At which end good writing turns bad

I) Amateurs: lose the top

Amateur writers often make the mistake of not cutting out their own “throat-clearing” in the first couple of paragraphs.

What is throat-clearing? It is what we in the biz sometimes call the verbiage that most ordinary people seem to consider necessary prologue before they say anything of consequence. “Laying the ground”, “setting the scene,” and so forth.

90% of the time, any piece of amateur writing can therefore be improved simply by lopping off — wholesale and mercilessly — the beginning. Somewhere in the text, the writer does have a point to make, and that‘s the place to start.

(Somehow, the amateur writer himself usually cannot find that place.)

II) Pros: lose the bottom

Professional writers might have the opposite problem: they often don’t know when to stop. Or perhaps they do know when to stop, but someone or something forces them to go on just a bit longer. And thus they ruin fantastic texts with banal or ridiculous “conclusions”, “summaries”, “recommendations” or other thought detritus.

David Greenberg

David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, makes this point in an amusing essay by using lots of famous books as examples.

How often, he says, some weighty, riveting, stirring text (we are mainly talking about socially or politically aware non-fiction) comes to ruin in its last chapter because

no matter how shrewd or rich its survey of the question at hand, [it] finishes with an obligatory prescription that is utopian, banal, unhelpful or out of tune with the rest of the book… [No] one, it seems, has an exit strategy… [and] hard-headed criticism yield[s] suddenly to unwarranted optimism…

When politicians, whether aspiring or recovering, produce such drivel, we might not be surprised. Of course somebody like Al Gore might develop a good argument that evidence and logic have been driven from public debate (The Assault on Reason), and then conclude that

I feel more confident than ever before that democracy will prevail.

But when real writers do this sort of thing, it is a genuine pity. So why do they do it?

Greenberg thinks that

One reason is that editors expect them. The journalist Michelle Goldberg conceived her first book, “Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism” (2006), as a work of reportage on a subculture of growing political influence. She hardly felt qualified to lay out an agenda for curbing the power of the religious right, but “one of my editors insisted I do it,” she recalled in a recent interview. Inevitably, reviewers called her on it…

In other cases, he thinks

authors have themselves to blame. Having immersed themselves in a subject, almost all succumb to the hubristic idea that they can find new and unique ideas for solving intractable problems. …

And me? Some of you may recall the little game I played for about two years with my own editor at Riverhead. He kept pressing me to add a final chapter of “lessons”. I kept demurring.

In the end, he won. Ie, I did add a chapter of lessons. As it happens, I surprised myself by liking that chapter. (It’s instead my second chapter that I like least and worry about most.) Who knows. I might already have fallen prey to Greenberg’s hubris. Fortunately, the book will be out soon, and all sorts of reviewers will volunteer their honesty with the requisite brutality.

37 thoughts on “At which end good writing turns bad

  1. I have read your post on this cloudy Sunday afternoon here on the East Coast, and I’d like to comment that throat-clearing and the rendering of Pollyannishly illogical summations are an intrinsic part of human nature. Moreover, the First Amendment constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to legislating introductions and conclusions. However, if we engage in constructive dialogue with writers instead of merely assailing them for these inevitable flaws in their compositions, I feel confident that superfluous padding will eventually become extinct.

  2. Why do you think editors expect writers to have a wrap up chapter? Is it a perception of market expectations or is it something they are taught. I wonder if it comes from an arrogance which says that the average reader can’t draw their own conclusions. Or should be allowed to.

    • I’ve been puzzling this question. Each of my editors is different, and yet there are reactions that editors tend to have in common. In this case, there may be a fear of leaving something “incomplete”.

      “You’ve raised interesting questions here, but don’t you think we need to supply some answers?”

      I happen to be finishing a big Special Report on California at the moment, in which, yes, I raise some big questions and chronicle how something large went pear shaped. And yet, in the concluding chapter, I knew I had to provide some “answers”. And so I did. I would not have been allowed not to.

