In teaching, my first
desire has always been to interest the listener; if I don’t interest him [or her!],
he will soon stop being a listener. But I have never been eager that he should think
as I think, but only that he should think. I hope that he will agree with me, but,
if he does not, I shall be well content if he will examine his own beliefs in the
light of what I say. The only kind of person who really ‘offends’ me, to use Somerset
Maugham’s word, is the person with the shut mind who refuses even to think about
what is said to him, the person who deliberately misunderstands, the person who substitutes
parrot cries for thought, and, worst of all, the person who criticises [sic] a writer
without ever having read a word of his books. I hope that I have always taught in
order to stimulate and to awaken, and never to indoctrinate and stifle.
– William Barclay, A Spiritual Autobiography
As soon as Father got
them both onto his citizen’s [internet] access, they began testing the waters. They
didn’t need money. They needed respect, and that they could earn. With false names,
on the right nets, they could be anybody. All that anyone would see were their words,
their ideas. Every citizen started equal, on the nets. At first Peter insisted that
they be deliberately inflammatory. “We can’t learn how our style of writing
is working unless we get responses — and if we’re bland, no one will ever answer.”
They were not bland,
and people answered. The responses that got posted on the public nets were vinegar;
the responses that were sent as mail, for Peter and Valentine to read privately,
were poisonous. But they did learn what attributes of their writing were seized upon
as childish and immature. And they got better. Her main identity was Demosthenes
— Peter chose the name. He called himself Locke. They were obvious pseudonyms, but
that was part of the plan.
“With any luck,
they’ll start trying to guess who we are. If we get famous enough, the government
can always get access and find out who we really are. When that happens, we’ll be
too entrenched to suffer much loss. People might be shocked that Demosthenes and
Locke are two kids, but they’ll already be used to listening to us.”
– Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
To thine ownself be
– Polonius, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Many college students
consider the first day of class a nuisance, but when I used to teach, it was one
of the most important days. I used it to set the tone for the rest of the school
You see, I always gave
a lecture on the first day of class that I called my “sermon.” Even though
I was only a beginning college prof, I did have a firm idea of what I wanted to impart,
I always stressed the
difference between getting a degree versus getting an education
“Any of you can
memorize the answers (or cheat) and make an ‘A’ in this class,” I intoned. “You
can easily make an ‘A’ in this class if you memorize and regurgitate everything that
I say. That’s how to get a degree. But will be more respected (and more employable)
if you make a ‘C’ in my class, but you come out of here a better critical thinker
than you were before I put my grubby little hands on you. That’s what I mean by getting
I desired to make them
want to learn. To want to read. To want to grow. This ideal was the fire in my belly.
As many teachers probably
have experienced, early-on disillusionment usually occurs for some idealistic members
of the profession. My disillusionment was learning that not everyone wants to learn
to the degree I wanted them to. I came to grips with that after I’d been told that
people who love to learn usually hang only with people who also love to learn —
in high school, on through college. It’s usually when we enter the workforce that
we first meet the slackers, the underachievers. And, sadly, we find out that there
are a lot of them.
It wasn’t until I was
in front of the classroom that I made this discovery.
That’s one reason I
prefer freelance, didactic (teachy, but not preachy) writing to professional teaching.
When I write, I know that those who want to learn will seek out writings that can
teach them something, and if there is anything I can possibly teach them, they will
eventually find it in my writing or in others’ writing. But I don’t look at my writings
as teachings, per se. I look at them as my way of sharing. After all, isn’t that
what teaching is: sharing what you know with those who don’t, even if it is just
your perspective on an issue?
Some things about writing
can be taught, while other things must be “caught.” Others far wiser than
I have outlined some of the more objective rules of the trade in books and articles
and on the web (I hesitate to write this column after noticing that Del Miller and
John Martellaro have already said much in their fine piece, <a href=”http://www.macopinion.com/columns/engine/99/11/16/index.html”>”How
to write for the Macintosh web”</a>). What I want to do, then, is explain
a few of the subjectives that I’ve caught from others or stumbled across through
trial and error.
How do I want you to view
[H. L. Mencken] was
fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one
would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe,
perhaps, I could use them as a weapon?
