Recommended reading from the New York Times’ Opinionator series “Draft,” on writing:
“Keep It Short,” by columnist and author Danny Heitman:
To shorten my articles, I often worked through several versions, and with a merciless finger on the delete button I could surgically reduce my first draft by half. The exercise taught me that successful economy of expression often depends on vigorous revision. Perhaps no one exemplifies this principle more vividly than E.B. White, the magazine essayist and children’s author celebrated for his deceptively simple style. White excelled in a number of forms, including “Talk of the Town” items for The New Yorker — graceful editorials that derived much of their charm from their compact scale. Although White’s gift for saying much in a few words looked effortless, he often achieved his pith by distilling one draft after another to its elegant essence. At the conclusion of his White biography, the author Scott Elledge lets readers look over White’s shoulders as he hones a New Yorker commentary on the first moon landing in 1969.
“The Art of Vernacular Voice,” by professor and editor Amy D. Clark:
In an interview with the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Rick Bragg, John Sledge tells the story of Mr. Bragg’s encounter with the acclaimed author Willie Morris, who opened Mr. Bragg’s memoir “All Over But the Shoutin’,” and read several pages aloud. He slammed the book and leaned forward, telling Mr. Bragg, “You say it’s the story, and I say it’s the language.” Mr. Sledge is talking about the voices in Mr. Bragg’s books, which ring true down to the red Alabama grit on their shoes. Every voice on paper has a linguistic and social history that needs to be heard.
“Controlling the Narrative,” by essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider:
I’ve often thought, with some regret, that I would be a better writer if I were a worse person — basic human decency compels me to keep all the best details out of my work. Writing about someone with whom you’re still in a living relationship inevitably does some violence to that relationship. It may be survivable violence, no more than a scratch, but even a biopsy, whose purpose is benign, leaves a scar. For this reason most of the people I’ve chosen to write about were already gone from my life, estranged or deceased. But, as I discovered when I tried to write about people I still knew and loved, even if you have nothing but good things to say about someone they will still somehow come out the wrong way. It’s a freaking minefield. Dispassion is a double-edged instrument: As a writer you can find empathy and compassion for someone who, in real life, gets on your nerves, but you can also look with unsympathetic lucidity at someone whom, as a fellow human being, you respect and love.
“The Joys of Trimming,” by author Pamela Erens:
Writers know all the good reasons for subjecting their work to a sharp trim. Early drafts are notorious for repetition, indirection and overdevelopment of the trivial. My own writing process is quite messy. I don’t always write my first drafts in full sentences, so it can take a few passes before things even gel enough for me to see what I’ve got. At that point I begin to notice scenes or explanations that have gone on too long, paragraphs that don’t allow readers a healthy pause, characters who say more than they ought to. In my experience, cutting back is the crucial act that allows the vitality, precision and emotional heart of a piece of writing to emerge.
“Dangerous ‘Game’ for a Writer,” by author Thomas Chatterton Williams:
In “The Writing Life,” Annie Dillard points out that “[a writer] is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write.” I’ve encountered versions of this adage — along with the more extreme, don’t read anything while writing, lest you contaminate your voice — from a variety of sources and have often wondered how it could possibly be true. After all, I’ve spent my share of time with Dostoyevsky and Camus and I’m still waiting. Such admonishment always struck me as one more of those superstitions writers cultivate for the sake of it, like never discussing a work in progress or stopping only when you know what happens next.
“Writing about a Life of Ideas,” by author and Brookings Institution fellow Richard V. Reeves:
“… The fear of creating inauthentic connections can lead biographers to treat the person as entirely distinct from the intellect, and simply narrate the events of their ordinary life. For one thing, this is often spine-crackingly dull; no sane person cares what John Locke ate for breakfast in Holland. More important, a “what-John-did-next” approach to intellectual biography misses the point. We care about the ideas, and so we care about the life to the extent that it bears upon, illuminates and revivifies them.”