Mincing Words (and Writers)

“There’s an epigram tacked to my office bulletin board, pinched from a magazine: ‘Wanting to meet a writer because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.'” Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead

If writing technical reports taught me anything, it taught me how important it is to be specific and succinct. My readers were few (by design), but they were influential. They were busy executives, incredibly busy. They wouldn’t waste time wading through a bunch of sentences to try and figure out what I was talking about, so I learned not to mince words. I soon discovered lucid prose was like a laser on a rifle. The bosses didn’t always pull the trigger after reading my findings, but when they did they hit their marks with deadly accuracy. This was my personal experience with investigative journalism, and it informs my writing to this day.

No good writer minces words, but that doesn’t mean the writer herself isn’t minced. Stories are like recipes, the difference being that stories include bits of the writer along with all the other ingredients. What comes out, if the work goes well, is a pleasantly astonishing something, something that’s entirely different from the writer, whole on its own when separated from her, but it contains the writer nonetheless.

I think Ms. Atwood’s quote is spot on. In her book on writing Atwood goes on to say that people are sometimes disappointed to meet her in person, finding her to be less than they expected. Less disturbing, perhaps. More ordinary. They wonder how her stories could come from her. They aren’t alone. “Where is this stuff coming from?” wonder writers everywhere as they lay print to pages.

Maybe that’s why some writers affect aloof arrogance, to hide the fact that they aren’t all that. They needn’t bother. None of us are equal to the work. That’s the beauty and the joy of it.



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