– Richard Wright
Good! Adaptation improvisation.
But your weakness is not your technique.
– Morpheus to Neo, “The Matrix”
Let me give you an example
of a good writer. Fellow Mac web columnist Charles Moore has a breadth and depth
that has garnered the respect of the whole Macintosh community.
Mr. Moore has a clear,
distinct “voice.” What I mean by voice is that if you read any of his writings
on any web site, you should be able to recognize it as Charles Moore’s voice speaking
to you; you should also quickly see what his area of expertise is. Ditto for another
fave of mine, <a href=”http://www.applelinks.com/farrsite/”>John
H. Farr</a>; read any of his work and you see his voice coming through loud
This is what I attempt
in my writing: to create a distinct voice on the web.
Here’s how I try to
develop my voice on a continual basis:
Read more than I
write. Whenever a famous person is interviewed, they are usually asked to name
some of their chief influences. Notice that none of them reply, “no, I never
read other people’s work.” Every writer that I know is a voracious reader. One
professor gave me this principle about reading: To be a good writer, you must read
good writing, plain and simple.
Read outside the
genre for which I write. It is no secret that I am a big fan of Messrs. Farr,
Miller and Martellaro. They make it look easy (but I know the truth: good writing
comes only through hard work). But they’re not all that I read. I love them as writers,
but I will not read their stuff all day, all the time. Too much of a good thing isn’t
healthy. I also read comic books, poetry, “Dilbert,” biographies, computer
books, Newsweek I expose myself to every genre that I can. It only makes sense, then,
that I do not recommend anyone read solely the works of Rodney Lain. I only view
the world through my two biased eyes. Besides, too much of my writing will potentially
warp your mind. Look what it did to me; no, I’ve never smoked crack 🙂
View myself as a
“real” journalist. There are probably people in the Mac community who
think that we are not real journalists. They can kiss my butt. Each and every one
Think before I write
then stick by my guns. I’m not the pope; I don’t claim to be infallible. I try
to anticipate criticism, objections and flames before I write. Once I write it, though,
I’ve said all that I want to say on the topic. Unless I am proven factually wrong.
I usually admit it — usually — via e-mail. I then revised my column. But, if I’m
being criticized just for my opinion, then my detractors can kiss my black butt.
I experiment with
paragraphs and sentence structure/length. I use shorter paragraphs and sentences
when I want the reader to read quickly or when I want to affect a breezy, chatty
style. I write longer when I want to slow down the readers, forcing to digest it
all. When I put on my “rhetorical suit and tie,” I take to a lengthier
style. Combining this all creates a rhythm of some sort.
I experiment with
my writing style. This is an outgrowth of the previous point. In college, I always
began my term papers with some quote. I carried that over to nearly every piece of
professional writing I produce. I also like incorporating dialogue into my work (I’m
currently working on a piece that is heavy on dialogue). I also get bored with my
writing style, so I’m always trying to find a better way to express myself. I figure
that if I’m not bored, neither are you.
Write, write, write.
When I begin writing for MacSimple, I told the editor that I had a backlog of columns
begging to be published. I actually have more in my backlog now than I did when I
started. That’s one reason why I write for four websites. The only things I have
published that were from my backlog are one or two articles. I still have enough
columns in varying stages of rough draft that I could easily publish one column a
week until the end of March 2000.
I am a stickler for
grammar, punctuation, and using the “correct word.” If you ever read
any of my writings, I suggest you do a little something for me: read my column when
it first appears; then come back to it a few days later. Be sure to hit the “reload”
button on your browser. You will notice I will have edited my column somewhat. We
have an on-line submission system for articles in which I can easily edit them any
time of day or night — and I take advantage of this. I often revise my work several
times, usually after coming up with a better way to phrase something, after remembering
that I forgot to punctuate some sentence properly, etc.
Try not to insult
my readers’ intelligence. I haven’t received any complaints from readers who
feel that I write too high-brow. I’m glad, because I do try to write at a level above
that of the average newspaper. In journalism school, I became a big fan of the Wall
Street Journal. In J-school, I was taught that we should write at the eighth-grade
level. I disagree with this totally. I like to think that it’s better to write above
that average reading level. Good writing should challenge the reader. I don’t try
to use words that make readers feel stupid and have to use a dictionary every few
words. But I do not want to insult their intelligence either by writing at the level
of “Dick and Jane.” I don’t think dumbing down writing is the best idea.
