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.