Wednesday, June 09, 2010

"If You can Talk, You can Write" by Joel Saltzman

I got this book ages ago. It was only on my last visit back to my parent's place that I dug it up again, and knew I had to revisit its great ideas. 

But I debated putting this one up on the site. Is it about business? Hardly. Does it have anything to do with China, or Asia, at all? Nope. But it dawned on me, that one of my greatest assets, and one of my greatest joys, is writing. And even if you're not interested in Short Stories (something I've loved to do since I was a kid), you can still benefit massively from a book that will turn your annoying frustrating emails into a smooth lyrical flow. I swear this is true:  I actually get compliments from colleagues that my weekly progress reports are actually.... engaging and enjoyable and to read. I've found that a few guidelines can fix almost any piece of writing, and much of it comes right from this book.

One look at the title, and you already know the first message in the book: write the same way you talk. What a lot of people do is talk like normal people, but when they pick up a pen, or fire up the Word Processor, they start to over think everything, even before completing the first sentence.

"No, I've got to start somewhere else. No, I'll talk about this later. Now, how would I ask that?"

Stop trying to 'write', just talk on paper (on the screen). Write and write and write. Again, this isn't just about Short Stories or Novels. Everything you do. 

Writing an email to Mom? Get it all on down on the email. Write and write and write, and don't block anything. Forget about order of paragraphs, formatting and grammar. That's the easy stuff. The hardest part about writing is that the vast majority of people refuse to write the way they talk. They think that writing is somehow 'special' and everything must sound like a Royal Scroll from Her Majesty the Queen. They also think that they're smart enough to edit 'on the fly' and thus refuse to put anything down on the page, unless it's perfect. Stop that. See the delete key? It's your friend.

How much editing and erasing can you expect to do? A ton. 80% of your first draft is probably a confusing redundant mess. As Saltzman brilliantly puts it, the best writers usually end up with this on the first draft:

"Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, GOLD!"

As a boy, I lived in the countryside, with little else to distract myself, other than reading books, and drawing. Like most youngsters, I had a vivid imagination, only I was, perhaps more than most, often in the position to write about it (or doodle about it). Fortunately there was encouragement to try writing stories in school; I wrote things like mysteries and fantasy stories. One in particular, seemed to be blatant copy of J.R.R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings ( of which I'd read about 10 pages before buckling under the weight of the tome) but it didn't matter--my third grade teacher thought it was neat since it was in French.

Around the age of 10 I was lucky enough to join a weekly Writers group, and the instructor would push us to think out of the box: writing an entire story with pure dialogue; writing an entire passage of very short sentences; taking a real life news clipping and then turning it into a full blown story with background, characters, etc. 

In high school, my favorite class was often English, where they encouraged us to get even crazier. Often the final exams included a prompt essay, where they would give you a choice of three words (say Dazed, Rapture, Harmony) which would 'prompt' you to write a 3 page exploration of whatever came to mind. Like Jimi Hendrix whipping and flailing for 10 minutes on a single snippet of a melody, you had to love the language to really nail it. Looking back, the keys were 

a) the ability to let go of your perfectionist mind,
b) the ability to visualize and vividly describe what you see in your mind, and 
c) the ability to edit the hell out of it, once the first draft was done.

As Saltzman reminds us "Writing is Rewriting." Any great piece of art, whether its a musical piece, or a great essay, or a beautiful engraving, has been drafted, and edited like mad. The timeless Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once commented that if he couldn't edit his jokes, he'd be nowhere as a professional comedian. He is a brilliant editor of jokes, more than just a very funny guy. Seinfeld admitted he often wrestles with a single line of a joke for hours on end. In comedy, if you can get a 10 word line down to 7, it's 30% funnier. That's the math of the laugh, I guess. 

When I was in high school, my English teacher, Mr. Digby, used the word terse. I love that word. Getting a 5 line paragraph down to 3, like Seinfeld, gave the words weight, and power. Editing creatively leads to writing that is layered, and a pleasure to read. But be careful: you have to walk the fine line between flowery puff (too many words, unclear, no direction) and boring writing (just the facts, no life, no pizazz). And to be honest, that's Editing. Writing is Rewriting.

So let's take a step back, for those who may not be interested in Creative Writing, but have to write everyday for work, and wonder how to improve it (this is huge for those for whom English is a Second Language). The key to great emails, or great memos, around the office, is to read what you wrote aloud and be diligent in your editing. Note: I said aloud, not loud. Just read it to yourself, and stop whenever something sounds wrong, or not what you meant it to sound like.

 Just as before, if you can say it in 1 line, instead of 2, that's progress. If you can use 10 words instead of 15, that's improvement. Also, consider the tone of the writing. If you're writing a prospective customer, don't kiss his butt too much, but don't be cold, and lifeless either. If you're writing to your boss, you want to sound confident, but not overstep your bounds. Never ever give off the air of arrogance or know-it-all-ness to your bosses and managers. Just read your own work aloud, and ask yourself if that is how you meant it to sound. If you can talk, you can write. If you read it to yourself, the problems and strengths of the emails will be immediately apparent to you. You may need to read through the whole thing 3 or 4 times to get it just right. 

Do you really think I just one-off these blog posts? No way. I don't post these until I've read the whole thing out loud and have smoothed out the rough spots. Things you wouldn't even imagine will come out... like a huge gap in logic between two paragraphs. Or a word that's been used 4 times in the span of 2 lines. That's a no no. It's lazy writing.

OK you read it out loud, but it's still not Shakespeare. Wanna see more of your mistakes? Take a couple hours off, go for a walk, catch a movie, go play sports. Then come back, you won't believe how 'wrong' your first draft was. And your 2nd draft will be great.

Want to do even better than that? Take a day off. Or a week. The goal here is Objectivity. The more of it you have the more you'll know what the reader will think of when they read your work. And that's how you right something that sounds as great and reads as smoothly as 'Catcher in the Rye'. 

That's good public speaking. And that's good writing.

I've tried to summarize some of the great ideas, but there's a ton more in here. Joel Saltzman has written a book that oozes the love for writing from every page. If you're the creative type and have always wanted to turn your unique stories into a career as a writer, definitely pick this up.  Even if all you do is turn out the greatest emails your boss has ever seen, it's worth it.


zero said...

Ah, after reading this essay, I realize why I always enjoy your reviews~~Because you are a professional writer! When I read your articles, I feel very smooth..(but when I read 'Catcher in the Rye' in Chinese, I can't feel so,too much "他妈的"..unacceptable,hehe,maybe in English is better)

Jealous of you that you spent your childhood in countryside~~I still remember my 8-year-old summer holiday which spent in countryside with distant was amazing and wonderful~~haha~~

Let me turn to this book, does it mention that if a person can not talk well, I mean can not communicate or express well, still will he/she be able to write well? Anyway, it is a good book and worth reading~~it might be helpful for everyone~~and for me, it may benifit me in writing a great email in my new job~~thx a lot :)

Btw, reading your articles is very relaxing..I can find some peace and humor here..

Michael Robson said...

Ah, really you're too kind.. nonono.. I hope they are easy to read, that's all ;) I remember reading Catcher in the Rye in High School, and read it so fast, because it was so smooth and easy to read.

Ah, again, regardless of your language, I think these ideas still work. For example, just the way it sounds, you can tell if a sentence is annoying/hard to read, etc.

Btw, I got a package from Amazon the other day, 4 new books... should be many reviews soon ;)