  3. Bertrand Russell’s advice on writing:

    Take, say, such a sentence as the following, which might occur in a work on sociology:

    “Human beings are completely exempt from undesirable behavior patterns only when certain prerequisites, not satisfied except in a small percentage of actual cases, have, through some fortuitous concourse of favorable circumstances, whether congenital or environmental, chanced to combine in producing an individual in whom many factors deviate from the norm in a socially advantageous manner.”  

    Let us see if we can translate this sentence into English.  I suggest the following:  

    “All men are scoundrels, or at any rate almost all.  The men who are not must have had unusual luck, both in their birth and in their upbringing.”  

    But I am afraid any professor who used the second sentence instead of the first would get the sack. I suggest to young professors that their first work should be written in a jargon only to be understood by the erudite few.  With that behind them, they can ever after say what they have to say in a language “understanded of the people.”

    • You’re a machine for producing the perfect quote in every context, Jim M. Do you have an algorithm? :)

      Actually, I think the tide might be turning (I’m referring to your last paragraph). With so much pressure nowadays on professors to become bestsellers and media stars, some of them are starting to popularize their tone. See Krugman et al. That raises the pressure even more on the remaining bloviators…

  4. I was taken back to a course I took in creative writing. It was given by an instructor who had sold one short story to Reader’s Digest and had nothing else ever published. He was fond of irony though he did it poorly. I worried that any praise he might give me would be proof of my lack of talent. Perhaps it was.

    • The old “do as I say, don’t do as I do” opening lecture, I suppose. I had one of those in a different subject once.

      (Did they start that way in seminary school, I wonder. ;))

  5. “……..[No] one, it seems, has an exit strategy… [and] hard-headed criticism yield[s] suddenly to unwarranted optimism…….”

    A pollyannaish final paragraph is an egregious feature in most pieces in the Economist.

  6. thank, andreas, for the helpful advice. i’m afraid i’m one of the unlucky few who find myself in both categories — being verbose on both the front and back ends.

  7. Oh dear, this was a helpful post but I too am now feeling gloomily introspective. I think that there is a defence to made for ‘padding’, though. It’s more than that. Readers like to see a shape in a narrative. To give the point and nothing but the point is like bumping into someone and launching into a diatribe, then rushing off, with no greeting or farewell. Also, the conclusion doesn’t have to be a set of platitudes, surely: one can helpfully summarise the questions that have been raised without attempting pat answers. As they say in the army: ‘Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you’ve told them.’

  8. Chekhov said (long ago, but it’s new to me): “My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.”

    And I remembered this post. I guess Greenberg was thinking about journalism, but Chekhov had writers of fiction in mind. Even (especially!) writers who intentionally “lie” have to worry about lying.

    A little wisdom from Anton Pavlovich and…cheers! :)

    • My god, whenever anybody says anything profound, it turns out that a Russian has already said it better.

      And that Sprezzatura has already read it and can cite it with page number and paragraph.

      This rather limits the field for the ROW (rest of the world).

      While we’re on it: What did Chekhov say about the euro crisis? (And don’t pretend that he said nothing about it.)

    • Chekhov said nothing directly about the euro crisis, but here’s what you do: Read Chekhov’s stories, his letters, his plays, and extrapolate from his life how we should handle the euro crisis. Extrapolate. My guy Chekhov is no worse than…oh, I don’t know…Hannibal the Carthaginian, for example.

      But, actually, don’t you have that euro crisis thing solved yet? If you don’t, where’s our payoff for the diminished zippiness of TE live blogging of the presidential debates?

    • Forsooth, I was expecting indeed to have the euro crisis solved by now — after all, I’ve been here more than three months. I feel sheepish about it, and will redouble my effort.
      Quickly reading up on C’s stories, letters and plays, however, is even more intimidating. I had resolved to outsource that to you. If ever I need to sound smart about Chekov, I google around on Sweat and Sprezzatura.
      On that note, I just talked to a world renowned scholar of Chekhov who’s doing a project on C and some “more obscure” Russian poet (named Ivanov) at the American Academy here in Berlin. Perhaps you need to do that some day. That Academy is the world’s best place for American intellectuals to let their hair down for half a year and party.

  9. Forsooth, I was expecting indeed to have the euro crisis solved by now — after all, I’ve been here more than three months. I feel sheepish about it, and will redouble my effort.

