The shadows grow long as I wheel through the university. I loved the university. My father was a college professor and I grew up on campus—learned to swim in the college pool, had a card at the college library, and was taught to drive by a college student.
I came to Syracuse University in 1966, eighteen years old and auditing a course courtesy of my father’s connections. In 1967 I started to work at the university bookstore, later moving to the library where I paid the bills for the 10,000 periodicals the university got. Worked days and went to school nights on the Eternal Plan.
Went to school full-time for a while, back in the days when VESID had money and paid Syracuse University tuition. Came back to work for a professor who used me. It was in the early days of the feminist movement when we still thought that if we worked hard and did well then we’d automatically get promoted and get a raise. Didn’t happen. Professor Gerry Grant discovered that I had a keen eye for editing and he had about nine researchers writing eighteen reports so he dumped all the editing on me. I never got the title or the money for the work I did. In fact, Grant quit the contract and left me to bring in the two-volume manuscript.
But it was the only time in my life when I woke up in the morning and thought, “Cool! I get to go to work!” I loved editing. I got to take bundles of words that had been hashed and mashed by college professors and graduate students and turn them into coherent statements of fact. There was one professor—a psychoanalyst at a Jesuit university—who wrote to impress himself and his colleagues. I took one section of something he wrote and sent it back to him noting, “It’ll never play in Peoria.”
He returned it with the acid comment that it wasn’t meant to play in Peoria. Here’s what I think: everything should be written to play in Peoria. Hemingway wrote simple sentences that everyone could understand—“straightforward prose” and “spare dialogue”—and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Too many people—particularly academicians—use the dump truck method of writing: back a dump truck full of random words up to the edge of the paper and let her rip.
The research project was about competency-based education and one of the researchers was the Harvard sociologist David Riesman, author of “The Lonely Crowd.” He was a lovely man with courtly manners, but I cringed every time the post brought a manuscript from him. He wrote in murderous Germanic style, heavy with strings of nouns and largely absent the grace notes of prepositions, conjunctions and verbs. Dr. Riesman had great praise for my editing but his writing was like loops of heavy bratwurst strung together. He had two full-time secretaries at Harvard who commiserated with me. Dr. Riesman had somehow become convinced that every thought he had needed to be memorialized in print; sycophants surrounded him.
Another one of the researchers with whom I had a brief problem was an insecure, arrogant graduate student who would not tolerate being edited by a secretary. He and I went around on things several times until the professor finally shut him up with the simple statement that I was right. The graduate student split infinitives, ended sentences with prepositions and couldn’t spell, among other things. To him it was about personal power; to me it was about good writing.
Words have specific discreet meanings. There is a right way and a wrong way to line them up. Bad writing is a reflection of bad thinking. In many cases, I could take the hash-and-mash of words, sort them out and reassemble them to say what the author meant. The professor, on the other hand, would take the hash-and-mash and simply delete it, slashing paragraphs or full pages. I would work to make it say what it was supposed to, so most of the researchers greatly appreciated me.
I like making words nice. I like cleaning them up, weeding out the ones that don’t belong and rearranging the rest so that they flow easily and communicate a clear message. That is, after all, what words are for: communicating. One of my pet peeves is idiots who use a word incorrectly and then defend it, saying “but I meant it to mean X.” We all have to use the same word to mean the same thing, otherwise we have failed to communicate. A dictionary is not a dictatorial arbiter; it is a published compendium of what people mean when they use a certain word; it is our common ground.
I can write a thousand words, hit Spelling & Grammar and come up with no errors. And a thousand words only take me about an hour. I had a friend—with a doctorate—who hated me because writing was tremendously hard work for him. It would take him weeks to grind out something that was less appealing that what I could produce in an hour.
I became a good writer very easily. Here’s the recipe: first, do not go to college and take writing courses—they’re utterly useless. Instead, read good writing. My father was a college professor and my mother graduated college in the 1930’s so our house was awash with written words. (One of my sister’s observed that if they put words on toilet paper, we’d read them.)
Second, write. Write a lot. Practice makes perfect. There was a time when my mantra was “A thousand words before breakfast.”
Third, live. You have to have something worth writing about. Live deeply and broadly. Take chances. Believe in something important.
To become a good writer, read, write and live. If you feel a crushing need to go to college, take marketing courses to learn how to sell your work.