me to an extent. Back in my professorial days, I had all but given up on the modern Joe's ability to compose a simple paragraph with no misspellings or extraneous apostrophes, but today I see real, live hope lurking and posting out there in cyberspace.

    I also see plenty of -- poop.

    And WAY too many apostrophes.

    Having to be a editor is the best way I've found to improve one's own skills, aside from reading everything that gets in one's way. I hope high school English teachers still have students exchange papers for "correction" from time to time -- at least that's a start.

    What really puzzles me from your post is: how in the world can Daphne malign her own glittering words? Talk about talent!

    My veri-word is "osinks." Heh -- take out the s and you have Razorback communication! Maybe that's a good omen for next week's game against Ole Miss!

  3. Gordon: I had no idea you did that editing gig, but I shoulda known... from the excellence of your writing.

    Moogie sez: And WAY too many apostrophes.

    Yup. I read somewhere that the apostrophe's principal function in modern writing is to announce the imminent arrival of the letter "s." Heh, and all that.

    Your point about Daphne is well-taken. The woman can string together some wonderifous prose. She's one of my favorite reads, and needs make NO excuses for the quality of her writing. None.

  4. I was 17 when I was doing what might have been described as the work of the city editor, Buck, and I had a nepotistic path in the door. That got me in the door; the rest I had to learn on my own.

    Stand between City Hall and the newspaper on Main Street. There's four narrow vertical windows on the south side of the building. The first two were the publisher's office (my grandfather, from whom I got my first name); the third was the advertising manager (my father, who of course gave me his last name); and the last on the left is the editor's office (my great-uncle, from whence comes Gordon).

    Want more boring history? My family owned the Portales Daily News. The Portales Tribune was started in competition by the Stratton family. The two merged in 1957 to become the News-Tribune. My family ran the operation; the Strattons were silent shareholders.

    In 1984 a chain called Southern Newspapers made an offer, and the Strattons wanted to take it. My family didn't quite have the cash to buy out the Strattons, so we had to sell out to the chain.

    My family still owns some small-town papers in the area. The Strattons were ranchers, and owned several gas stations last time I heard.

    There's a bit of Portales history here.

  5. Back in my public school teaching days, we were actually told not to mark up someone’s paper with red – it might hurt his or her self-esteem. I did buy into this philosophy. People who do well in life are those that learn from their mistakes and do better next time. When I read someone's writing, I consider audience, purpose, style, and maybe emotion - especially if there are lots of errors. Hopefully, people consider the same when reading me, and offer similar forgivness.

  6. Holy S**t, Buck. If I got something back with that much red ink, I'd find a hole, crawl in, curl up, and die. I don't take criticism well. Of course, you weren't necessarily in a position to quit, so...

    Illuminating, to say the least.

  7. Gordon: Thanks for the back-story and the link... which was a fascinating read. I love history, and first-person narratives are the BEST... especially when they're close to home.

    Lou: I've read the red pen mark-ups are verboten in public schools these days. Lord knows we don't want to hurt the precious darlings' feelings now, do we?

    I'm forgiving of errors, Lou... although sometimes I do point 'em out. But only sometimes, and to those who I know will take it in the spirit I intend.

    Jim: Finding a hole was my very first inclination when I got that draft back. That was a humbling experience, to be sure. But it was also one that made a big impression on me, seeing as how I saved that draft.

  8. Amazing post. Thanks for sharing that.

    You write beautifully I always think. Very engaging.

  9. Thanks, Alison. That means a LOT, coming from you!


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