Good Writing Reflects Clear Thinking

One of the most useful things I learned in Journalism School, I learned in the first fifteen minutes of my first class on the first day. The two Deans of the University of Missouri J-School stood at the bottom of the large lecture hall and tag-teamed a speech about the art and science of Journalism; the rigors and importance of its study. I remember shockingly little of what they said. I remember that one of the Deans was a lady with short red hair who wore a pantsuit. I remember I didn’t see her again until graduation. And I remember that she began her portion of the lecture with the simple truism, “Good writing reflects clear thinking.”

Over the years, I have referred back to this sentence more than any other piece of writing advice I received since. It has become my writing mantra. These words focus and tighten my work. They eliminate pages of unnecessary qualifiers and distracting tangents. They crystallize tedious, rambling diversions into concise, readable information. Good writing reflects clear thinking. I hear the Dean’s voice in my head; picture her in her beige pants suit pacing back and forth like some kind of smartly dressed caged tiger – full of pent-up insight and knowledge.

But this advice applies to more than just Journalism. As I write my first novel, this dictum serves as my talisman – sitting on my shoulder, strong and true in its own little pantsuit; a beacon of efficiency.  It reminds me that good writing is more than just stringing words together in a pleasing way. The words have to say something. They can’t simply be page-candy, there only to decorate and sound pretty. Even the most beautifully written prose must earn its keep by informing, enlightening, or advancing the story.

Here is how this all works in action: I write something. I read it over. If I decide it sucks (which I almost always do on the first pass), I repeat my mantra. Good writing reflects clear thinking. I re-read what I wrote. More often than not, the problem is not with the words themselves. The problem is I didn’t know what I wanted to say. It wasn’t clear to me –so how could it possibly be clear on the page? The words never stood a chance. I focus. I ask myself what I am trying to say in this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter. And if I am lucky enough to come up with an answer, the words follow – lining up like obedient soldiers doing their duty to ink and paper. The writing becomes strong, if not good, and we move on to the next battle.

Good writing reflects clear thinking. My arrogant 18 year-old self heard this and thought something banal like, “No duh.” But fortunately my sub-conscious knew better. It stored this little nugget in the depths of my brain until I was ready to understand that no amount of clever word play will make up for a writer’s ambivalence of purpose.

I pass this on with the hope that it helps other writers as much as it has helped me.

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Andy Rooney, Blogger?

Andy Rooney, the veteran 60 Minutes commentator who passed away last week at the age of 92, didn’t write a blog. In fact, when asked what he thought about his employer, CBS’s blog, Rooney said, “I have never read the CBS Public Eye blog so I have no opinion. I’m trying to find out what blog means. It seems vastly over-rated as a communications tool.” Apparently, along with airlines, autographs, and modern art, Andy Rooney did not have much use for blogs.

And yet, I think we bloggers have a lot to learn from Mr. Rooney about our craft. His medium might have been television, but his weekly segment at the end of the 60 Minutes newsmagazine functioned very much like a blog. Each week, for 33 years, Mr. Rooney wrote an essay on a subject of his choosing. Sometimes, he wrote about serious issues like war, but more often than not, Mr. Rooney stuck to mundane issue in his life, usually something he found irritating like the high cost of movies, how much stuff people carry around, and how long it takes to shut down a computer.

His essays were candid, concise, and uniquely his own. He sometimes did small bits of research in the form of man-on-the-street interviews or taking informal polls of his friends, but his segment was not about traditional journalism. It was about expressing his views. It was one person connecting with other people by sharing his thoughts, feelings, and observations about some aspect of the common human experience. Apart from the fact that he did this aloud, and on network television, it seems a lot like a blog to me.

Mr. Rooney was an institution in American television. But had he been born a few decades later, I think it’s not only possible, but probable that his signature brand of curmudgeonly reflection would have been relegated to the network’s blog page. As far as I know, there is no other journalist/broadcaster/commentator who is given three whole minutes of precious primetime network air to pontificate, complain, ruminate, and otherwise kvetch about anything they choose. But there are many talented writers who are given coveted spots on a media organizations blog page (though most of the large media outlet blogs are reading more like magazines than traditional blogs these days).

Andy Rooney wrote lively, short, opinionated pieces designed to entertain, enlighten, and yes, sometimes enrage his audience. In doing so, he set the stage for those of us who have something on our mind and want share it. He proved that there is always a place for well-written, considered, and thoughtful contemplation. And he showed us that people like knowing there are other people out there thinking the same crazy thoughts that they think. All of these are the same reasons that blogs continue to survive, and even thrive in today’s media-saturated culture. And though he would most assuredly reject the title, I think Andy Rooney could possibly be considered the grandfather of the blog. Or perhaps its cantankerous uncle who comes to Thanksgiving and complains that the turkey is dry.

He will be missed.