That’s what’s wrong with young people today! They don’t read enough. They Oh, my
God. I’m starting to sound like Mom.
Don’t run from controversial
topics. I like controversial topics. I like to deal with hard issues. They force
me to think. They force me to get out of my comfort zone. They force me to grow.
And I think readers appreciate someone willing to create dialogue on the hard issues.
That’s what the internet is built for, IMO.
Read writings that
I don’t necessarily agree with. When I was a liberal, I read conservative writings.
I believe straight people should check out gay writers. We men need to see what the
“sista’s” have to say on near-and-dear topics. I’ve never been a Rush Limbaugh
fan, but I listen to him regularly. This helps me achieve balance. You should try
it, especially if you’re a writer. Like Bill Cosby used to say on his “Fat Albert”
cartoon, “if you’re not too careful, you might learn something before you’re
I try to be either
hot or cold on a subject — not warm. What is an opinion piece if I have no opinion
stated therein? As a reader, I want to know what the writer thinks on a particular
topic. I don’t believe in mincing words, even though there is a place for propriety.
Regardless, I believe that readers will respect me, even if what I say flies in the
face of what they believe. At least they know where I stand. Go back and read the
William Barclay quote at the beginning of this column
Stay angry at myself.
I have no one column that I am proud of. Each one has something about it that I wish
I had written differently. I get mad at myself about everything that I write — especially
the typos seen after the fact. That is a good thing, because it forces me not to
rest on any laurels that I may receive. As one friend replied when I explained this:
Listen to my critics.
Criticsm will teach you more than you’ll ever learn from your “attaboy!”
e-mail. Some of the best advice and correction I’ve received has been some “flame”
intended to humiliate and verbally destroy me (and it keeps me humble). If your opinion
writing has never made anyone mad after writing for a long period of time (especially
when discussing Macintosh and Apple Computer), then you’ve probably not developed
a definite voice or style. Don’t play it safe. And don’t be offended by criticism,
even the nasty kind. Don’t crawl into the fetal position when someone rips you a
new one. There’s enough wimpy opinion writers out there as it is.
We’re supposed to be
the people who Think Different, aren’t we? Listen to what others have to say on this
You may as well face
it: if you are going to have style, you are going to have enemies. They see to it
that you are talked about. They are willing to tell you things about yourself that
nobody else is willing to tell you — and whether accurate or not, such things provide
valuable clues to the sort of image that you project. The very existence of enemies
offers the only indisputable proof that your personality is having the degree of
impact (if not necessarily the type of impact) a stylist wants.
– Quentin Crisp & Donald Carroll, Doing It with Style
More tips, ad infinitum
I wanted to try to build
a bridge of words between me and that world outside, that world which was so distant
and elusive that it seems unreal. I would hurl words into this darkness and wait
for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words
to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws
in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.
– Richard Wright
If you can’t explain
a concept in a way that the average person can understand it, you probably don’t
understand it yourself.
Finally, I thought it
would be nice to pause and explain why I write the way I write. I do not try to be
controversial. But, I do not try to please everyone, either. I just try to write
in a way that is distinct, loud and uncharacteristically me. But I do desire feedback,
as I attempt to think, to grow and to think some more as I write these dispatches
from the damp and dark recesses of my fevered brain.
I don’t think it arrogance
to explain why I write (I think it arrogance to always assume readers always understand
my writing). At least, from this point on, when you read my stuff, you will have
a better idea of where I’m “coming from.”
I’ve set some lofty
goals. The worst thing about publicly stating these subjective principles is that
some of you will now hold me to these standards from this point onward.
But that’s okay. My
best friends are those who correct and criticize me. Sometimes I get inflammatory
e-mail that seeks to humiliate or infuriate me, but in the end, it makes me a better
I hope it shows.
*This column was originally titled “The Mac Columnist’s Manifesto.”
For the grammar purist, there is a world’s difference between the definite article
“the” and the indefinite article “a.”
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