The Dershowitz dilemma An article in the July/Aug 2012 Yale Alumni Magazine listed some famous Yale graduates’ favourite classes and the stories behind them. “In one vignette, Alan Dershowitz, Yale ’62 LLB attorney, Harvard law professor and best-selling author, told a surprising (and very well-written) tale (The Class I’ll Never Forget):
In his first-year Torts class, Dershowitz received a dreaded D on his first written assignment.
His Professor, Guido Calabresi, wrote a comment implying that Mr Dershowitz, though a sound thinker, might not be suited to the practice of law due to his sub-par writing ability. The problem, as Calabresi stated it, was that Dershowitz wrote as if he were “having a conversation with [his]friends in Brooklyn”.
The professor worked all semester to step Dershowitz’s writing up to an acceptable level. Apparently it worked. Will you ever learn?
Dershowitz is not the only writer capable of being trained. For many years, for instance, I have been editing my mother’s New Year’s letter. It used to take a lot of work and a lot of verbal wrestling with Mom. Nowadays, I breeze through in a few minutes with very little to suggest. Mom learned too! She is now one of my sharpest editors.
Master Editor Sol Stein, in his book Stein on Writing, talks about a time when he sat on a panel with four other editors. A question was posed about how to control the “pace” of a book. Stein’s colleagues agreed that “pace was a matter of ear or instinct, and [was]hence unteachable” (p. 193). Stein disagreed. He went on to explain to an eager audience how to change the pace of a novel. Stein proves in his book that pace is just one of many teachable writing skills.
If you find yourself lamenting that you are “just not a good writer”, consider whether you have the time and motivation to learn to be a better one. Things like descriptive writing can be taught.
Title writing can be taught. Grammar can be taught. Keeping a reader’s interest can be taught.
I have come up with three ways to become a better writer (though this is by no means an exhaustive list!)
1 Read more
I remember hearing that the best way to learn to write well was to read good writing. I am fortunate that as a child I was an insatiable bookworm; I’m sure I learned much of my writing technique through osmosis. The good news is it’s never too late to start reading. Do you want to raise the level of your writing? If you have a commute that involves public transport, or if you have a lazy Sunday afternoon at your disposal, why not pick up one of the classics… or maybe an Alan Dershowitz novel will be all you need.
2 Read aloud
Reading your writing aloud can also enhance your writing prowess. Sometimes something as simple as listening to yourself will ensure that your writing works. If you trip over a sentence or a word when reading out loud, or if you start to bore yourself, it’s time to edit until you like what you hear. Remember, the books we love the most are just as powerful as Books on Tape as they are in print.
3 Find a great editor
A third option, and perhaps the most reliable if you need good writing now, is to submit your
writing over and over and over again to a good editor. You will get an immediately improved product, and you will likely find that your writing improves naturally as you study and accept edits and coaching. My mother, when I told her she would be featured in this article, joked, “Sure, Brenda. I get it… if your mother can do it, anyone can.””