This column first ran in 2011:
Having spent most of my school days staring out the window, I’m still learning the fundamentals of writing. For example, an editor taught me that quotation marks should be outside the period. Another suggested that voices from multiple sources would spruce up feature stories.
I can always use guidance from editors. Well, except for some who were too brutal with their cuts. The very best editors serve as muses. They inspire me because I want to meet their standards.
I’ve had editors who saved me from being sentenced to journalism jail, by removing lines that would have offended Review readers. I find it ironic, though, that the column which offended the most readers was when I poked fun at our former president.
I miss brainstorming with editors to come up with topics, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had face-to-face meetings in the newsroom. I really miss the direction editors used to give me.
Now I’m getting instruction from an unlikely source: Edgar Allan Poe’s essay, “The Philosophy of Composition.” I think all Forest Park writers could benefit from Edgar’s insights.
He starts out saying, “Either history affords a thesis — or one is suggested by an incident of the day.” In my case, it helps if the incident of the day is a bird getting into the bedroom, the oven starting on fire, or a pipe breaking in the basement.
Edgar says we should first consider the effect of our piece. Well, that’s easy. I’m looking for any kind of effect that will take up 600 words. He said to keep originality “always in view.” Well, that’s asking a bit much. If I can’t steal concepts from other columnists and catchy phrases from my neighbors, how am I going to fill the space?
As for length, Edgar thought we should keep our pieces short enough to be read in one sitting. Not a problem. He planned his poem, “The Raven,” to be 100 lines long but ended up with 108. Such excess verbiage would never have been permitted by “The Review.” We would have cut a few “Nevermores.”
Edgar said we should strive to make our work universally appreciable but I’ll settle for a handful of readers. He says the piece we write should “elevate our souls with its beauty.” Jeez, this guy had high standards. Tone, he said, is all important, which is why I rarely raise my voice in print. I only use all capital letters when I’m sending an angry text.
Poe wasn’t against monotonous repetition if it serves a purpose. Monotony has never bothered me. As for repetition, I often ask myself, “Didn’t I already write this column three years ago?”
To achieve beauty, Edgar suggested several literary devices. Rhythm, for instance, can make the piece flow. If you’ve seen me dance, you know I’m not acquainted with rhythm. He also favors alliteration. I can tell tall tales about timely topics, without making it sound forced.
The most startling instruction Edgar gave was to compose the ending first. I must have been staring out the window when the nun announced that. My sister’s a teacher and said even her third-graders know that.
Finally, we should never burden the reader with the process of constructing the piece. That’s something only a desperate hack would do, if his topic fell apart at the last minute.
Thanks to an e-mail from a faithful reader, I’m going to have something original, beautiful and possibly rhythmic next week.
To avoid tedious discussions of the writing process in the future, I welcome your column suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Rice writes a weekly column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.