Thursday, August 02, 2012

Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life, by Doug Wilson

Update to this post: I received a very helpful comment from a regular reader who caused me to rethink how I presented this book. I have re-written this post to try to more accurately reflect the fact that I read and approached this book as a learning tool. I've attempted to take a little more care in stating that I understand Wilson is someone who is surrounded in controversy. I do not talk about this book to recommend either him or his theology. Rather, I'm honestly writing this review for myself (as always) to remember two things: 1.) This is a book that I did read; and 2.) What I learned from it.

Please take it no further than that.

Yesterday I talked about a book I didn't like, so I'll balance that out by talking about one I do! I hadn't heard of Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life until Katrina mentioned it around the tail end of her Spring Reading Thing. It being Doug Wilson (who I read less of these days) and it being about improving writing skills, I thought I'd give it a go.

Personally, I enjoyed the book for it's writing tips (only). However, this is not a title that's going to fly with the general public, I expect. Perhaps not at all. Please understand that I'm writing this review more for myself, because I read it, and less as a recommendation. I don't feel as I can make a recommendation of Wordsmithy for theological reasons which do not at all relate to the topic which this book addresses. This book
is very Wilson-esque in it's style. Since he is writing about the practicality of learning how to write well, and not trying to present some great theological point (although you could argue that one's theology does dictate whether or not they desire to learn to write well) then he's a bit more flippant with his pen this time 'round. More so than usual, I'd say.

Again, when it comes to my being able to enjoy Wilson's style (and humor), I have to make the disclaimer that I attended his church for the ten months I lived in Idaho. During those months I heard him speak in sermons and in his home several times and so when I read him I find it easier to catch his tone of voice and hear his wise cracks, understanding them for what they are. Those not as familiar with him as a speaker tend to have more difficulty connecting to his written words. (This is all a heavy aside from certain theological arguments which surround Wilson at the moment as I stated earlier.)

I was able to read Wordsmithy and be amused. I was also able to take away some valuable tips. At the same time, I found myself struggling through his well-turned phrases and wishing he had been a little more stoic and less jovial at times. He points out though that every writer has his or her own style and when you grow more familiar with them you'll be able to identify their writing whether or not you see their name listed as author next to their words. I believe I could pick Wilson out of a writing line-up fairly well (challenge anyone?!) because I've read him and listened to him quite a bit. He also really favors P.G. Wodehouse and the love of Wodehouse shines through. (In fact, he states inside this book that he has purposed to read through Wodehouse's entire collection and that influence is definitely taking hold on Wilson.)

So now that I've disclaimed the book up one side and down the other, here is what I took away:

All of us were speakers before we were writers. Begin with the foundations. If you develop your writing voice in a distinctive kind of way first, and then try to harmonize it with your speaking voice, that is like jacking up the house to pour a foundation under it. It can be done, but there are better ways. As you think of metaphors, use them in conversation. As you learn more about language, apply it in speech first. Then transfer what you have learned to your writing. Pay attention to all the words you use every day - especially the words that are coming out of your mouth. (Chapter 1, A Veritable Russian Doll of Writing Tips, page 22)

To that last sentence my only response is to slap the table and let out a loud, "AMEN!" Words matter. The order you put them in matters a great deal. It is important that we learn to pay attention to what we're saying in our daily, oral life and take just as much care (if not more) in our writing life. I assume it goes without saying that blogging is writing. Take care what you say. Learn to say it well. That's a tall order!

Read like a lover of books and not someone who wants to be seen as knowledgeable, or well-read, or scholarly. Read because you want to, not because you need to. Actually, you need to as well, but you need to want to. You also need to want to need to, but I am rapidly getting out of my depth. (Chapter 2, Read Until Your Brain Creaks, page 37)

Read! Read! Read! Wilson spends an entire chapter on why it is important that you read well and widely as you prepare and practice your writing skills. He exhorts his reader to read to know what makes good writing and what makes bad writing. Read to gain literary experience and also life experience. One thing he says a few times during the whole of the book is, "The more you know, the more you CAN know." Tackle hard books. Take time for easy ones. Be a versatile, interested reader.

Criticism should be received as a kindness (Psalm 141:5). (Chapter 5, The Memoirs of Old Walnut Heart, page 87)

To quote from Psalm 141:5 for added emphasis:

Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness;
let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head;
let my head not refuse it.

We don't like critique as a general rule. I don't like critique as a general rule, even though I know it to be good for me. Wilson points out that you will not be a great writer instantly. Honing the skill will take great practice and will take negative feedback to tell you where you could stand to improve. (His advice could be applied to all of life, really.)

I really appreciated the sentence which I've quoted from the book and shared above. Criticism is a kindness. That is not something that we should take advantage of. ("I was pointing out to her areas for improvement as a kindness.") Do not abuse the right to critique because you do not want other people to abuse the right on you. But when it is your turn to receive some correction, you might want to keep the following in mind:

The wise man is quick to listen, slow to speak and very, very slow to anger. Remember that God speaks to us through others so listen for the truth in the critique of another and be humble enough to make changes where necessary.

This is the hardest piece of advice, but I think the best that Wilson has to offer. It's definitely the one we need to be reminded of the most frequently!

On the whole, I'd have to say that reading Wordsmithy was a positive experience. He provided several useful tips which I've instituted on the sidelines. He changed the way I think about the types of books I read and challenged me not to become too comfortable in my preferred genres and authors. I found much to appreciate within these pages. But whether you would like it, I cannot say. Enjoy if you can!


Barbara H. said...

I'm wishing now I had read the first draft, just to see what you said differently. :-) I saw it this morning but saved it for later today when I had a little more time.

I've heard good things about this book. I don't know enough about Wilson to know what theological stands he takes or what kinds of controversy surround him. What times someone has quoted him or linked to him, I found him somewhat harsh (and one quote was defending his harshness under the broad umbrella of satire). So I'm not naturally drawn to read any more of him.

But then again, I have heard this recommended and I do agree with the quotes you've mentioned here. So I don't know. Maybe some day.

Katrina said...

Great review, Carrie. I appreciate your balanced approach. I've not read much from Wilson (I've read MUCH more of his son's writings), so I had no other context when I picked up Wordsmithy. He reminded me very much of a family member of mine -- who says what he wants to say and has only occasional use for tact, and none at all for political correctness. :)

That said, like you, I appreciated the writing tips (greatly, in fact), but agree that certain aspects of the book will be a turnoff for many.

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