Wordsmithy, by Douglas Wilson


Doug Wilson gave us a real gift when he banged out Wordsmithy on his blog June 2010. The writing has been captured and set to print in a fine little 120 pager. It was excellent, and here are a few reasons why:

First, the tips are for the writing lifeEmphasize life. A plumber could benefit from many of them. Wilson rightfully connects your life and your writing, clearing up the false idea that you can write an interesting book without living an interesting life. He sees the mundane responsibilities of being human as essential to the writer’s development. And so I quote:

My point is that the time in between was not wasted–submarine service, marriage, college, bring up three kids, starting a school for them, and so forth. This kind of life experience is not distracting you from your appointed task of writing. It is, rather, the roundabout blessing of giving you something to say.

He likes rules, and breaking them too. This strikes the balance between the literary legalists and libertines. Quote:

Oscare Wilde once defined a gentleman as one who never insulted somebody else accidentally. In a similar spirit, a competent writer wants to be the kind of person who is never guilty of a solecism accidentally. If you do it, do it with your eyes open.

This approach creates a sense of spontaneity and surprise, which gives way to punch and wit. That’s why he recommends reading books on writing mechanics and books on slang. His rule is “Master the rules before you assume that you have the right to break them.” Mastering the comma usage will prevent grandpa from being dinner (Let’s eat, grandpa!). Though mistakes of this nature can be quite funny:

Justin Taylor, editor of Crossway, cites the example of one writer who wanted to thank “my parents, Jesus and Ayn Rand.”

So we listen to grammarians and libertines. And we make sure we’re able to communicate who our real parents are.

These things can be learned and developed. Yes, genetics are a thing. And they have something to do with your make-up and how you play with words. But discipline is a thing too, and hard work and time and practice can make a writer. Chestertons exists, but they are anomalies and don’t offer the best help to become a writer. Most writers, like 99.99% of them, became writers because they worked hard and practiced a lot. Is writing hard to you? Good, you’re human. Writing is hard, wake up.

Does this lesson really need repeating? Yes, it does. You became good at basketball because you shot hoops after school every day until the sun went down. You learned piano because mom made you take lessons every Tuesday for three years. Malcolm Gladwell was on to something when he wrote about the 10,000 hour rule. I’m not sure one can be so precise, but the point is clear: becoming an expert on anything takes time. Yes, even writer. So,

Be at peace with being lousy for a while. Chesterton once said that anything worth doing was worth doing badly. He was right. Only an insufferable egoist expects to be brilliant the first time out.

There are seven main tips, each with seven sub-tips. They read quickly, so if you want a plunge into an icy pond to shock the writing senses, this seems like a good place to jump. I could see myself picking this book up again in a year to revisit some of the things I’ve been taught. I highly recommend it.

One Reply to “Wordsmithy, by Douglas Wilson”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

11 − one =