Do you dream of writing like Shakespeare on uppers? I’d like to write with a multiple personality disorder: a circle of Edgar Allen Poe, James Patterson, and, by necessity, me.
Writing can be like music, I was told, even if someone can clunk out the basic chords, there’s something more to being a virtuoso. And I agree. I don’t write like a classical pianist—not like someone with an MFA in English. The best claim MFAs.
Sadly, nonfiction writers can have lower standards than fiction writers, he said. Nonfiction writers impart info, so they can get a hall-pass for writing like wishy-washy wordsmiths. The motivation to read is more in what they’re saying than how they’re saying it.
So don’t be lazy, he told me. Read classics. (Dull classics.) Read them like textbooks. Discover the techniques, the tones, the rhythm, the vocabulary—the music.
But, I’m a rules girl. So, he wisely advised to read Strunk & White. Yet, one more rule book wouldn’t sparkle my wand: I’ve read a dozen books on how-to-write. Plus, I read Strunk & White twice. Still, my wand smolders in a casino that never cashed out.
And don’t seek shortcuts, the editor told me. No, an easy-way-out isn’t my way. To prove my point, I pulled out a classic novel shelved in a corner, blinked at a page, coyly closed the book—and stared instead at Google.
On Google, I discovered that it takes 10,000 hours of reading classics to get the gist. That means, if I read the classics for one hour daily, in 27 years, I’d get the hang. So much for the 10,000-hour rule.
Next, I wrestled with existential questions such as Why can’t I find rulebooks for writing classics? By “rulebooks”, I mean, books bursting—not with quotes—but with rules. Instead, I found a handful of webpages ranting on theme, story, and character—the stuff that matters for movies, and less for nonfiction. Worse yet, have you ever flipped through a how-to book on graphic design to see nothing but pictures? When artists open their mouths, you’d think that cartoons, not words, popped out. Same with writers. Except, writers speak not in cartoons, but in quotes from the classics.
But, before you grow a Shakespearean beard, try reading rule books on writing ads. Pete Barry gives rules for ad body-copy in his book The Advertising Concept Book:
– Avoid using long, lofty words. If It’s got more than two syllables, try shortening it.
– When writing body copy, have a common thread strung from title straight down to the last word. If you force the thread, try another.
– Start your writing with your most exciting tidbit. Maybe you’ve got a shocker? Open with it.
– Make your opening line refer to your title.
– Alternate between short and long sentences. Mix it up to make it musical.
– Break most sentences with embedded clauses into two sentences. That rule holds for body copy, not classics.
– Take several physical steps back from your writing. Does the shape of the white-space and paragraphs look pretty? It should in the ad world.
– Read your ad (or essay) out loud. Does it flow nicely? It should in the ad world.
– With body copy, slip in sentences without verbs or subjects. (Make full sentences in your essays, though.)
– Pervert your copy by starting some sentences with “and” or “because.” Only do so if it adds rhythm, emphasis, etcetera. (don’t overdo “buts” and “so’s.”)
– Alliteration involves the same sound at the start of several words. Use it.
– The rule of three says a list of three satisfies the most. Try adding alliteration to your list. (Still-life paintings work best with three objects.)
– When using two items, contrast the pairs. Make them opposites such as “To be, or not to be.” Add alliteration if you can.
– When you write, do like Bill Bernbach. In other words, pretend your audience is an “uncle [you] had met, but rarely saw” (p. 243).
– Make your final line do any of the following: make a call-to-action, refer to the title, conclude with a fact. At the very least, make readers smile with your parting words.
Now for a final existential question: Where was Strunk & White when Shakespeare needed ’em? A paradox? I call it a creative spark!