I somehow managed to get through college and graduate school by writing only two major papers. One was on the status of women in the middle ages and the other was my senior thesis on the state of the biological sciences. I became a writer only by happenstance. It was when I was “retired” from my first teaching job (junior high science), expecting my first child. I needed something to do at home that would keep me from being bored and bring in some much-needed cash. I read an ad in the NY Times for teachers to write educational materials. How hard could that be? I figured that if I could talk about science in a classroom I could write about it. The publisher of University College Tutors, Inc (similar to Cliff Notes), interviewed me and concluded, “You sound intelligent even if you are pregnant.” (This was 1964. Even so, I was puzzled by the comment.) He asked if I could write a high school chemistry text book. When I said I thought I could he warned me, “But it has to sound simple.” I went home to write a simple-sounding sample chapter introducing chemistry. After three revisions he awarded me a contract. My name would not be on it and I received no royalty, but that hard-won assignment enabled me to learn how to write something book length. You just keep at it, like knitting. I’ve since lost that manuscript but I have no doubt that the writing was not particularly good. It never made it to press.
I am nothing if not persistent. So I kept on taking writing assignments (while caring for my two little boys). I learned on-the-job from a variety of editors, revising my work to please them, often biting the bullet in pain when they did not coddle me. My writing became clear and dispassionate, untouched by my heart or my wit. I can only describe it as “plain vanilla.” I sounded just like everyone else they were editing. There was nothing to distinguish me from other competent authors.
I need look no further than my own early books to give you examples of what I consider bad writing. Here’s the lead sentence from my first published book, The First Book of Logic: “Anthropologists, who are concerned with the study of man, like to talk about the chief differences that make men superior to apes.” Yawn! Why should a kid care what anthropologists think? That sentence has nothing to do with logic, the subject of the book. It just demonstrates my own insecurities because I’m invoking authorities to give me credibility.
Here’s another early book lead from The Long and Short of Measurement: “Some things in the world are very, very big.” Well…duh! Stating the obvious is not a grabber, that’s for sure. I’ve since learned to never begin anything with a generalized statement. (Check out how many textbooks begin with such a sentence.) It is flat, uninteresting and tells me that the author was too lazy or uninspired to think of an attention-grabbing entry into the material. Generalized statements can be powerful conclusions at the ends of paragraphs and books. But they are not beginnings.
Many years later, after about twenty books, I came across William Zinsser’s classic book On Writing Well, which is now in its 30th Anniversary Edition. He discussed every lesson I had learned the hard way. Darn! This book could have been a short-cut for me, if only I had known about it, except that Zinsser himself claims that “writing can’t be taught but it can be learned.”
Perhaps Zinsser is saying that there are no short-cuts. We writers must each find our own way by writing and writing more. The only advice that ultimately paid off for me came from my first husband’s high school English teacher, a man I never met. He told his students (and me, by one degree of separation) “Begin with a bang and end with a snap.” This rule can apply to each paragraph as well as the work as a whole. And it helped me to find my voice. Perhaps you, too, will find it useful. (Now, is that last sentence enough of a snap?)