Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A recipe for good writing

Writing, like cooking, can by fairly basic. A sentence like "See Dick run" is like pouring a can of soup into a pan, adding water and putting it on the stove. A more sophisticated piece of writing, say John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, is more like making soup from scratch, using whatever ingredients happen to be on hand. Good writing uses ingredients from various sources, including the writer's own experiences and memories, to create something unique.

Do you remember in high school how your teachers told you to write an essay using at least four or six sources, or whatever. Most students in my era just wanted to go to the World Book and paraphrase what they found there. If you followed instructions, however, melding together the information you found in these various sources, you probably came up with the superior essay. It was, at least, original.

I wrote newspaper editorials for many years. My worst editorials were those based on just one article, usually one appearing in the previous day's edition. The editorial would paraphrase the information in that story, then tack on an opinion. This was not much better than paraphrasing a World Book article. Much better was when I used information from a variety of sources, perhaps even stories that were printed a year or more previously. Some of my favorite editorials were those citing two seemingly unrelated recent news stories and then finding some common thread between the two.

The psalmist who wrote, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," could have simply said, "The Lord gives me what I need," but it wouldn't be the same. So many people would not have memorized the 23rd psalm or want to refer to it in times of crisis. The metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep, probably rising out of the writer's own experience, turned a simple idea into a literary and spiritual masterpiece.

Writing involves taking a little of this and a little of that, tossing it into a pot and seeing what develops. It doesn't always taste good, and but it will always be original.

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