Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mark Twain showed us ourselves

Samuel Clemens died a hundred years ago today, and Mark Twain with him. He was a newspaper reporter (“I hated to do it, but there wasn’t any honest work available”) before he became a novelist, and he wrote what both H.L. Mencken and Ernest Hemingway thought was the American novel, Huckleberry Finn.

That novel has everything in it that is central to the American character and experience: the impatience with convention, the impulse to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” the colloquial voice, the ribald humor, the deadpan humor, and the eternal, complex, heartbreakingly vexatious issue of race. We look into it, and we see who we are. If you haven’t yet read it, put it at the top of your list; and if you read it a while back, pick it up again.

Twain is easily the most quotable of American writers (“When angry, count four; when very angry, swear”) because he saw us so clearly, without illusions: “Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest” and “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.”

Trolling the Web, I came across a site with quotations of Twain’s remarks on writing: “God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.”

Listen to the master, and husband your own weather.

When do you stop?

No doubt it is psychologically necessary for writers to believe that someone will read their work, but our experience as readers tells us otherwise.

There was a telling newsroom moment some years back when a senior editor, offering drive-by praise to a reporter about a story, said, “I read it all the way through.” If he is not routinely reading stories to the end in his own paper, why would he or the writer expect that readers do?

In newspapers, in magazines, and online, we scan and skim, and it does not take much for us to decide to move on. It would surely benefit us as writers and editors to understand what readers identify as stopping points in our work. I have a few ideas, but I welcome your comments and contributions. So:

Throat-clearing:  Some writers, particularly inexperienced ones, think that they need to take the reader by the hand and lead him or her along a winding path of background information before establishing what the starting point of the article is. I suspect that if you do not make clear to the reader within a mere handful of sentences, a couple of paragraphs, what the focus of your article is, you are at high risk that the reader will never proceed long enough to discover it.

This holds true as well for the hackneyed convention of the anecdotal lead. If  the writer spends paragraphs describing people whose circumstances are as commonplace and banal as our own, that is supposed to seize our attention?

Obstacles:  Writers tend to go native: Police reporters start to write like cops; people writing about government mimic bureaucrats; business reporters echo management cant. All of this jargon can throw up impediments to the reader.

Writers who have spent a long time developing a major article become immersed in the subject, particularly if they have revised an article so frequently that they can no longer hear how it would sound. I once edited a longish article that had, high up, a paragraph of stunning impenetrability. Because the writer was one of our stars, I couldn’t touch it; I had to make my case in a meeting with the writer and a clutch of other editors. The writer glared at me across the conference table as I explained my misgivings and then said that the paragraph should remain as written. And it was so. The next day I asked three or four people what they had thought of the article, and all of them had dropped it on encountering that paragraph.*

Errors: If in reading an article on a subject about which you are informed, you discover an error of fact, I think that that may be enough to make you move on, because such errors diminish the credibility of the writer and the publication.

Some people stop reading out of irritation when they come across errors of grammar and usage, because such errors tell them that the writer is not really a professional. And yes, some of them may be, you know, English majors, or retired schoolteachers with a lot of free time, or peevers, but it’s not in the writer’s interest to sacrifice any readers unnecessarily.

The headline: As Hank Glamann used to tell us at ACES, if they don’t read the big type, they won’t look at the little stuff underneath. Now, especially since writers online, and increasingly in print, are expected to write their own headlines, keep in mind that if the headline is obscure, or tries too hard to be clever, or just looks dull, few readers will even get as far as the gripping opening sentences.

Over to you: Assuming, rashly, that you have gotten this far, no doubt there is more to be said. The comments are open.

*When your editor tells you that he has a problem in your text, dammit, pay attention.