Saturday, September 22, 2007

Writing for Style: Once More to the Lake 1

In my first class at Queen’s School of Business I found myself once again trying to explain how to be a good writer.

This Commerce program requires a high school average of 90 out of 100 to be even considered for acceptance, so the students are generally high-school stars. Here, half are below average but none believe me when I tell them that.

Most students expect to figure out how much time an assignment takes, crash straight through it and hand it in. That method will not work for writing at this level. I usually end up comparing writing to French polishing a table; you don’t apply 10 coats of varnish at once. Each coat is applied, sanded, and polished before another goes on.

So it is with writing. A quarter of the time spent thinking about it, a quarter of the time researching and writing the first draft, and half the time on at least three revisions. That’s the only way I know to write well.

The most uninspired composition topic of all time has to be "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." Still, it's remarkable what a master writer can do with such a dull subject--though it may take a bit longer than usual to complete the assignment. This example is courtesy of Richard Nordquist.

First Draft: Pamphlet on Belgrade Lake (1914)

Back in 1914, shortly before his 15th birthday, Elwyn White responded to this familiar topic with uncommon enthusiasm. It was a subject the boy knew well and an experience that he fiercely enjoyed. Every August for the past decade, White's father had taken the family to the same camp on Belgrade Lake in Maine. In a self-designed pamphlet, complete with sketches and photos, young Elwyn began his report clearly and conventionally: Maine is one of the most beautiful states in the Union, and Belgrade is one of the most beautiful of the lakes of Maine.

This wonderful lake is five miles wide, and about ten miles long, with many coves, points and islands. It is one of a series of lakes, which are connected with each other by little streams. One of these streams is several miles long and deep enough so that it affords an opportunity for a fine all-day canoe trip. . .

The lake is large enough to make the conditions ideal for all kinds of small boats. The bathing also is a feature, for the days grow very warm at noon time and make a good swim feel fine.

(Scott Elledge, E.B. White: A Biography, Norton, 1984)

Stay tuned to see how this remarkable writer creates a startling and touching essay on mortality.

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