Sunday, May 5, 2019

A Gift That Keeps Growing

A Gift That Keeps Growing

By Gary Gilson

One of the greatest gifts I ever got — The New Yorker Magazine — came from my great-uncle Ollie.

I was only 12, and The New Yorker hooked me. I have been reading it ever since. Here’s the unique thing: Uncle Ollie did not buy me a subscription; no, he would read his own copy, then wrap it up and mail it to me every week from his home in New York to my home in Connecticut.

That’s love.

Among my most vivid memories of his home: the walls leading to the attic were papered with covers of The New Yorker. 

Reading The New Yorker gave me a love for language, long before I came to appreciate the magazine’s rigorous fact-checking and lofty standards for clarity.

In coaching writers I offer this encouragement: “Make what you write . . . say what you mean.”

To achieve that goal requires precision — the basis for concise, clear and compelling writing. That’s technique; not worth much if what you’re writing about lacks substance.

One of my most painful memories: a series on juvenile delinquency that I wrote as a rookie reporter for The Minneapolis Star. Re-reading it now, I do not hesitate to describe it as unreadable and interminable. It’s filled with self-serving and mind-numbing bureaucratic jargon of state corrections officials; not a single juvenile delinquent appears in the series, and, as a result, nothing human that a reader can connect with.

With experience and practice I got better. All of us can; we just have to keep trying.

At colleges where I have taught journalism, among them Yale, Columbia, the University of Minnesota and, for the past 22 years, Colorado College, I always open with a presentation on clear writing. I urge students not to write “writing,” but to write the way they talk. After all, they have no trouble talking about the highlight of their day to a college roommate, so why not write the way you talk?

It’s a great way to start.

In this series of columns I will use anecdotes to illustrate principles of clear writing. Next time I’ll cover a key principle by telling a story from Death Row at the South Carolina State Prison. Stay tuned.

For now, here’s a tip sheet on how to improve your writing:

1. Think about what you want to write.
2. Gather data.
3. Think about who will read what you write.
4. Create an OUTLINE of priorities. It will prove invaluable and will 
    relieve stress.
5. Start writing. DO NOT EDIT as you write. Just pour it out.
6. Read aloud what you have written. If it doesn’t sound natural, 
    change it.
7. Now edit and rewrite.
8. Read aloud AGAIN. If possible, read it to another person, and 
    have another person read it to you. If necessary, REWRITE.

Meanwhile, I want you know what a thrill it is for me to be writing again for the newspaper where my career began.

[May 5, 2019]

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