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I read Stephen King's On Writing and, yes, it does have some useful material yet I liked it more because it encouraged writing in your own style rather than restricting in into a mould. But again, the first part of that sentence was 'I read' and, to me, reading is the key to writing. Let me cozen up to that theme for a moment because I thing it's vital even though it's a truism.

Part of my nefarious career in writing was in hiring writers. One day, when I've had a few beers, I'll detail that part of my life (in a nubbin it was in fact learning how to be hired since I was fired many, many times) but one experience from it. I was working for a large trade magazine publisher and one of the 'tests' we gave aspiring writers wanting to join the company was to give a poorly written article (with the lead buried) and have them rewrite it. Okay as it goes but when they returned with the corrected piece I would casually ask what he or she had read recently. Almost without exception, those who had rewritten the piece and found the buried lead were readers – and voracious readers most of them.

Of course there were some that didn't read. I had one tell me he never read books, “I write them.” and when I asked how many published he went into this rant on publishers not recognizing talent and that publishers were only in it to make money supplying crap to the great unwashed. Needless to say I didn't hire him. Needless to say what he turned in as a corrected article sucked.

The other truism in writing is that writers write. My experience when I was starting up (this may work for you or it may not just like any other advice in writing) was to read the newspaper and then rewrite any piece that caught my eye. At that time I had an old Underwood and I'd peck out a revised piece. Cheap learning: a newspaper and time to rewrite stuff in a manual. Sometimes I'd buy two newspapers and see how each reported a similar occurrence. As I said, cheap learning. Good results with little cash outlay and that's a necessity when – as I was being paid as a freelancer five cents a word – it's needy time.

There's one thing in writing that I think writers should approach with caution and that's Fog and Gunning ratings. Dr. Irving Fang at NBC once devised a method of news writing for television: count the number of syllables above one ('dog' is zero, 'quadruped' is two, and so on) and keep the count to under nine for a sentence. The number can be disputed yet the idea, to my mind, bears more investigation than Fog and/or Gunning numbers.

Just a thought. Try it with your stuff. Sure, the argument is that it reduces writing to 'The Cat in the Hat' yet what's wrong with being clearer? Also, funny thing, grammar is easier with fewer syllables.

Ah, you could say, but there are times when only a polysyllabically engendered declaration is apt and you're right. Sometimes it is and that's why all advice on writing may or may not fit you.

But then again I once wrote a short that had this as the beginning sentence: 'The toaster knew he was disliked by the refrigerator and said so to the oven,' so take whatever I say as just one idea among many that's you're chose to assemble into what feels right for you.

MichaelR


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