The words around us

“What do you mean you’re writing a feature article about the legal issues surrounding Vioxx?” demanded a good friend who is an attorney, when I told her about a magazine assignment I had a few years ago. “You don’t know anything about tort law!”

“Aha!” I said. “But I will by the end of the week!”

And I did. I like to joke that my work as a freelance writer and editor means that I learn something new every day if I am not careful. I am curious about almost everything, and have happily undertaken writing and editing assignments on matters both popular and arcane.

Recently, I have written magazine articles about cyber-bullying, WikiLeaks, geriatric care management, and radio astronomy. I have interviewed retired professors about their lives and work for newsletter articles, and written marketing materials promoting school readiness programs. I’ve edited the biographies of young scientists for a non-profit foundation’s web site, and written and edited informational materials for families whose babies are in neonatal intensive care.

Writing as a profession is different from other creative professions in that, unlike photography or design for instance, it is something that almost everyone has had to do from early childhood and that most people have to do at least some of in their adult lives. The paradoxical results are that the written language is too often mangled by those who don’t take time or care with it while, at the same time, perfectly intelligent people are terrified of putting words on the page.

I am often asked “How do you become a writer?” This question really contains two separate queries. The first is, “How do you make doing this kind of work into a business?” I can answer that by talking about the ins and outs of building a client base, working from home, and other nuts and bolts of being a self-employed person.

When some people ask, though, I know that they mean “How do you become A Writer” — the person who appears to know how to make words do her bidding. Herewith a few observations about what “being a writer” means. In a future post, I’ll offer some tips about actually doing the work:

  • Every writer you ask will tell you: You become a writer by reading and writing. And rewriting. And listening. And writing some more. There are no shortcuts.
  • I think you’ll find that most of us who write professionally have written our entire lives; I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing.
  • You also become a writer by learning to ask questions that are both respectful and incisive, and listening to people talk about what matters to them.
  • You cannot be a successful writer or editor without loving language, and paying exquisite attention to words. This does not mean throwing around lots of big words; in fact it often means just the opposite — don’t mistake grandiosity for precision.
  • That said: The fact that you like to write and are good at it does not mean that the words always come easily. I have a two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary sitting on a shelf across from my computer. When I am being tormented by the blank page I look across the room and say to the cats, All the words are in there. I just have to find the right ones and arrange them.” Sometimes this works.
  • When people ask me on my more challenging days, “Do you like writing,” I usually respond “I love having written.”
  • In my day-to-day work, I enjoy the balance between writing and editing. Editing is like cleaning the garden after a storm — keeping meanings intact while clearing the detritus. Writing is like building something: putting the pieces together from the bottom up to make a coherent and graceful whole.
  • The term “creative writing” should be abolished. What kind of writing does not involve creating?

And speaking of words and creativity, I’ll end with this iconic scene from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

rh again

© Rhea Hirshman 2015

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