Wednesday, December 20, 2017

`Time and Sweat'

After telling us good writing has little or nothing to do with “brainpower,” and probably cannot be taught, one notably excellent writer says this:

“. . . there is no reason to believe that Mozart was a genius in the ordinary sense of being brainy. He was a musical genius. I think there is writing genius as well—which constitutes primarily, I think, of the ability to place oneself in the shoes of one’s audience; to assume only what they assume; to anticipate what they anticipate; to explain what they need explained;  to think what they must be thinking; to feel what  they must be feeling.”

When it comes to writing advice, that’s not bad, probably better than most and doesn’t presume to impose a list of how-to rules. Forget the “genius” part. Knowing your audience and your intent is essential, even among workaday tyros. Often I work with engineering faculty and students who are stymied when writing for non-engineers. They take for granted the transparency of equations and technical jargon. Some are hobbled when denied the crutches that come naturally when they write for peers. I suggest they picture their non-specialist reader sitting across the room from them. Tell a story. Don’t frame an argument. The advice given above is nicely adaptable. A chemical engineer could learn from it, and so could an eighth-grader writing a book report.

The author is the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in “Writing Well,” collected in Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law Faith, and Life Well Lived (Crown Forum, 2017). The book of speeches is edited by his son, Christopher J. Scalia, and former law clerk, Edward Whelan. Scalia was the public servant who, during my lifetime, I have most admired and respected. Granted, the pickings have been slim, but Scalia’s “brainpower,” to use his word, and love of the Constitution were memorable. His voice was so distinct, I looked forward to reading his dissents. It helped that he liked citing Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.

Scalia delivered “Writing Well” when accepting a lifetime achievement award in 2008 from Scribes, a national organization of legal writers. He dismisses the notion that legal writing is a discrete discipline apart from “that large, undifferentiated, unglamorous category of writing known as nonfiction prose.” A good legal writer, he says, “but for the need to master a different substantive subject,” could become a good writer of history or economics. Scalia taught legal writing at the University of Virginia Law School, where he formulated two “prerequisites for self-improvement in writing” 1. “There is an immense difference between writing and good writing.” 2. “It takes time and sweat to convert the former into the latter.” Scalia concludes his speech winningly with a pithy statement of truth: “It is my experience that a careless, sloppy writer has a careless, sloppy mind.”

Speaking of truth, I recently read a poem by Gavin Ewart, “The Premature Coronation” (Penultimate Poems, 1989), about Edward Gibbon. Ewart describes the great historian as “most fit to be loved for his long-term attachment to truth, and the style that’s so clear and Olympian. / “Rien n’est beau que le vrai. Rhetoricians avaunt! (he implied).” The French is Boileau’s old saw: “Nothing is beautiful but truth.”

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