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What Does It Take to Be a Good Writer?

Sweat. And blood. And tears. And a cramped hand. If you want readers to enjoy your work, you must suffer. The term "writer" is misleading, however. The correct term is "rewriter," for all good writing requires rewriting. Good writers are not born good; they are forged by study and practice. Consider the ancient Greek rhetorician Isocrates:

In the art of rhetoric, credit is won not by gifts of fortune, but by efforts of study. For those who have been gifted with eloquence by nature and by fortune, are governed in what they say by chance, and not by any standard of what is best, whereas those who have gained this power by study and by the exercise of language never speak without weighting their words, and so are less often in error as to a course of action. (Antidosis, 15.292)

So examine every word, every sentence, every paragraph. Eradicate awkwardness, ambiguity, and bad grammar at all costs. The more rhetorically effective and clearer you are, the more your readers will enjoy the fruit of your writing. Heed therefore to one of the most prolific writers of all time, reformer Martin Luther:

So great a rhetorician and theologian ought not only to know, but to act according to, that which Fabius says, "An ambiguous word should be avoided as a rock." Where it happens now and then inadvertently, it may be pardoned: but where it is sought for designedly and purposely, it deserves no pardon whatever, but justly merits the abhorrence of every one. For to what does this hateful double-tongued way of speaking tend? . . . Let him rather be reduced to order . . . by abstaining from that profane and double-tongued vertibility of speech and vain-talking, and by avoiding, as Paul [the apostle] saith, "profane and vain babblings."

For this it was, that even the public laws of the Roman empire condemned this manner of speaking, and punished it thus.—They commanded, "that the words of him who should speak obscurely, when he could speak more plainly, should be interpreted against himself." And Christ also, condemned that wicked servant who excused himself by an evasion; and interpreting his own words against himself, said, "Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant." For if in religion, in laws, and in all weighty matters, we should be allowed to express ourselves ambiguously and insidiously, what could follow but that utter confusion of Babel, where no one could understand another! This would be, to learn the language of eloquence, and in so doing, to lose the language of nature!
 
Moreover, if this license should prevail . . . what would become of logic, the instructor of teaching rightly? What would become of rhetoric, the faculty of persuading? Nothing would be taught, nothing would be learned, no persuasion could be carried home, no consolation would be given, no fear would be wrought: because, nothing would be spoken or heard that was certain. ("Letter to Nicolas Armsdoff Concerning Erasmus of Rotterdam")

Therefore, strive for clarity! Good writers are concise writers. The Elizabethan era of wordy rhetorical embellishments is long gone; practice the Paramedic Method instead.

Good writers are careful, voracious readers too. In other words, read! Everything! Especially works by good authors. Close reading will help you become a stylish, idiomatic writer. Examine the style of the author and learn from it. You should also scrutinize your own writing by looking at your work through the eyes of your readers. And read books about writing, such as Strunk and White's Elements of Style, Brians' Common Errors in English, and Trimble's Writing with Style.

And don't forget to write! Every day! Even if it's just a paragraph. Even if it's just a sentence. It will pay off. "For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little" (Isaiah 28:10).

May the pen be with you.

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