Writing's common thread
I entered college knowing only that I wanted to write for a living.
I had accepted that I wasn't going to support myself on the paperback royalties of novels I would never write. Technical writing sounded unimaginative, and I'm not sure my university offered such a program anyway. Therefore, journalism seemed my only option, so I stepped onto campus as a journalism major. By the end of my first quarter, I had switched to Undecided, as I then had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but journalism was not part of those future plans. Fast forward to 2021, and I doubt anyone would say with a straight face that I made the wrong decision. But I can say with the straightest of faces that I made the right decision for the wrong reasons.
I don't remember much of my time in Journalism 101 other than I got an A for the course. In terms of writing, the most practical takeaway was to lead with a hard-hitting point and then follow with the details and backstory. I didn't immediately realize how this method could also apply to fiction, the best example I can think of being the opening of Choke by Chuck Palahniuk:
If you're going to read this, don't bother.
After a couple of pages, you won't want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you're still in one piece.
There has to be something better on television . . .
Those opening lines may not have given me many concrete details about the story that followed, but they gave me enough to get the feel. And I was immediately hooked.
In my journalism course, I quickly discovered I did not want to engage in strictly fact-based writing with no obvious way to inject at least a part of myself into my writing. (I never claimed to be a selfless writer.) I had not yet discovered the likes of Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, or Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, though I doubt these discoveries would have made much difference, because I also left journalism for more practical reasons.
As I've already stated, I don't remember much of the lectures from Journalism 101, but I do remember something I never experienced in any other entry-level course, which highlights one of the failings of higher education.
Every couple weeks or so, Dr. Blick welcomed journalists to share with the class their experiences in the field. The topics ranged from the humorous, as in the case of a now fellow alum whose typo in the school paper made its way to Jay Leno's Headlines segment (She referred to a play version of Lean On Me as Leon On Me), to groundbreaking, as in the case of Leesha Faulkner, who uncovered the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency dedicated to derailing the Civil Rights movement.
Despite the diversity in perspective and experience, I heard the same things repeated:
You work really hard. You have no security. You never see your family. You make no money. But it's great.
I didn't need to take on student loans just to be broke. After accepting I had no clues what I wanted to do, I tried my hand in computer science, only to crash and burn and then settle on a marketing degree.
In the name of being a real adult, I mostly abandoned writing, save for a handful of short-lived blogs here and there over the years. Within the last three years, I've started focusing on writing again, starting with dipping my toes back into fiction. I've studied the craft as I never had before, with a more open mind.
I've now read books on screenwriting and have marveled at how much a screenwriter must convey with so few words. Previously, I didn't realize how much the writer directs certain details, holding everyone's hand in the process.
Studying copywriting is another study in communicating efficiently. The best slogans are simple. They require no explanation. They're like jokes: If they require explanation, then they're not effective. You remember effective slogans because they slide off the tongue and have a certain rhythm. These are some of the reasons the most nonsensical song lyrics can lodge themselves into our brains.
From studying technical writing, I've learned the values of knowing when to holds readers' hands and when to squeeze tightly. I now see that a career of explaining complex issues in oil and gas title has taught much of the same. And I've also learned that most people who say they don't have the time to hold someone else's hand through an issue most likely lack the knowledge and awareness of how to do so and also have no desire to learn how.
I've been asking myself recently what is the strand that ties all writing together. What is the one similarity? The unifier, other than a need to communicate?
And, as we speak, my answer is: persuasion.
The angle of persuasion is obvious for some fields, such as legal writing, in which briefs are intended to persuade a judge to rule in a client's favor. Sales copy aims to persuade you to make a certain purchase. Business emails persuade recipients to act—or maybe they persuade that no action is needed. Even research papers should aim to persuade, as we don't have to look too hard around us to see that facts alone are not enough. If nothing else, I have to persuade you that my facts are more accurate than your facts.
But what about fiction? Where's the persuasion there?
In fiction, authors are trying to persuade readers that this fake world with these fake people in these fake scenarios contains some sort of truth worth their time. Authors want to convince readers that this person in this situation would act or feel a certain way.
And sometimes the persuasion takes a different angle, such as in the case of some of the best tellers of tall tales, the ones who stretch the truth—or, in some cases, discard the truth completely—and leave us doubled over, hoarse from laughing through the tears. Sometimes writers persuade us not to care about reality so much.
I know I have few—if any—original ideas, but I recently realized that the point of this post isn't original even in regard only to my thinking, as I shared the picture below in a previous edition of Emergency Coffee, my monthly writing newsletter:
In the past, I abandoned writing because I failed to see the similarities among the separate disciplines. I also failed to see that there is no down side to being a better writer. Even if you never make a penny directly from your writing, the thought and effort required to improve as a writer likely benefit you in less obvious ways.
Now, if I read something as mundane as the back of a shampoo bottle, I no longer brush it off as an irrelevant form of writing. Instead, I wonder why certain things were done certain ways and then ask if or how my own projects could benefit from those methods. This way of thinking makes me a more open-minded writer than I was when I set foot on that university campus all those years ago.