You know those books you receive as presents from family or friends, the ones of which you may only read a few pages, more out of obligation than interest. I have a few next to my bed, on the bookshelf in the living room, some stored in a box in the garage. It’s not that they’re unappreciated, just not what you’re looking for at the moment.
In my early twenties, having acquired the opportunity to work as a reporter at a small local newspaper, my oldest sister gave me three books; Strunk and Whites, The Elements of Style ; The Random House Guide to Good Writing, Mitchell Ivers ; and Writing! An informal, anecdotal guide to the secrets of crafting and selling non-fiction, Adrian Waller.
I remember glancing through them, but I’m sure in my youthful arrogance I felt I was not in need of instruction. Unfortunately the first of the three, and perhaps the most needed, Elements of Style, I’ve misplaced or lost. The other two I’ve held on to and have moved with me many times in the nearly twenty years since receiving them.
Recently, I took in hand the Adrian Waller guide to non-fiction and read through it finally in it’s entirety. At the time of publication (1987), Waller had written numerous article for Time and Readers Digest, as well as several other books on theater and writing. It was a great read with a style and humor I appreciated. Although dated, I think that the book has some great insights into writing and is still very relevant. I would recommend it to anyone wishing to experience journalism first hand before the explosion of the internet. (I’m sure there are plenty of other books on the subject available and would love to hear any suggestions.)
I found myself enthralled in the last few pages of chapter ten as he guides us through the process of self editing and re-writing his rough draft:
“I resort to a technique I’ve developed over the years to help me refine the organization I’ve done so far. I call this my “clothes-line” system. Developing chapters are strung together with Scotch tape and left dangling side by side like washing from a piece of cord which stretches from one side of my office to the other. At a quick glance I can see how the work is really shaping.” 126
“As chapters grow, I work on dove-tailing the blocks within. I then lay each on the floor so I can examine it more closely – on my hands and knees. Friends smile. On occasion, when seeing my work strewn from the kitchen to the front door, they’ve been known to ask if I’m being paid by the word or by the yard!”127
“Once again, the stapler, scissors, and paste pot re-emerge as I begin moving entire blocks of information, and sometimes only paragraphs or sentences, either within a chapter or from one to another. It’s all trial and error because, later, I’ve been known to shift it all back to where it originally started out.”127
At first he admonishes the use of word processors, but then relents.
“Not being able to see a large piece of writing in it’s entirety when wanted to seemed to be a serious flaw. Thus virtually all my work – including this book – has been done with two fingers on a manual typewriter, then has been sent to secretaries for clean-typing on an electric typewriter. More recently, as one of them fed my articles and books into her word processor, I began to see the values of this remarkable invention.”128
I must admit, there’s some part of me that misses the endless words written in spiral notebooks, terrible spelling and all. I’ve never had the need to go to the lengths that Waller did in his description, but it sound enticing, the tactile feel of paper, the chack chack chack of the manual typewriter, the paper piling up next to you as you finish one and load another. And we get a true sense of where the term cut and paste originated.
A friend reminded me recently of the process that was necessary to ready the newspaper for publication when we worked there in the late eighties, early nineties. We would be cutting long strips of printed articles with scissors and arranging them on sheets of card with sticky rollers to be shipped off to the printer, it makes me think of subversive youths printing anti establishment flyers undercover in an abandoned warehouse. Although the printing of the paper was no longer done on site, smaller print jobs took place in the rear of the building and sometimes I would go and help burn plates or watch the large letterpress’ rhythmic roll and sway.
Reflecting that this blog I’m writing now may never see itself printed on paper, that I can consider myself ‘published’ as soon as I left-click on the button on my right, I wonder if Adrian would consider these times as a renaissance for journalism or a plague.
Strunk, William, Jr.; White, E.B. (2009). The Elements of Style (5th ed. ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Mitchell Ivers (1991). The Random House Guide to Good Writing. Random House, Inc New York; and Random House Canada Limited Toronto.
Adrian Waller (1987). Writing!, An informal, anecdotal guide to the secrets of crafting and selling non-fiction. McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, New York, Melbourne, London.