The Science of Writing: How to Make Anything into Material

by G. Connor Salter

You’d think more people would’ve shown, I thought.

I was sitting with four other people outside the PWR classroom in Nussbaum—Andrea Gregory, two Taylor alumni, and Ben Wolf, founder of Splickety Publishing Group. It was May 6, 2016, and Wolf had offered to come give a free evening class on how to create and expand a freelance editing business.

After waiting a little longer, Wolf started talking. He shared a few details about his freelance editing business and then explained some of the finer points of starting one—what rates to charge clients, how to format price quotes, things like that. I had no plans of becoming a professional editor, but I took a lot of notes just the same.

At one point, Wolf talked about how to do a professional edit. I asked him how an editor could point out flaws in a writer’s work without coming across as rude or overly critical. I knew from past experience that was one of my weakest skills.

“Learn to talk like a Midwesterner,” Wolf advised me, and then explained that meant phrasing my critiques like questions—never saying, “This is wrong, fix it.” Instead, I could say “I’m not sure about this part. Have you tried this instead?”

I nodded and quickly recorded that suggestion in my notebook. That piece of advice would go on to totally change how I edited other people’s writing, whether I was critiquing fellow PWR majors’ stories or just something a friend asked me to look at. It’s been especially valuable in my current internship, where I edit material for a Taylor professor’s upcoming website.

Things like that were the real reason I attended Wolf’s evening class. Not because I knew everything he said would apply to me, but because he was (and is) a successful writer and I knew if I listened carefully I might find little tidbits—facts I could use as research, pieces of sage advice, little anecdotes I could use in articles or stories—that would help me write better.

I’ve found that if you look hard enough and apply it well, you can find these tidbits all over the place. They can come from a casual conversation with a mentor, a magazine article you read in the dentist’s office, even a sidebar in an otherwise boring college textbook. The question is whether you’re going to seriously look for and hold on to them.

Whenever I can, even if I’m not entirely sure how I’ll use them yet, I keep and collect these tidbits. I have several files of newspaper and magazine clippings that struck me as interesting. If I’m reading a book and find a fascinating quote, I copy it into a Word document with an attribution to the author, book and page number. Occasionally, I’ll even read an interesting passage in a textbook or magazine and take a smartphone picture of it for future reference. I literally have sixteen successive smartphone photos of a Clint Eastwood interview in my personal files. Do I know how I’ll use it yet? Not really. But I know I will.

 

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