Everyone is Awful at Writing

Sometime in 2015 someone asked how to tell his 15-year-old that she is an awful writer. I told him.

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Everyone is Awful at Writing
Sat November 7, 2015
Sometime in 2015 someone asked how to tell his 15-year-old that she is an awful writer. I told him.
Everyone is awful at writing. It is a highly sophisticated, unnatural and acquired skill. You need to make sure your daughter understands this.

When my son was eight I taught him to play chess. That is, I taught him the moves, even some fine points and a few tricks like en passant and fool’s mate. I told him that he was a very very bad chess player but I was careful to specify that I was a very bad chess player. He first beat me at a game when he was thirteen. Now he’s thirty-one and he can beat me consistently. He is a bad chess player these days and he would probably be better at it, as would I, if we played more often – preferably with people better at it than we are. We don’t have time for such nonsense because we’ve got jobs. He’s a doctor and I make up stories. Arguably, my job is more complex than his, but we’re both much better at what we do for a living than at playing chess, and we don’t much mind that.

As it turns out, he’s a pretty good writer and I’m clueless about doctoring. I suspect he’s a good writer because I actually taught him and his sister (and anyone else who’ll listen) how to write. You don’t learn that stuff in school, although you should. Teaching it takes about two hours, followed by unending years of practice. Here’s how it works:

Writing is about the structure of thought. You can express and support any single idea – true, false, ridiculous, it doesn’t matter – in three sentences. You must present those sentences in the progression of a statement, an explanation and an illustration. Statement/explanation/illustration are the names I give this structure when I first explain it, but after a while I make it clear that you can also call these things thesis/antithesis/synthesis, or decision/conflict/resolution, or act one/act two/act three, or any of myriad labels we have put on such elements of structure in their various contexts. Ideas, as we are able to understand them, have a fractal structure; they are composed of the rays of triangles leaning on each other, just like geodesic domes and the universe.

Humans receive information in only one way, and that is in the form of a story. We are hard-wired to do so. When we try to convey information in the unstudied, slipshod manner that we are inclined to present before we stop for a moment and organize it coherently, our readers fill in the blanks we leave behind with their assumptions rather than our logic. So people conclude, quite accurately, that we are bad writers, that we make no sense. We are bad writers when the readers and the hearers don’t understand what we are trying to tell them.

Look at any good essay or story – any effective joke or magic trick, for that matter. You’ll find that structure in it if you pick it apart a little. Every editorial in a newspaper is three or four paragraphs. The first is a statement, presenting its premise. The second, the explanation, is an expansion on that premise, a case for it in macrocosm. The third is an illustration, a specific microcosmic example of the generalities that the first two paragraphs expressed. Maybe there are a few illustrations, each supporting the initial premise. Maybe there’s a concluding paragraph that simply restates the premise in light of the case that the essay has made.

Lincoln learned this stuff on the judicial circuit in Illinois. He read law books and told long silly stories on the road, as the legends hold, but he also read and studied Euclid and he applied geometric principles to non-mathematical ideas. Everything he wrote and pretty much anything he said by the time he burst into the popular consciousness in 1858 – every state of the union report, every throwaway aphorism – fits snugly into that structure.

Jefferson knew it too, although I have no idea where he picked it up. The Declaration of Independence is probably the most effective essay written in the English language. It starts with a statement of purpose, talk about rights and natural law and the fact that we are separating from the kingdom that first planted us here. It goes on to expand that into a series of generalities about self-evident truths, an expression of philosophy. And Jefferson follows that with a series of twenty-nine specific illustrations of the king’s overstepping of his privileges under that premise, supporting – necessitating, in fact – the establishment of an independent state. He concludes by restating the premise in the strongest, most poetic terms he can muster. Not only did young Jefferson get the structure, but it is clear that he practiced a lot along the way. He knew, by the age of thirty-three, how to apply the poetry.

That’s the thumbnail version of my two-hour routine on writing.

You need to tell your daughter this stuff. You need to tell your daughter’s teachers this stuff. My daughter is twenty-four these days, and a terrific writer. She wasn’t when she was fifteen but she figured it out. I’m still working on getting her to try her hand at chess.

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