What Makes Good Writing

In 2012, I made the decision to read all 100 of the books listed on the NY Times Best Books of 2011 list. Each year, The Times lists “the best” books published in that year spanning fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Since I began to expand my brand, which includes writing, I thought it would be a useful experiment to begin reading books that were critically praised in order to establish for myself what exactly makes good writing. Every year, there are tons of lists of this type but I picked the New York Times book list because of its established reputation and visibility. Although last year, I only managed to read 30 out of the 100, my experiment taught me so much that I decided to try it again this year. So far, I’ve read fiction books like Richard Ford’s Canada, Bernice McFadden’s Gathering of Waters, and Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy and non-fiction ones like The Grey Album by Kevin Young and Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon.

The books that I read last year and this year spanned a number of non-fiction topics from scientology to grief to parenthood to the African roots of Alexandre Dumas. My fiction reads were equally as diverse and encompassed short stories, poetry, novellas, and novels. Most of the books I read were incredibly well written, interesting and in some cases, simply fantastic. Although the writing styles, topics, and themes are wildly different, I found a few basic rules for good writing that were overwhelmingly present in everything I read. These include:

Rule No. 1: Find a good editor. And in some cases, a fact checker too. Having written for quite some time, I can tell you that the final piece is almost never the first draft. For me, the first draft is the outline and the final product is pulled together though copious revisions and editing. If the piece is non-fiction, a fact-checker is especially important. Good writing and good editing go hand in hand.

Rule No. 2: Write good sentences. This seems intuitive but it needs to be stated. I believe that writing a book or story is a bit like architecture, the foundation needs to be strong before you begin adding things to it. The foundation for writing is really good, well-crafted sentences. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a book that exemplifies this rule. On a craft level, this book is a primer on how to write. Well-written sentences are the foundation of good writing.

Rule No. 3: If writing on a familiar topic or theme, be creative and talk about something new. Kevin Young’s The Grey Album is a perfect example of this. The book is a collection of essays on different aspects of African American artistic culture: music, acting, literature, etc. but Kevin Young introduces new ideas, new concepts throughout. Even the way the book was written and organized was fresh; its had a very improvisational jazz like feel to it. Add something to the conversation, especially if the topic is widely written about.

Rule No. 4:  Feedback is critical. It’s important to find readers. And not just anyone. But someone who can give honest feedback as to what works and what does not.

Rule No: 5: Read more. I have always loved to read so this one is easy for me to follow. It was important for me to read across subject matter, tone and genre in order to understand the multiplicity of ways that people can tell stories. Fiction is just as valuable to me as non-fiction. Being a voracious reader has never let me down.

Rule No. 6: When one word will do, use one one word. This rule is perhaps the hardest for me to follow. I am the queen of long sentences. But over the years, I’ve learned to never use three words when one will do. Use adverbs sparingly.  The right word will always win over the right phrase.

 

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Je parle le français… et vous?

For the past year, I have been learning French. Each day, I set aside 30 minutes to an hour, to either read in French, listen to a French podcast or speak to someone in French. Learning a language is hard. At least it is for me. Living in New York, I’ve met many multilingual people who can weave fluidly and effortlessly between languages with perfect pronunciation and diction. I am envious. Growing up in southwest Louisiana, I was always exposed to French. In Catholic school, we had to learn our prayers in French. (To this day, I still say my prayers in French). I took French throughout my primary and secondary education. In college, I fell just a few credits short of having a double minor in French. After college, I became less industrious about French. And my command of the language drifted to someplace between barely intermediate and passably intermediate.

There’s something about the American educational system, in that a student can take a foreign language for four, six, or eight years and only comprehend said language at barely a beginner’s level. I always wanted to be multilingual. My ultimate goal is to speak 3 or 4 languages at the proficient or fluent level. French was a natural first choice. I was able to start again at the intermediate level but moving to the highly intermediate level was surprisingly a struggle for me.  The Atlantic’s columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates documents the difficulties of learning French here, here and here. And he’s right. Its like taking up a sport. My ipod and computer, google alerts and gmail accounts are all in French. When I get my Netflix films in the mail, if its not a French film, if possible, I add french subtitles. I know all the major French publications and listen to the major French podcasts in my fields of interest.

And most importantly, I have a dear dear French penpal that I met here who has exhibited such patience and warmth with me as I try to gain a command of the language. I’m planning a trip to France in September so I hope to be at least minimally proficient by then. At this moment, I can understand most of what is being said to me. But I’m still unable to express complex thoughts and have deep conversations in French. As I embark on this journey, here are a few tips for all those interested in learning another language:

  1. Its not a quick process. Admittedly, there are people who pick up languages very easily. I, and I suspect most others, are not as lucky. It takes discipline, attention to detail, and precision. For example, these two words in French: pécher and pêcher are pronounced very similarly but mean two completely differently things (the former means to sin and the latter means to fish). A slight mixup in pronunciation could lead to miscommunication.
  2. Find different types of native speakers to speak to.  Though my primary language partners are French, I seek out other native French speakers from places like Morocco, Senegal, Switzerland, Canada, Haiti, Algeria, etc. Its good to hear French (or whatever language you are learning) from different accents/countries if possible. That way, you can train your ear to specific nuances in the language.
  3. Be consistent. It takes time, but you must be consistent and do it, if possible, every day. You can’t get better if you don’t practice constantly.
  4. Put as much of your digital media in the language you are studying. At first its a pain, but you’ll be surprised how much you learn without trying.

Above is a movie with Kristin Scott Thomas, my model for language learning. A native English speaker (she’s British), she speaks French flawlessly. The above is a short clip of a wonderful french film called “Partir” (Leaving) with the Spanish actor Sergi Lopez.  Through the process of learning French, I’ve learning several things about myself. Namely, the best ways for me to learn a new skill and how passionate I am about languages. I believe it was Pedro Almodovar who said that if you don’t speak Spanish, you miss out on 90% of what being said in his movies. I believe this to be true. I watch French films now and when the English subtitles are on, I am amazed at the lack of nuance between what’s being said and what’s being written. In order to get to something good, you must do the work. Language learning is no different.