Writing And Me. (Or is it Writing And I?)

My old friend and creative partner Jerry Torchia writes in response to some of my recent self-deprecations:

I have to say this: you ARE as great a writer as everyone keeps saying.   At least believe that.

I’m told that a lot.  I’m trying to figure out how to articulate my feelings about an answer.  I’ll probably post a couple of thoughts about this in the weeks ahead, but let me give some rambling background information here.  (BTW, a great writer probably doesn’t waste your time with rambling background information.)

This isn’t some false modesty at work. I believe and admit that I have some writing skills that are considerably above average.  Not always, but I can often write pretty fast.  I’ve got a good ear for what’s right and what’s wrong in writing.  (Thank you, mom and dad, for creating a grammatically correct home for Patti and me to grow up in.)  I’ve got the patience required for rewriting and then rewriting again.  I can write about almost anything.  With the right rewriting and the help of an editor or impartial reader, I can write clearly. 


My fingers can spell pretty well, even though my brain doesn’t.  When I’m at a keyboard, I rarely have to pause to check spelling.   But if you ask me to spell out loud something like “embarrassing,” I’ll stumble.  How many rs?  Are those two as right?  Proof: I had no trouble typing “embarrassing,” but as soon as I started analyzing it, I had to hit the dictionary just to be sure—and even though I’m using the AutoCorrect to check up on me both while I’m writing and when I’m finished.


Many writers freeze up when they have to be candid or sentimental.  I choke up almost as easily as a 14-year-old at her big sister’s wedding– and I’m hopelessly candid about almost everything.  (I wonder if anyone other than Ginny knows the one topic I’m not candid about.)   I’m not afraid to demonstrate those soft feelings in my writing.  I try not to be mawkish or syrupy, but I’m not held back worrying about revealing my inner schoolgirl.


Many writers believe in and follow the grammar rules they were taught in grade school.  I’m not burdened by that.  But being a natural grammarian is different from (than?) being a great writer.  A good ear for where the comma goes is much more reliable than a stack of grammar books.


Many writers follow trends.  It’s hard not to be influenced by “tricks for writers”[1] when the tricks come from Elmore Leonard.  It’s hard to ignore the dictum against using the passive voice when the dictum comes from Stephen King.  A trend-follower believes that the best writers don’t use adjectives or adverbs.  That they never have one-word paragraphs.  That they rarely use punctuation marks other than the period and, when absolutely necessary, the comma. When they have a sentence that ends with something in parentheses or quotation marks, the trendies think too much about whether the period at the end always has to be placed inside the parentheses or quotation mark.  (My good friend Dr. Lauren Tucker has rulebooks that prove those marks always go on the inside.  My good friend Danny Robinson, who admittedly is not a doctor, can show very clear examples “proving” the “inside” rule is impractical and just plain wrong!).,?”


The trend-obsessed are flummoxed about whether it’s OK to use the word “their” (normally plural) to avoid having to use “his” or “her” when the gender of the “his” or “her” isn’t clear.  They’re not sure if it’s OK to use a word like OK in good writing. They wonder if the second OK in the last sentence—or the two OKs in this one—should be in quotation marks or italics.  And by the way, should it be spelled okay?  I admit some of these questions give me pause. I admit that I’m inconsistent on almost all of these points—and many more.  That doesn’t bother me much.  My dictum[2]:  whatever gets you through the sentence.


Even non-writers know you’re not supposed to use clichés.  William Safire famously wrote that he avoids them like the plague.  I’m not too fussy about that.  If a cliché is the most direct route from A to B and it doesn’t sound hokey or dumb, I go for it.


And here’s something that really bugs me:  No matter how hard I try, I can’t write good dialog.  I worry too much about moving the message forward.  Everything becomes too obvious.  The dialog I write never sounds like it’s coming from real people.  It loses humanity and subtlety.


I flatter myself to think that when I was a reporter, I was on the way to being a very good writer for newspapers.  The hard deadlines helped and I was never afraid to work as long as it took to get the story as polished as I wanted to get it.[3]  I’d write, then rewrite, then rewrite again.  I also wasn’t afraid to try new things.  For example, I once interviewed Tom Wolfe for the now defunct Richmond News Leader.  I decided I’d write my article about the native Richmonder in the almost-gonzo style he was famous for.  I dove in. Punctuation marks were running wild. The onomatopoeia was sizzling.  My story wasn’t just about Tom Wolfe; it was, like all of the wondrous New Journalism, about the author-participant.  It was about me!   Less than 30 minutes after I turned my typewritten story in, I saw my editor, Jerry Finch, a wonderful man and a very supportive boss, walked over to my desk with it in his hand.   Surely he wanted to put this story on page one. I couldn’t wait for him to tell me how clever and talented I was.  Instead he stood over my desk and, without saying a word, he slowly shook his head back and forth, the universal symbol for “No way, Jose.” He dropped my electric Kool-Aid acidic copy on my desktop.  I went immediately into rewrite mode.  (I’m forever grateful to Jerry for that.  I might have embarrassed myself in front of my editor, but he spared me the indignity of embarrassing myself in front of thousands of RNL readers.)


