Sometimes a Mac (or a PC) is a typewriter

Way back in 1989, a Macintosh enthusiast and self-taught typographer named Robin Williams wrote a slim book called The Mac is Not a Typewriter. A few years later she wrote a similar book, The PC Is Not a Typewriter. The message of both books was almost religious in its fervor: we could no longer regard outselves as mere writers; we now had to be desktop publishers and typographers. Anyone who did not understand this was making a sad mistake. To quote from my own 1992 copy of The PC Is Not a Typewriter:

The purpose of this book is to let you in on some of the secrets that have been used for centuries to make type pleasing, beautiful, readable, legible, and artistic . . . If we are taking type out of the hands of the professionals, then we must upgrade our awareness of what makes their work look professional. I strongly feel it is our obligation—every one of us who uses the computer to create text on a page—to uphold the highest possible level of typographic quality in this changing world.

I enjoyed reading this and other books by Williams; she had a playful, pleasing style and made typography seem interesting. And yet 20 years later, we can say that her books failed. They did not convert the masses to her way of thinking. The first lesson in The PC Is Not a Typewriter is to insert only one space after a period, not two—a lesson that is still routinely violated today. Another lesson had to do with properly setting tabs for indented first lines and paragraphs—and this too remains a trouble spot for many writers.

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Rewriting “The Piano Teacher” for stronger scenes

The Piano TeacherYesterday I came to the end of The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee. It’s an intriguing read, and highly suspenseful—but among other things, it has reminded me of John Gardner’s injunction that actions in a scene should nearly always be described in chronological order.

This is a point of craft I regularly teach to my nonfiction writing students at NYU. Gardner’s argument is that getting the sequence right avoids jarring readers out of the dream state that makes good fiction so compelling. I make the additional argument that even with nonfiction, correct sequencing helps with clarity, allowing readers to understand what’s going on the first time through a passage.

And now I have found still a third reason: it makes the action not only clearer, but far more dramatic—especially if the scene is already a good one.

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My favorite ellipsis

F. Scott FitzgeraldLast night in the essays class I teach at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, the subject of ellipses came up. In a story, an ellipsis consists of leaving something out. The “something” can be anything from a few words to entire events. Unless we are reading quite technically, we usually only notice an ellipsis when it goes wrong – when the gap seems awkward or omits information we’re looking for. But when an ellipsis goes right, especially at the level of a sentence or a phrase, it can produce prose that is wonderfully economical and far more enjoyable than if the writer had included what has been omitted.

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The importance of stupidity in scientific research (and in writing)

Just heard of a neat article about why feeling stupid on a regular basis is actually a good sign if you’re doing serious scientific research.

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Updated edition available of “A Better Approach to Outlining”

If you find outlining difficult, irksome, etc., and you haven’t yet read my guide to the topic, I invite you to check out the latest edition. I’ve illustrated the differences between topic-based and point-based outlines with examples, and explained the latter technique more fully. You can find this updated edition, as well as my handy guide to using “road maps,” on the Writing Guides page.

Samuel R. Delaney and the “annealing moment” of doubt

Chip DelaneyReading the excerpt below makes me think of how difficult yet rewarding it must be to peel and eat a durian, that strange fruit found only in southeast Asia, and guarded by not only a foul odor but a thick husk of thorns. The excerpt comes from an essay by the science fiction writer, literary critic, and teacher Samuel R. Delaney called “Of Doubts and Dreams.” It’s part of a collection of related essays by Delaney titled About Writing.

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Videos: How to develop “reader sensitivity”

In his 1985 book “How to Write Like a Pro,” magazine writer Barry Tarshis makes the following provocative statement about what it takes to be a good writer:

The most important attribute you can have as a writer is something I call “reader sensitivity.” I define reader sensitivity as an ongoing awareness of how your readers are processing and reacting to what you’ve written. It’s being able to put yourself in your reader’s shoes . . .

In accomplished writers, reader sensitivity appears to be intuitive, in the same way that some entertainers have an innate feel for how an audience is responding to their performance. But in the event this awareness is not an intuitive part of what you, as a writer, bring to writing, you are operating under an all but fatal handicap – and you will remain handicapped until you sensitize yourself to the likely response of your readers.

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Byrdcliffe At Dusk

Published in Hudson Valley Magazine, September 2009

Byrdcliffe At DuskTwice a month each summer, a small walking tour comes to a halt on the dirt road outside the cabin where I live at the Byrdcliffe Art Colony in Woodstock. A dozen or so persons with little maps in their hands listen as the guide speaks, gesturing now and then in my direction. I can’t quite hear what she’s saying, but I’m sure she’s mentioning the name of my cabin, Quartette, and adding that like the rest of the colony, this low little building was built in 1903 or thereabouts and is therefore historic.

I am invisible behind my window, I know. And as I sit there, looking at all these people looking back at me but not seeing me, I find myself wondering about this veneration of an official past. I have lived at Byrdcliffe each summer for nine years, and it seems to me that not only myself but my neighbors, who like me have foolishly persisted in trying to be artists and writers, inhabit a reality undocumented by historians. It is a fragile reality, but alive — as beautifully ugly as a chicken-of-the-woods fungus growing on the bole of a tree. And you can’t press a fungus into a history book without killing it.

To read more, download the PDF.

The perils of making it up: readers “might want their money back”

Here’s a question that often comes up these days among writers and readers of nonfiction alike: Is it okay for a writer to “make things up”? Interestingly, at least one critically well-received travel writer thinks it is not only okay to make stuff up, it is essential to do so if the writer is aiming for not mere truth, but that far headier concoction, “poetic truth.”

The writer in question is Sara Wheeler, author of such travelogues as Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica and Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile. She is also the author of a biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the English explorer who won fame for not only being the sole survivor of Scott’s disastrous expedition to the South Pole, but for writing a stunning book about the experience, The Worst Journey in the World.

Wheeler was understandably taken with Cherry-Garrad’s morose epic, given that she had been to the same continent herself. Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard came out in 2002, to excellent reviews. Two years later, writing in The Times of London, Wheeler confessed that she had, uh, well, made some things up.

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