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Elements of Good Writing

Posted on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 at 6:38 PM

One trick is to know what to include, what to discard.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Leave it to Voltaire. He said: "Woe to the author determined to teach! The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out."

An editor must, of course, test a writer's sense of completeness in an article. Are the who, what, where, when, why, and how questions answered? Gaps disconcert.

But the editor knows that virtually no subject can be totally covered in a single article. Space limitations preclude it. So informational completeness is less of a goal than atmospheric completeness, this being the result of an editor able to select those elements of a subject that must be included, lest the reader senses something or other is missing. It's a matter of the essentials versus tangentials, of the necessary versus the dispensable.

The good writer, who is also a good information gatherer, knows that much more information should be gathered and can be used. That good writer may, however, fall in love with his or her information and force all too much of it into the written product. He forgets, in the process of stroking the fax, that the iceberg theory still exists and works: an article of carefully chosen morsels suggests a far larger, hidden base. He forgets that the reader hasn't the need or patience for everything collected. The piddling puts her off. The parochial doesn't concern her.

Barbara Tuchman was a thorough researcher and forceful writer. She once warned: "I want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning to the end. This is accomplished only when the narrative moves steadily ahead, not when it comes to a weary standstill, overloaded with every item uncovered in the research."

As editor, don't make your story cuts for space reasons alone or at all. Determine, instead, what must be present on the pages of your magazine to engage the reader and to give her the impression, the feel of completeness. The mark of a good editor is always to know what to include and what to discard. The mark of a professional writer is a willingness to let the editor make such decisions. Good editor and willing writer make an ideal relationship, one to strive for.

The editor's task, and working with authors, also includes the realization, in each published piece, of the four elements of writing. Remember them?

1. Unity
2. Coherence
3. Emphasis
4. Style

A Logical Flow

The element of unity concerns beginning, middle, and end: a beginning that sets things into action; a middle that reads from the beginning and expands it explains it; and, pending that, moves the action and/or the information to a natural conclusion that gives full meaning to the initial situation or question. Unity involves completeness. Unity involves flow. Unity supplies the reader with the comfort of getting all the necessary information and getting that information and linkage, without chop or jump-cuts.

Structural Bonding

Coherence refers to the system and structure, to giving an order to the incidents or events or ideas that make up the whole action or topic. It refers to the maintenance of a suitable point of view as well as a single predominant tone or attitude, as well as integration of sending, as well as a proper atmosphere.

Pace, Space, and High Points

Emphasis comes from pace, proportion, and climax. Pace means the speed or lack of speed at which the writer moves the action or information along, and that should be appropriate for the kind of material covered: fast where the movie stunt artists do their thing; slower where they sit down to ponder why they do what they do; short, breathless sentences and strong, active verbs when they perform; longer, softer sentences and language when they reflect.

Proportion depends on space decisions, the amount of space given to various parts of the article, the more important sections capturing fuller treatment.

Climax is a synonym for high point. Build to it, you should tell your writer. Build to them, you should tell your writer because stories of any length probably require several climaxes: one up front to get the reader in; a couple more along the way to rekindle interest; one at or toward the end to give the reader a final memory.

The Writer's Voice

And then there's style, that fourth element of writing, that elusive presence an editor always looks for in a piece of writing in hopes for and begs for and works for. Style means clarity and vigor and individuality. It means personality, the writer in residence, his or her voice distinctly evident to the reader.

"I guess," wrote E. B. White, "I have watched my coon descend the tree 100 times; even so, I never miss a performance if I can help it. It has a ritualistic quality, and I know every motion, as a ballet enthusiast knows every motion of his favorite dance. The secret of its enchantment is in the way it employs the failing light, so that when the descent begins, the performer is clearly visible and is part of the day, and when, 10 or 15 minutes later, the descent is complete and the coon removes the last paw from the tree and takes the first step away, groundborne, she is almost indecipherable and is a part of the shadows and the night. The going down of the sun and the going down of the coon are interrelated phenomena; a man is lucky indeed who lives where sunset and coonset are visible from the same window."

That has style. It is not style one can copy because it comes from the life and times and mind of E. B. White. But is this style one can emulate, and emulation comes from reading. Encourage your writers to read, dear editor. Fiction. Nonfiction. Write for the glory of his words. Some classic examples: John McPhee for how he handles exposition, how he can flood dry subjects with romance and excitement. Ellen Goodman for her droll sense of humor. Charles Kuralt for the simplicity and dignity and folksy charm he gets to people and places, always with just the right words. William Least Heat-Moon for the detailed power of his description. Russell Baker for how deliciously he can twist information to make a point and for the poignancy he can command. (Have your writers read Growing Up.)

"In the rain forest, no niche lies unused. No emptiness goes unfilled, no gas of sunlight untapped." So wrote Diane Ackerman, another author, one of prose and poetry, your writers should read. "In a million vast pockets," she continues, "a million life-forms quietly tick. No place on earth feels so lush. Sometimes we picture it as an echo of the original Garden -- a realm ancient, serene, and fertile, where boas slither and jaguars lope. But it is mainly a world of cunning and savage trees. There is nothing mild-mannered or wimpy about rain-forest plants. Truants will not survive; the meek inherit nothing. Light is a thick yellow vitamin they would kill for, and they do."

That has style. The writing is clear and vital and visual. Ackerman's personality, her voice is well defined. As counselor, she once reminded herself and other poets that their job is to teach "a way of seeing, lest one spend a lifetime on this planet without noticing how green light flares up as the setting sun rolls under.... The poet refuses to let things merge, lie low, succumb to visual habit. Instead she hoists things out of their routine, and lays them out on a white papery beach to be fumbled and explored."

That's what the search for style is all about.

And a good writer seeks and finds it, no matter what the subject. Warren Brown was an automotive writer for the Washington Post. Most of the time he took cars out on the road to test them, then followed the driving with his evaluation on paper. "There was no love between us, no kindness. We simply tolerated each other during our time together. There was tension, occasionally relieved by surreptitious speeding along Virginia's back roads. But those were cheap thrills, which didn't merit post-title conversation."

And so on. Brown gave his presence to every column of his, his own presence and the presence of subject matter. You should expect no less.

A classic article from a past issue in tribute to the late Peter J. Jacobi, longtime EO writer and author of The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It.

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