A couple years later I thought I might be on my way to being a first class advertising writer.  One of the top writers in the history of the business—Minneapolis’s Tom McElligott—said that I was one of the few writers in the country “who really knows how to write a long-copy ad.”  Even better, my boss, hero, friend, partner and mentor Harry Jacobs liked my copy.  With that kind of encouragement, I was on my way.  I’d stay up all night to get the headline right.  Then I’d rewrite the copy over and over.  (Harry once said I was still rewriting ads that appeared in last month’s magazines.)  I was on my way to greatness.


But as the agency grew, my management responsibilities started taking more time.  It was harder to obsess about the writing.  I was distracted by client and personnel issues.  I was in a rhythm that meant that when necessary I could turn out professional writing quickly and efficiently.  But that wasn’t the same as doing it obsessively.  The work that resulted was writing like the writing you’re reading right now.[4]  It has its virtues, but it’s not great. 


Like every other person in advertising, “great” is a title I bestow too easily.  Every ad is “great.”  Every copywriter is “great.”  Every photograph is “great.”  No they aren’t.  It’s especially easy to see the hollowness of that kind of “great” when the word is applied to something I’ve done. 


No one making the case that I’m a “great” writer is suggesting I can be compared to Mark Twain or Gay Talese or Jimmy Breslin or the best writers writing today for Esquire, New York and the big Conde Nast titles—Michael Lewis, Scott Raab, Atul Gawande, etc.  They might be suggesting that I belong to the small group of “great” advertising writers—McCabe, Abbott, McElligott, Delaney, Riney, Riswold, Goodby.[5]  After all, I’m in the Creative Hall of Fame with those guys, right? 


It so happens that McCabe, Abbott et al. turned out to be extraordinary creative directors in addition to being great copywriters.  But make no mistake:  even if they’d been abject failures as CDs, they would still be on the roster based solely on their work as writers.  They are writers who stand comparison to the great writers of any persuasion. Comparisons to Shakespeare or Updike would make them cringe at least a little.  (Well, most of them.)  Let me say this:  they’re not Shakespeare, but in my opinion any of the seven ad writers named here could give Updike a run for his money—and Updike’s not chopped liver.   (You are free to count the clichés in that last sentence.)  There are probably one or two dozen more ad guys you could add to that list.


There are also copywriters-turned-creative directors who are enshrined in halls of fame not because of their writing, but because of the body of work created on their watch.  In fact, few of us could name any ads written by Bill Bernbach–and he’s generally considered the best and most important figure in the history of creative advertising.  I’m not on the tallest peak of that mountain, the one Bernbach stands on, but that’s the range I’m in.  Bernbach’s there because he was the captain and coach of a team (Koenig, Gage, Levenson, Krone, Robinson, etc.) that had the most impressive decade-long run an agency ever had.  Nowhere near as dramatically, I rode in on the coattails of our own all-star team.  I feel funny that I’m not naming the creative people here; it’s only because the list has no end—and I’d kick myself for leaving anyone out.  I’ll only say the list starts with names like Jacobs (!), Boone, Tench, Layman, Ford and Cook-Tench.


I have my quirks as a writer.  Writers shouldn’t use euphuistic language, but I’ll occasionally throw in a highfalutin word just for the heck of it.  It’s not that I have a big vocabulary—I don’t.  It’s just that I use the thesaurus as much as I use the dictionary and I like to use words that are new discoveries.  For example when I started this paragraph, I didn’t know the word euphuistic at all (“an artificial, highly elaborate way of writing or speaking.”) Now I do.  Unfortunately I’ll forget it by this afternoon.   


Other quirks.  I over-explain.  I like puns.  I like lists that leave out the “and.”  I like mixing formal and informal styles—even in the same sentence.  I’m currently going through a phase where I love footnotes—as long as they aren’t dry academic footnotes.) 


I sometimes type “it’s” when I mean “its.”  Everyone who takes pride in their (his or her?) writing—and that usually includes me—takes pride in their ability to spot it’s/its errors.  They’re everywhere and they’re easy to spot.  I know the difference.  But sometimes my fingers betray me.  On the other hand, I believe the difference between its and it’s doesn’t matter.  Why do we care?


But we do care.  I care.  Great writing matters because it gives form to ideas and histories and truth.  Great writing matters because it elevates person-to-person communication. Great writing matters because it clarifies the questions that should be asked.  Great writing matters because it simplifies the complex and moves unfinished thinking to something closer to finished thinking.


In the preface of Telling True Stories, Mark Kramer and Wendy Call wildly overstate the often-lamented tyranny of the blank page: “Writing well is difficult, even excruciating, and demands courage, patience, humility, erudition, savvy, stubbornness, wisdom, and aesthetic sense—all summoned at your lonely desk.”  Good, even great writing is not that hard.  But it’s hard enough to demand respect. 


