"Words construct personages and place them in phenomenal existence. That’s the primary use of words."
Words equal stories. Stories equal pleasant places where the reader and the writer get to meet. As the reader, I am the medium through which the author actually has a voice. A shared story unites the reader and the listener – as in, without a reader there really isn’t a story.
Reading and writing – that’s what I love to do. Words for Readers and Writers attracted me because it celebrates the durability and the holiness of language. As I’m writing I constantly think, “Now, what will the reader be thinking while they read this paragraph OR what will they do after they read this sentence?” In order to do my job I have to think about how the reader will respond to my writing. Yes, I love the act of writing – the thinking/planning, the research, the paper and pen, the typing. But even more I am captivated by how we use words to fashion meaning for our lives and even identities, and so is the author, Larry Woiwode.
This book is a compilation of essays on the craft of writing but I found them to apply to many other tasks in life. The author writes fiction but I found everything he said to apply to my non-fiction, primarily business, writing. Each essay was commissioned for a magazine or as an introduction to another author’s book but never ended up being used. So we get the benefit all in one place of Woiwode’s deep thinking on how readers read and how writers need to write for them.
The Big Idea
Facts are the bedrock of writing
"No fact exists without an interpretation of it."
If the author says “the Civil War”, each reader is stormed by a separate set of facts. The reader who feels that the North was the aggressor will find facts that support that. If the author says “tree”, a different tree will come to mind for each reader. Even if the author and the reader agree on a type of tree what the reader knows about that type of tree will govern his understanding and agreement with the facts. Therefore, we as writers must be extremely specific if we want the reader to see what we see. In fiction you notice this in sentences replete with adjectives. I run everything I write past other people and re-write until I get the understanding I meant them to have.
I found it extremely interesting that Woiwode said that fiction can be more factual than non-fiction. We know that factual work (non-fiction) can be inaccurate or can even be assembled to deceive (think about the slant placed on a news piece) but fiction factual? An example: in one work of fiction a person hired by the publisher as a fact checker checked a reference to the phrase “the Willet subdivision” in San Jose. They didn’t find one in San Jose but did find one in nearby Manito. You’d be better off using a name of a subdivision that either didn’t exist anywhere or existed in some other part of the country or world than to make the reader think you made a mistake.
No matter what you’re writing, check your facts or better yet, have someone else check them.
Woiwode on Writing
"Words appear and I’m part of the world again, encouraged to write."
On writer’s block. Even if you write for a living (PR, marketing, media, management) you can get stuck. Woiwode says he walks around his farm checking on things, using a piece of equipment, doing any task but a writing related one and his mind is freed. What can you do that’s different than writing and is acceptable in your workplace to get your mind off what’s on your computer screen? I pack orders.
On how long to write in a day. He drafts for about 4 hours equaling 4-5 handwritten pages—he believes this to be the limit of the creative process for most people—and the rest of the day he works on proofing past drafts and correspondence. If you write lots of different things each day, instead of one article, one report, one brochure text or one training program – plan to draft about half the amount of time you’d allot to that piece of writing.
On giving up. When asked if he’d ever abandoned a piece of work Woiwode said he sets it aside if he doesn’t know where it’s going. You may not be able to give up on writing someone’s performance appraisal but you could set it aside for a day, do something else and when you return the words you need will either be there or you’ve researched to find what you need to say to help the person.
On lying. Don’t lie. Don’t write anything about anybody you wouldn’t say to their face, don’t falsify or slander or libel, don’t distort or gloss over what you see. These are the ethics that rest under any form of writing. Though it may not seem like lying when I‘m writing the marketing piece, if it’s almost universally perceived differently than I meant, it’s likely that I distorted or glossed over something. Again, have someone read what you wrote to check for factualness.
On bad writing. Qualities that identify bad writing are self-satisfaction, inaccuracy that leads to distortion, lack of precision, lack of passion, lack of depth, lack of even-handedness, and superficial focus.
Tolstoy’s Writing Process
"This is how he [Tolstoy] worked as a writer – in interlinked networks of accretions."
Kathryn Feuer researched and wrote about how Tolstoy wrote War and Peace. She said his mind moved in loops and backtrackings and seismic bursts. He started the book four times and each start became an essay. He once started another book (The Decemberists), stopped and it later became the beginning of War and Peace.
Not many of us have use for the word “accretion”. It means the growing together of separate things. Tolstoy had lots of notions of the book to be and he wrote toward all those ideas at the same time. Part of War and Peace came from his experiences and his subsequent thoughts about those experiences. This is the perspective from which I write everything from an article to a report to a marketing piece to a performance appraisal. I save every proposal (you never know what word or sentence-craft you’ll need for some future writing), other people’s marketing literature, sentences that occur to me while reading other people’s articles. With the reading of them I’m off on an idea for a blog post to expand on that idea, find out how others feel, what others do about it. Or I love the way the writer put the words together to express an emotion that I can apply it to my task.
As bread is the stuff of life, so story is the stuff of the spirit and mind. When Jesus wanted his disciples to understand something he didn’t launch into a fine-tuned theological explanation. He told a story—“A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho”—and we are rapt. Make your writing a pleasant place for you and the reader to meet and they, too, will be rapt.