April 8, 2020–One of the few times I was the interviewee rather than the interviewer, the person asked me, what is writing?
I replied, writing is thinking on paper.
Full-time thinker Seth Godin said it better: “Writing is a symptom of thinking.”
I like that, though it makes thinking sound like a disease. Which, as every writer knows, it kind of is.
Writing is the hidden craft. It came to me during this interview that most art, as well as science, diplomacy, politics, and social media posts, begins as writing.
Those sitcom actors don’t just strut in front of the cameras and make up their dialogue.
Every play from Broadway to your community theater is rehearsed down to the inflection and length of pauses. (One playwright noted that an actor spoke a line that had a typo. The playwright decided to leave it in.)
Every political speech was first a longhand note on a legal pad.
Every hit song, successful business, marriage proposal began life as a scribble on the back of an envelope.
Godin suggests that the best way for an ambitious student to move ahead is to be able to write. In this day of tweets, posts, and video influencers, young people mistakenly believe success lies in looks and likes. Not so, at least for any length of time. Those who hone their ability to craft a sentence will pull ahead of the herd.
The fallacy lies in thinking that anyone can write a tweet. After all, it’s only 140 characters. Ah, grasshopper, writing short is the most difficult writing of all. I’ve often noted that the easiest assignment you can give is to write a 10-page essay. That allows ample room for digression, spit balling, repetition, and rambling. Assign a one-page press release? Now we are employing the discipline of wordsmithing. Watch fall away useless adjectives and redundant adverbs, victims of a busy editor’s virtual blade.
A 30-second radio spot? Egad! Not only word quantity counts, but so does word quality! Banish the multi-syllabic millstone and recruit the punchy prose!
The pinnacle of tight writing? A billboard. Your toolbox is five to seven words. You have come full circle. Whereas that 10-page essay can be done in a day, a five-word billboard can take days to deliver, with countless detours and red herrings. What, the writer wonders, will grab the attention of the distracted motorist roaring past at 75 miles per hour?
The paradox is that in all cases described, the best writing is invisible. In order that the writing be effective, the viewer, the reader, the audience, the racing motorist should not be aware there was a writer involved.
That’s why writing can be a thankless job.
But one that any real writer cannot stop doing.