I confess that I’ve probably worked harder on this posting than on any that have come before.  (Since I’ve deliberately seeded this piece with inconsistencies and bumps, it probably doesn’t feel that way to you, patient reader.  I’m sorry about that.)  But I haven’t worked that hard even on this one.  I know it’s arrogant for a guy who’s arguing that he’s not a “great” writer to go on at this length about writing.  I do respect good writing, though.  I respect the effort that goes into it.  I respect it too much to accept compliments for it when I haven’t done the work it requires.

[1] From the Gotham Writers Workshop: 

Unlike most genre writers… Elmore Leonard is taken seriously by the literary crowd.  What’s Leonard’s secret to being both popular and respectable? Perhaps you’ll find some clues in his 10 tricks for good writing:

  •  Never open a book with weather.
  •  Avoid prologues.
  •  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  •  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  •  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  •  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  •  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  •  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  •  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  •  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Leonard goes on to say:  “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10:  if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

[2] It occurs to me that my dictum (“whatever gets you through the sentence”) is something I share with Bernie Madoff, OJ Simpson and Lindsay Lohan.

[3] Of course, I usually don’t want to get overly polished.  Some rough edges give readers something to hold onto.  Too much polishing can drain the life out of the writing.  In the next footnote I mention Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech.  I bet the phrase that’s most remembered is the one that see-saws back and forth from clunky to powerful to childish:  when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded…  You can hear an editor, “Well, Bill, the alliteration is nice and all, but are you sure you want to stand up in front of the Nobel audience and the millions of people who’ll be reading this for decades to come, talking about the last dingdong of doom?”

[4] I am not embarrassed to do the kind of straightforward writing copywriters and newspaper journalists are expected to do.  I’ve always been a little suspicious of “literary” writing, where the emphasis seems to be more on the writing than on the reading, on the writer more than the reader.  Faulkner was an astonishing writer who could do just about anything with words.  I’ll never tire of his Nobel acceptance speech, which is among the best pieces of advertising copy I’ve ever read.  But I’ll never again dive into Absalom, Absalom.  I’m just not smart enough to tackle the writing.  (“Awwww, you mean I’ve got to go back three pages and start this sentence over again–again?  If I didn’t understand it the first three times I read it, why will I understand it this time?  And, by the way, has this mentally challenged character been in the book from the beginning?  How’d I miss that?”)

[5] The copywriters named here all made their bones in the last third of the 20th century. Until 1960 advertising orthodoxy didn’t give writers much of an opportunity to reach beyond formula thinking.  Since the late ‘90s, copywriting has been in a different kind of box.  The industry seems to have given up fighting the notion that nobody reads copy.  The genius of the best advertising today is expected to show itself in design and style of voice, in its comfort with new technologies and in its pop cultural savvy.  Copywriters have always spent more time developing concepts than on writing copy, but now the difference is extreme.  And today’s copywriters undoubtedly feel less pressure to do something great when they suspect that no one is going to read the copy anyway—not the creative director, not the client, not the consumer.  (One thing hasn’t changed:  it has always been true that every copywriter over 45 years old—and most over 35–believes that “the kids today” don’t have respect for the craft of writing.)

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3 Responses to Writing And Me. (Or is it Writing And I?)

  1. Christa says:

    Hi Mike – this is a fantastically candid, funny, and warm piece on the complicated act of writing. I so appreciate your thoughts, ideas, and actions to get this all down. As a journalist, playwright, and slice of life features writer, I know first hand that it’s not easy to do and I want you to know just how lucky we all are that you take the time to share this kind of work with us. Keep going.

  2. Larry says:


    Maybe you talked about this as you described your style as a writer but I wanted to let you know about one of the uses of words that I love about your writing. It’s those times you surprise me with a word that makes me smile and understand more clearly what you’re saying. The word, “bump” in this sentence is an example.

    (Since I’ve deliberately seeded this piece with inconsistencies and bumps, it probably doesn’t feel that way to you, patient reader.

    In this blog, I felt those bumps, those times when I felt lifted out of the words for a moment, took a little ride up in the air and then dropped back into the sentence.

    My guess is there’s some description for these type of words but this is not my area of expertise. I’m just a reader.

  3. Barb Rhoads-Weaver says:

    I am missing your mom today and wishing I lived closer to Richmond (not something I normally do, as the Pacific Northwest (and my island in particular) is home). Reading both of your blogs has brought me solace and made me feel closer. Thank you.
    I am constantly trying to improve my writing. I am better than I was a decade ago in large part because of the guidance provided by Tom Chambers. I can’t help but to think that you and Tom share many similar qualities and talents, as well as medical adversity and grace in light of physical realities. I am blessed to know Tom and to be related to you. I’m posting a link to his blog because I think you might enjoy his writings. http://tomchambers.com/category/blog-post/
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on both blogs. I believe they will help me improve my writing. More importantly, your example will help me be a better person and by that I mean one who chooses grace and happiness regardless of circumstances.
    Love, Barb (Madeline’s oldest)

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