writers have known for centuries, the best way to learn to write well is
to apprentice yourself to an accomplished writer.
Learning to write is like developing any
other skill. You begin by imitating, point by point, someone who has
mastered the basic techniques of the form. At first your style may sound
derivative, but over time, as you experiment with applying those
techniques, your own distinct voice emerges.
I remember the time the critic and
editor Malcolm Cowley visited our creative writing class at Vanderbilt.
After telling us with stories about Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and Hemingway, he
offered this advice: The next time you read something that you find
compelling, a passage whose language seems extraordinarily well crafted,
mark the passage, come back to it, and study it. Read it out loud. Copy or
type it over word for word. Try to write something like it. In other
words, do whatever you can to get as close as possible to the language
that moved you.
In this way, he told us, you discover a
writer’s secrets and you make them your own.
A few years ago, when reading Toni
Morrison’s Beloved, I came across a passage that sent chills down
my spine. It began, "The stove didn’t shudder as it adjusted to its heat."
Before I realized what was happening, Seth’s haunted house was trembling
and pitching, a table came rushing across the floor, and Paul D had
grabbed it by its leg and was bashing it about, "wrecking everything,
screaming back at the screaming house."
I have often marveled at Morrison’s
uncanny ability to glide effortlessly between the natural and the
supernatural worlds. How does she do it? I wanted to know.
I took Cowley’s advice and copied and
studied the passage. I took it apart and wrote another passage like it.
Although I may never write like Morrison, I did learn something from the
You can take the same approach to
improving your business writing. Let’s give it a try.
We’ll use an obvious example: Thomas J.
Watson’s famous 1970 memo to IBM managers castigating them for their use
of "gobbledygook." His memo is a model of no-nonsense, forceful writing:
"A foreign language has been creeping
into many of the presentations I hear and the memos I read. It adds
nothing to a message but noise, and I want your help in stamping it out.
It’s called gobbledygook.
"There’s no shortage of examples.
Nothing seems to get finished anymore—it gets ‘finalized.’ Things don’t
happen at the same time but ‘coincident with this action.’ Believe it or
not, people will talk about taking a ‘commitment position’ and then
because of the ‘volatility of schedule changes’ they will ‘decommit’ so
that our ‘posture vis-a-vis some data base that needs a sizing will be
able to enhance competitive positions.’
"It may be acceptable among bureaucrats
but not in this company. IBM wasn’t built with fuzzy ideas and pretentious
language. IBM was built with clear thinking and plain talk. Let’s keep it
Let’s concentrate on four specific
points worth imitating. The first is structural. Notice how Watson
organizes his memo into a logical, three-part sequence: purpose statement,
support, and proposed action.
The other three points all have to do
with techniques for creating emphasis: Watson’s use of a one-sentence
paragraph, the parallelism of the contrasting statements beginning with
"IBM," and the short, punchy concluding sentence.
After you have copied or typed over his
memo, write a memo on another topic that imitates, point by point, each of
these attributes. Where Watson uses a one-sentence paragraph, you use a
one-sentence paragraph. Where he uses parallel construction, you use
Remember, as Yogi Berra once said, "You
can observe a lot just by watching."
To which I might add, you can accomplish
a lot just by doing.