How to Writ e Good

I like to write.  Heck, I love to write.

I’m not very disciplined about it.  I feel like it would take a lot more time than I devote to it to be an accomplished author.  I wish someone would give me a year’s salary and say, “Okay, Mr. Young.  In six months we want a book from you.  You’ve got your advance, here’s the editor you’ll be working with.  Do your thing.”

Then I would travel a little, hang out on the beach, at a cabin on a lake, an apartment in the city.  I’d see family and friends and we’d talk and ideate and I’d take all that in and channel it into my writing.  And music making.

Most people don’t think they’re good at writing.  I’m not a fatalist, though.  I don’t like it when people say they’re not good at this or that as if it’s destiny.  Most of us haven’t really tried.  Or they’ll say they’re not good at writing and  yet they write great emails, IM conversations or even letters.  Point being, it’s something that can be learned.

Not that writing a book is for everyone.  Same as computer programming or sadomasochism isn’t for everyone.  There are just some things I don’t want to be good at.  And the safe word is “Onomatopoeia “, by the way.  But check out those lists going around on Facebook.  There are a lot of people online telling their stories and thoughts one or two sentences at a time.  Like George Carlin’s “Brain Droppings” but less acerbic.

But I was thinking about something.  It’s strange to me how people say they like my writing but they don’t like their own.  So here is my guide to writing.  this is how too writ e good.

Oh.  Keep in mind that I’ve never really written a book or been paid to write so I don’t exactly know what I’m talking about.  Never stopped me before, though.  Also, keep in mind that according to Google’s widget, I write on a third or fourth grade level.

The key is DETAIL

And nothing says detail like adjectives.  And adverbs.  And incomplete.  Sentences.  Here’s how to write bad.  Write like a teenager talks.

“How was your day?”


“Anything interesting happen at school?”



“[monosyllabic grunt]”

I enjoy the fact that it takes six syllables to describe “um” or “ung’.  You know, you’ll ask a teenager how their day at the beach was and they’ll say:

“It was cool.”

Ask them to describe it.

“I don’t know!  Hot.  Sandy.  Wet.”

Was the water warm?

“I don’t know.  Um.  Yeh.  Kind of.”

Were there a lot of people?

“Some.  I guess.  It was kind of crowded.  Took a long time to find a parking space.”

I had a friend at UMBC who was getting horrible grades in English.  And he was frustrated because he was a smart guy but nothing he wrote was good enough for the teacher.  And I said something that turned out to be really helpful.  I told him to write like he had an English accent.  He got an “A” on his next assignment, which shocked the hell out of me.

Where the Devil Is

If you want to write badly, write like a recalcitrant teenager talks.  If you want to write, um goodly, then it’s all about the details.  I’m not talking about writing dialogue or writing a good story arc or plot.  I’ve checked out books on those subjects and too many of them say to follow a template.  Boo.  I’m talking about plain reg’lar everyday writing because you like to do it.  Imagine having this conversation with your teenager.

“How was the beach?”

“It was great.”

“Yeh?  What was so great about it?”

“The sky was clear and blue.  Sea gulls arced overhead on the lazy ocean breeze.  Probably skreeing to each other about fish and which tourist wasn’t guarding their salted pretzel too closely.”

“What else?”

“The sun was brutal.  The sand was hot between my toes so I dug my feet in further and could feel the squelch of soothing salt water.”

“Was the water warm?”

“Not as warm as I thought it would be.  Once you were in it, it was okay but going in it felt like the ocean and the sun were playing tug of war with you as the rope.”

“What else.”

“Kites in the sky.  A little red plastic sand bucket with a yellow shovel sticking out of it.  Someone had made a big crab out of sand and built it around one of their friends so his head was right where the crab’s face would be.  And there were women everywhere in string bikins, all bronzed from the sun laying on their stomachs so you could see the curves of their rears all the way down the beach in every direction.”

Well, no one talks like that, I know, but it’s the details that turns a collection of observations into  a story.  I mean, look at what mentioning colors and temperature and textures and sounds does to you.  In some circles, they call it creating word pictures.

I encourage everyone to write.  So the next time someone asks you over IM how work is, don’t just say, “It’s okay.”  Or, “It sucks.”

Say, “It sucks with the force of a thousand purple Dyson vacuum cleaners.”

The next time someone asks you how your dinner was, don’t just say, “It was great.  I’m so full.”

You can say, “Oh, I’m pregnant with a food baby and I’m going to name it Ruby Tuesday, Jr.”

It’s all in the detail.

The Rhythm is Gonna Get You


Haha.  Ruby Tuesday, Jr.  That’s kind of funny.  But you see what I mean?  That sentence causes me to visualize a pregnant, swollen belly, a crying baby, mini-burgers and that red, brown, green color of a Ruby Tuesday’s with the big red sign.

Like I said earlier, Google Docs says that I write at about a 4th grade level.  It takes into account how long your sentences and paragraphs are.  And vocabulary, too, I think.  Or syllables maybe?  I don’t know.  But it brings up a good point.  Rhythm/timing.  Good writing like good music has to have tension and release and not just in terms of plot but in terms of … uh.  I can’t think of the word.  I’m tired.

Like that, kind of.  I’m fading big time here, but let me see if I can come up with something.

It was Tuesday like every day.  I arrived in the office late as usual.  As discretely as I could I slunk into the kitchen to get a cup of tea before I went to my desk.  Unfortunately, we were out of tea, having layed off the office manager in the recent layoffs due to the economic downturn, the financial crisis, the now recognized recession that’s sending the whole economy in a tailspin of pink slips, lost retirement savings and desperation fueled bailouts.  I got a cup of coffee instead and just in time for her to walk into the kitchen.  Her.  Every morning I go to work, even on the toughest days of slogging in the elements to get there, it’s worth it just to coincidence myself into the kitchen at the same time she’s there.  Pretty and preened as always she gave me a polite nod and smile.

I farted.  I smiled back.

Like that.  The rope-a-dope.

A Love of Language

I love language and lingustics.  Don’t know much about it but it’s fascinating.  We’re wired for language.  And it’s wondrous to me that these little arbitrary squiggles allow us not only to communicate with each other, but allow us to communicate over time and space.  Asynchronously.  It’s a time machine.

Like the light of a dying star, writing is a window into the past.  You can live a thousand lives, vicariously, through writing and let someone share yours.

So maybe that’s the other attribute.  A love and respect for the power and beauty of language.  It’s a living, dynamic, practical artform.  So common that it’s taken for granted and abused, rendered powerless like Homer Simpson when he joined the NRA.  He was walking around turning out the lights by shooting at them.

We curse to emphasize something and then do it so much that the curse words have no power.  “F*ck, man.  That f*cking thing was the sh*t.”

“Sh*t, man.  What the f*ck.  Don’t be a p*ssy, dude.”

We say x and do y, rendering ourselves ineffective.  Here’s my philosophy.  If you want to write, you have to stop and listen (and read).

If you want to make music, you have to hear the world around you as music.

If you want to create visual art, you have to see the world around you as art.

If you want to write, you have to see the world around you as a story.

And that’s it.

And now, how to play the flute.

Hold the flute like so.  Blow into the mouthpiece and move your fingers over the keys, producing captivating music.


Add Yours
    • garyarthuryoung

      Cool! Then my work here is done. To the lab!

      Please do write. It’s always good to hear your voice, one way or another.

      Scratch that writin’ itch.

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