    Quickly reading up on C’s stories, letters and plays, however, is even more intimidating. I had resolved to outsource that to you. If ever I need to sound smart about Chekov, I google around on Sweat and Sprezzatura.

    On that note, I just talked to a world renowned scholar of Chekhov</a> who’s doing a project on C and some “more obscure” Russian poet (named Ivanov) at the American Academy here in Berlin. Perhaps you need to do that some day. That Academy is the world’s best place for American intellectuals to let their hair down for half a year and party.

    • Which Ivanov, Georgy or Vyacheslav? They compete for the title of some more obscure Russian poet named Ivanov.

      I hope you said: “Excuse me, do you mean Vyacheslav Ivanov who was into Dionysos and wrote the Winter Sonnets, or Georgy Ivanov who emigrated to Paris and lamented in verse ‘It may be that as poet I shall not die/but I am dying as a human being’?

      (I imagine that qualifies me for the American Academy straight away. I’m giving away all my hair pins.)

    • V. Ivanov Of course.

      And what, then, of poor Georgy? What of his dying wish for immortality? So obscure that he falls short of the title of some more obscure Russian poet named Ivanov? As if dying as a human being were not bad enough.

      We won’t even speak of Vsevolod Ivanov, may he rest in peace.

      And so it goes, Andreas, for almost all of us Ivanovs.

      I think I’ll go write a little something now.

  10. Jenny said: ”……Chekhov said nothing directly about the euro crisis, but here’s what you do: Read Chekhov’s stories, his letters, his plays, and extrapolate from his life how we should handle the euro crisis….. “.

    While indeed Chekhov said nothing directly about the Euro crisis because, one assumes, he was long dead before the current Euro crisis arose, there can be little doubt that had he lived today, he would have had much to say about this crisis.

    Why do I say this? Well, Chekhov attended for a time a school for Greek boys in his native Russia, and he died in Germany. Hence Greece and Germany – the two countries central to the current euro crisis – would have loomed large in Chekhov’s mind.

    He therefore would have been internationalist in his thinking and pan-European in his sensibilities, and so would have wished for a harmonious and integrated Europe whose peoples look upon themselves as Europeans rather than as Germans and Greeks and Spaniards and whatnot.

    Being an omnivorous and eclectic reader, Chekhov would have known that the Euro – being the first ever supra-national currency – was an experiment, and was therefore likely to fail, as most experiments do. So he would have urged that the Euro be scrapped, and that the member countries go back to the currencies they had before.

    Being extremely intelligent, Chekhov would have been a realist, and would have known that, because of Europe’s widely differing languages and cultures and historical animosities, it will be well-nigh impossible for the member states ever to give up enough of their sovereign powers to form a politically federal Europe – essential for a successful common currency.

  11. Writers and readers alike of a complex proposition are assisted if the area of relevance and purpose is first set. Likewise, a conclusion can provide illustrations and seal off misconceptions.

    Thinking and artistic expression are organic processes of development.

    Even legal documents have a beginning, middle and end : recitals, operative part and interpretation. A building needs both foundations and a roof.

    In your justifiable warnings, it is important not confuse padding with natural structure.

  12. @Richard “……A building needs both foundations and a roof……..it is important not to confuse padding with natural structure…..”

    Was your comment, peradventure, influenced by the Harry Belafonte song, *”Hosanna”*, whose lyrics include:

    ….House built on a weak foundation
    Will not stand, oh no
    Stories told through all creation
    Will not stand, oh no…..

    and

    ….House built on a rock foundation
    It will stand, oh yes
    Stories told through all creation
    It will stand, oh yes…..
    ?

    If yes, it is testimony to the power of Calypso.

    • Your knowledge and powers of association are enviable, Christopher.

      No, I was not influenced by this song since I was not familiar with it – but I should have been, for it has been true … since time began.

  13. Hi Andreas,

    I publish a quarterly PDF for members of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild. I was wondering if I could republish this blogpost in our newsletter. I’ll change it slightly to plug the paperback version of your book. It would be good to introduce our members to your work.

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